The Sydney Morning Herald, 08 April 2001

The dilemma is ... Staring you in the face! It's the cheekbones. Guy Pearce ruminates on giving a sharp performance, Russell Crowe, Memento and his pop-up downloadable poster.

GUY forks

The winner of Mr Junior Victoria bodybuilding comp in his mid-teens also plays saxophone, piano and guitar.

His new film has made him a hit in Hollywood but, writes Sacha Molitorisz, Guy Pearce finds Melbourne warmer. It must be both a blessing and a curse, having cheekbones so sharp they could slice oranges. Sure, they can help you land roles on everything from Neighbours to Priscilla to Rules of Engagement, but if your performance isn't even sharper no-one will see past your jaw line.

This is the Guy Pearce Dilemma, as identified by New Yorker critic Anthony Lane in a review of 1997's L.A. Confidential, Pearce's Hollywood debut. Lane described Pearce's character, Ed Exley, as "a model officer, though his real problem is that he's an officer who looks like a model. There is a constant battle for finesse between Exley's sense of morality and his cheekbones".

Opposite Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey - two less attractive men who have both gone on to win best-actor Oscars - Pearce was impressive in L.A. Confidential. But he's even better in his new film, Memento, perhaps his most daring, compelling and raw performance to date. "Everybody was so inspired by this great script," the 33-year-old says from his chair on the roof of a harbourside Sydney hotel. "Everybody was so happy to work longer hours and to do just about anything. I would come in three hours early to put my tattoos on. It was all so different to the antagonistic feeling there is on most film sets, where there's sh-- going down and things don't work and the script's f---ed ..."

Pearce doesn't seem the type to gush unnecessarily. Between mouthfuls of bottled water he is quite prepared to break film-industry protocol, which dictates that an actor say only good things about every film he or she has worked on and every person he or she has worked with. While he says he was thrilled to work with director Curtis Hanson on L.A. Confidential, he didn't think much of Rules of Engagement, last year's drama starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones. "I was disappointed by it," says Pearce, who played a hotshot lawyer. "That was an example of a film that changed after the test screenings. Billy [director William Friedkin] is diametrically opposed to Curtis Hanson, who thinks about every detail. It was cowboy film-making and I'm not butch enough to handle that."

Last year, Pearce spent three months in Dublin and one month in Malta shooting The Count of Monte Cristo (yet to be released) with director Kevin Reynolds of Waterworld fame. There were problems there, too. "Our script was in a bit of trouble early on, so I got a bit testy about that." Of Memento, though, Pearce can't say enough. A low-budget thriller from British writer/director Christopher Nolan, it is a film-noir brainteaser.

Opposite Carrie-Anne Moss, Pearce plays Lenny, a troubled former insurance investigator on a desperate mission to track down his wife's killer. The difficulty is that Lenny has acute amnesia. He can't remember what he saw five minutes ago, let alone his hotel's address. Hence, he tattoos names onto his torso and scribbles messages onto Polaroids before vital clues slip out of his mind. "Chris is just very clever," says Pearce of Nolan, the 30-year-old who made his debut in 1998 with a thriller called Following. Memento is Nolan's second film. "He has a great knowledge of film history and a great ability to understand why certain films worked and others didn't."

Critics have been gushing, too. On the film's US release last month, the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern wrote: "I can't remember when a movie has seemed so clever, strangely affecting and slyly funny at the very same time." The New York Post dubbed it "perhaps the most dazzling film released so far this year". Lane was impressed, too, if a little confounded by the plot's complexity. This time around, he noted that Pearce's cheekbones looked as if they were "modelled on the front end of a Corvette". Box-office hit or not, Memento has turned Nolan into a sought-after director. Al Pacino, Hilary Swank and Robin Williams have signed up for his third film, another thriller, Insomnia.

After a youth spent in musicals such as Sinbad and The Wizard of Oz, Pearce's career blossomed in the late '80s with a Neighbours character called Mike Young. This four-year apprenticeship led to a stint on Home and Away and miscellaneous TV roles, then to a major role opposite Hugo Weaving and Terence Stamp in Stephan Elliott's drag hit, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. "I would never have gone to Hollywood if it weren't for doing publicity for Priscilla," Pearce says. "And, then, when I went I had agents approach me, so I got an agent and they said if you come back every now and again we'll get you meetings. So I'd go over for two weeks once every six months or so and during one of those two-week blocks I did an L.A. Confidential audition."

In the end, he says, he enjoyed making L.A. Confidential, although "I had Russell trying to convince me that my accent was crap the whole time, and Curtis in my other ear saying what you're doing is fine, don't listen to a word Russell says." After L.A. Confidential came a steady stream of work, including a starring role opposite Robert Carlyle in Ravenous. More recently, Pearce's credits include The Time Machine, opposite Jeremy Irons, and Till Voices Wake Us, an Australian production with Helena Bonham Carter. Both are due for release later this year.

Pearce says he avoids Hollywood. "I've always wanted to stay working in Australia." He spends much of his time at home in Melbourne with his wife and friends. "I love Melbourne," he says. We're sitting outside on the sort of sparkling day Sydney conjures up every now and again, but Pearce seems immune to its charms. "There's a vibe in Melbourne that's really me. I find Sydney very energised, what with the influx of Hollywood and Fox Studios and the Olympics. It's also become the most talked-about, desirable holiday destination. I spend my time trying to avoid fame and hype and recognition and all that sort of stuff, so I don't want to live in a city that's famous."

Memento was shot in LA, but it was a fast, no-nonsense production, the sort Pearce prefers. And the sort he says is more common in Australia. The unconventional thriller has a non-Hollywood edginess and its theme - of a man disconnected from his life by an inability to form memories - intrigues Pearce. "We all live like that," Pearce says. "Lenny is just a really heightened and extreme version. The film made me really question my memory of my dad. He died when I was eight. I have little flashes of him saying things - when I was on the farm, or him flying an aircraft or him there at breakfast - but I don't even know if they're real or just a manipulated image based on photos and what mum's told me. You look back at a photograph of your seventh birthday party and you go, 'There's only five people there! I was sure it was 500. What's going on?' It makes you wonder whether you remember anything perfectly."

Come to think of it, he says, fame can dislocate just like amnesia. Fame can disconnect you from your past, from your friends, from your home. "In a way, fame forces you to find who you really are, because you become two people, the public Guy Pearce ... and Guy. And I don't want Guy to be infiltrated or affected by the public thing, so I do things like stay in Melbourne.

"I really want to maintain a truthful nature about who I am and discover who I am, and if that means that I get to the point that I don't even want to be an actor anymore, then great. To perpetuate a career - I hate using that word career - just because it's already going when in some ways it actually makes you a bit miserable, that leaves you in a bit of a quandary.

"I could see myself going to LA and playing the whole game, but I know that there would be moments where I'd be thinking, 'What am I doing? God, what am I doing?'"

Maybe those cheekbones are a blessing afterall. Maybe they're sharp enough to be part of his armour.

guy edward pearce