WATCH OUT, MEL AND RUSSELL. THIS AUSSIE MEANS BUSINESS
Guy Pearce makes me nervous. Not the klieg lights, big sunglasses, lunch at the Ivy kind of nervous you might expect, but something more dangerous. There's something inarticulate and highly bothered at once burning away beneath the affable smiles, an edge you want to calm, a pain you want to soothe. Perhaps that's why Memento, in which he plays a memory-impaired man seeking vengeance for his wife's rape and murder, seems to be the perfect role for the actor: His character cannot carry the baggage of memory, nor know its pain.
If Pearce's caustic drag queen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) was his calling card on the world, then the part of a conniving, overconfident young cop in L.A. Confidential (1997) made him a rising star opposite a seething, thugishly fragile Russell Crowe. While Crowe has found multiplex success, Pearce has gone down a very different path indeed, choosing off-center roles in independent efforts with limited commercial appeal, including Woundings (1998), Ravenous (1999) and A Slipping-Down Life (1999).
But with the current Memento enjoying rave reviews, Pearce, 33, seems to have struck gold, finding a perfect balance between art and commerce. Masterminded by director Christopher Nolan, Memento has been hailed as a return to the elliptical, sophisticated storytelling of Nicolas Roeg and Lindsay Anderson. The film is hip and ambitious and, with upcoming mainstream roles in The Count of Monte Cristo and HG Wells' Time Machine, so too is the uneasy, elusive Guy Pearce.
MARK MORDUE: When I walked out of Memento and went to the bathroom--your normal post-film experience [both laugh]--it was so weird: I found myself frozen in front of the mirror. It was like I was this being inside a shell, a stranger inside my own skin...
GUY PEARCE: That's amazing! Chris [Nolan] really wanted that. The film is about the nature of identity--how we create identity and why. So I think to find yourself looking into the mirror is ... just great.
MM: Memento made me think about how we rationalize our actions, how we try to avoid parts of ourselves that we don't like or aren't sure about--and how we compartmentalize to survive.
GP: I think as people we don't know how to cope with our emotions. As an actor dealing with them all the time it's all on the surface--and it becomes a bit of a craft to turn this emotion or that emotion on.... That's probably why I act: to express stuff in front of people that I might not otherwise reveal.
MM: I get the impression that you're almost ashamed of being an actor, and very restless with it.
GP: I think about acting every day; why I feel I need to do it and what I'm actually doing--whether it's some form of release or if it's just perpetuating some childish or childlike part of my personality. I'm always questioning it. I never quite know from day to day what I think about it.
It's definitely a calling. The funny thing is, this perpetual anxiety that I feel about it makes me question the whole idea of getting out of acting. For example, if it's some sort of therapy or expression because of a struggle in me, then when I grow out of that struggle, I won't need to do it anymore. I'm curious to know what that happiness will mean.
I also struggle with acting because I know there are brilliant actors out there who don't have half the success that I seem to have. I know they must be saying, "How can Guy Pearce even sleep at night?" [laughs]
MM: All this introspection and soul-searching seems at odds with your life as a teenage body builder. Can you tell me about being Mr. Junior Victoria at 16?
GP: I used to go to the gym when I was like 13, 14, 15, 16, because Mum went to do aerobics. The whole idea of physically morphing yourself, changing yourself, really appealed to me. As a concept, it was like, "Wow, this is like working with clay." As I got older my desire to improve myself--excuse me--to create myself, was focused on my acting, but as far as me, personally, it became more about my mind and my spirit rather than my physical self. And, you know, it's too fucking hard after a while to keep lifting weights.
MM: Why did you say "excuse me" when you said "improve myself"?
GP: Because I spat on your microphone.
MM: Oh. I thought we had same deep self-annihilating psychological moment going on. (Both laugh) I don't wanna sound like Sigmund Freud meets Oprah Winfrey, but I sense a big connection between what happened to your father [a test pilot who died in a plane crash] and all this talk.
GP: Yeah. Dad died when I was eight. I remember--and I've only thought about this lately--how after Dad died, Mum said, "Oh, it's great you're so responsible." So I told myself, "OK. I'm responsible. Mum's seen something in me, I'll carry on with that."
I'd hate to say something so corny as that moment was the catalyst for me, but in a way I thought, "Right, I have to act to save the situation." But I think with Dad being gone--and me spending a lot of time in my room on my own, just drawing and painting and singing and creating an imaginary world that was in some ways more enjoyable than this responsibility that I had, something else was created.
MM: So what are you looking to achieve with your work?
GP: I love the idea of coming out of the woodwork, saying, "Here I am, this is what I am offering: Whammo!" And I like it when people are perplexed by what I've done. "Why aren't you doing Gladiator?" "What the fuck did you do Ravenous for?!" I remember Sam Jackson saying to me on Rules of Engagement, "What's the point of doing it if you're not having fun?" I just keep hearing that in my head.
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