Independent Feature Project, 2001

Guy Pearce speaks about the experience of living backwards through "Memento"
Interview by Lisa Y. Garibay

Guy Pearce appears as relaxed as can be for someone who is the star of a film as complicated and mind-blowing as "Memento." In the middle of shooting the special effects-heavy remake of "The Time Machine" (directed by H.G. Wells' great-grandson Simon), Pearce is sporting two-day stubble, greasy-looking longish hair and bright blue eyes that could stop traffic. Aside from this project and another big-budget picture on the approach (this summer's "Count of Monte Christo"), it may well be the speedily filmed and tightly budgeted "Memento" that brings Pearce the greatest attention this year.

Pearce is compelling from start to finish as Leonard, the survivor of a violent act that ended in the death of his wife. Leonard's own permanent brain injury resulted in the destruction of his short-term memory, meaning he can remember everything up to the attack but has been unable to make any new lasting memories since then. Leonard's will to live comes from his quest to track down his wife's murderer and avenge her death – something not even Leonard is sure he can do if he can't rely upon his own mind to keep track of what's right and wrong.

How much research did you feel compelled to do for your character in terms of medical knowledge about memory loss?

I didn't feel the need really to be quite honest to do much research at all on this job – it's all there on the page, and my imagination felt wonderfully inspired, and so I went with that.

What was the primary reason you decided to take this role?

Just that – Chris' observation of this character, this guy in this very extreme situation who's resorted to very extreme behavior. And the way in which it's an extreme version of what we all kind of go through on and off at times – the manipulation of memory, the question of our own identity and what we present to other people. I found that quite fascinating.

You're Australian, Chris is British, and the film is set in the States. Was there ever any thought to setting it in England, or was it always in America?.

Chris has talked about his reasoning for doing this, and America being such a large landscape allows you to have vast areas that you can't really determine where they are. Whereas England for example, I think it would be... you would fall into that trap of finding something sort of specific, geographically specific, and he didn't want that – he wanted this sort of vast, desolate sort of landscape, where it kind of could be anywhere in America. He saw it as an American story, I guess in the tradition of film noir in that typical sort of American sense. He wanted to really take the noir that we think we all know and flip it on its head and give it some sort of new twist. So part of that was maintaining that geographical landscape.

Have you ever had a moment where you forgot something inexplicably?

Yeah! I constantly feel paranoid that I'm forgetting something, you know? That's why I don't drink coffee anymore, because if I drink a cup of coffee I sit there all day going, "I know I forgot something but I don't know what the hell it is!" I always feel like I'm aware of memory or that I have a bad memory; my wife will tell me that I don't have a bad memory, but I feel that I do at times.

Do you think "Memento" is about memory or memory loss – or both?

Well, I think it's about our perception of memory, and that we do take memory for granted. And that I think we often lose our memory and yet we'll pretend that we haven't and in order to maintain some sort of identity, we'll say our memory is this: a, b, and c. When, in actual fact, if someone really questioned you on it or showed you a photo of that thing that you're talking about, you might realize that you've actually manipulated it and changed it a little bit. And that falsehood that goes on in everyone's lives at some point or another I think is definitely one of the sort of large elements of what the film is about. It relates to identity as well, you know. I mean, if you lose your memory, then you lose your identity.

But Leonard could recall when he did have memory.

Well, that's the thing he's hanging on to. But even then there's the question of whether or not those memories were true.

Something is driving him, even though he doesn't know what it is – something keeps pushing him forward. What would you say that is for Leonard?

An inability to say, "I don't know who I am anymore." It's an emotional drive that he can't... I mean, he says that at the end: "One of the worst things about this condition is that you feel angry, you don't know why; you feel guilty, you have no idea why." And so in a sense, he's just operating on a completely emotional level, but not wanting to admit that it's just an emotional level and is trying to be quite technical about it all.

What is it about you that makes you like acting?

(Long pause) I don't know how much I do like acting. I feel that I've always used acting in my life as a survival technique; that's why I don't feel at times that I'm a real actor who does his homework and all that stuff. I got into acting when I was pretty young. It is a survival technique sometimes in the way that it is for Leonard. It's a fear of being boring, fear of being uninteresting, fear of looking scared. A response to perhaps when I was younger and I'd be thinking about something and my mother would say to me, "Get that miserable look off your face," and I would say [puts on big fake smile], "Oh, I'm not miserable! I'm happy! Ha ha ha ha!" Now someone pays me to do it, so I constantly question it and I constantly question the value of it and I see that it sort of perpetuates those insecurities, so if I could actually find something a bit more valuable to do for myself...

What about your music? I hear you're a pretty prolific musician – would you ever give that more attention or bring it into the limelight?

Well... I'm always playing music at home, and because of the position that I've got myself into now.... I don't know. I use music for the reasons that I think one should, which is to play and express one's self. But I don't necessarily feel the need to take it into the public arena. My ego would love me to, but my ego is feeling quite satisfied with all the attention that I get anyway from this, so I would only be transferring one to the other.

Would that explain why after "LA Confidential", Russell Crowe has gone into big commercial films and you haven't? Is it something you've been withdrawing from? You want the big pictures, surely?

Why do you say that? Why do you think I want the big pictures?

Well, that's part of the acting – you're acting, you're performing, you want as many people as possible to see you.

I don't know that I want as many people as possible to see me. I think that's an assumption that seems to be made and that assumption obviously gets fueled by the fact that more and more actors become more and more famous. And for those who aren't famous, there is definitely that little quality in everybody that and some point or another says, "I want to be famous, and that person over there's famous and they're so lucky and I'm not!" And so I think that makes one think – an outsider – think, "Well, if you're an actor, you surely just want to become more and more and more and more famous." But I find as an actor the more recognition I get, the more anxious I become at times because... I don't know that I see the value of it. I don't see that it's valuable for me personally—it certainly doesn't make me any more calm. It actually just heightens insecurities and paranoia. So, I'm constantly battling with it, I'm in a quandary about it, I don't quite know what to do about it.

How is Chris Nolan different from other directors you've worked with?

Chris is a highly intelligent guy, very respectful of what I do as an actor and what actors do, and when you have someone that respects that so much, it gives you the freedom to experiment and go with it. You don't feel stifled by somebody's opinion. I've worked with directors before with whom you suddenly realize that you're just a piece of meat. And I crumble under that, you know what I mean? I go, "I don't have the technical ability to cope with this very well." And because Chris wrote this script, he's an obvious example of what a bright and perceptive person he is.

Were you and Chris always on the same page with the characterization of Leonard?

Yeah! I mean it was almost like Chris – to put it in a really crude way – went, "Here's the script," and I read it and went, "Oh, wow!" and he said, "Have you got it? Good, okay... Well, I'll go and shoot it now, and you just do what it is that you do, and I'll tell you if you've gone off on the wrong direction or not." And so we then cruised along together – well, we didn't cruise, we sort of rapidly sprinted along together in our twenty-six day shoot. (Laughs) But we worked side-by-side, he beautifully capturing what I was doing, and I gave him what he felt the character was supposed to give. So it was incredibly positive and exciting. I reckon I would love if every movie was like this—and I don't just mean the finished product, I mean the process of making it — then I wouldn't struggle with it so much.

Was the role of Leonard as hard as it looked?

I thought it was going to be not hard but a really wonderful challenge. I bashed and sort of boggled my way through the process of just making sure that Chris and I were on the same page with each other. And then when I came out the other side of that just after we started shooting, it felt really quite... buoyant, and it just flowed really beautifully.

You were in almost every scene of this movie – probably more so than any other film you've ever been in. Did that coupled with the short shooting schedule make it more challenging for you to nail the character?

It made it better in a way. I find it difficult sometimes if you're doing a four-month shoot, and if you work for a day and you've got five days off then work for a day and get five days off.... I always say I'm not very good at working and being a tourist at the same time. I'd rather go to work all day every day with the crew and just carry on, which is what I'm doing at the moment; it's great. And it was the same thing with "Memento" – you just kind of live and breathe this whole experience, and then as soon as it's finished you go, "Great! That's over; I can drop that and forget about that!" That energy really suits me, I think.

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