by Mark Mordue
He's walking through a shopping mall, the space around him strangely emptied. A movie star, unrecognised but still emanating a presence that isolates him from the crowd.
I look down from the mezzanine level above and immediately spot Guy Pearce. And then I quickly turn my head away. I guess magnetism has its inverted qualities too.
Pearce has a light walk, is slightly bearded and blazingly lean, as if freshly recovered from an illness. Dressed in sandals, cargo pants and a loose T-shirt, he could be a refined castaway just returned to civilisation, a little lucky to have made it back and not so sure of his place any more.
Today he is privately screening his film Memento for family and friends at a small theatrette in Melbourne, the town he still prefers to calls home over Los Angeles (a city he says he hates in almost every press cutting you care to read). It's an intimate occasion and a proud one for the 33-year-old actor whose career has taken curious turns since his first role as Mike Young "the dag in Neighbours" and that flash of international stardom that followed his role alongside Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential.
An existential thriller, Memento tells the story of Leonard Shelby (Pearce), who suffers a rare form of memory loss after being knocked unconscious during a violent attack that leaves his wife raped and murdered. Told though flashback and constant narrative rewinds, the film is presented as a fractured kaleidoscope of shifting meanings while Shelby attempts to track down his wife's killer.
Masterminded by the English director Christopher Nolan, whose script won the screenwriting award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Memento has been hailed as a return to the elliptical, sophisticated storytelling of British arthouse directors such as Nicholas Roeg and Lindsay Anderson. Pearce haunts the film with a dynamic that alternately chills and aches, an acting tour de force that imbues a sometimes disorienting experience with a much-needed emotional core.
After the screening, Pearce's intellectually disabled older sister Tracey makes her way through a crowd of friends who have gathered around him. They part like the Red Sea as she demands to know where her drink is.
Suddenly, he's the obedient younger brother, breaking his conversation to go the bar while she storms along behind him. "All right, love," he sighs good-naturedly. "It's coming, it's coming!"
The next day I ask him how his sister had coped with such a demanding film, and its portrayal of him as a psychologically damaged figure. "To be quite honest, when Mum told me she was going to come I kept thinking, 'Oh poor Tracey. She is going to be bored immediately. She's not going to like it.'
"I mean, I went to see Chicken Run with her and she had to knick out three times for cigarettes. That's my sister. So I thought, 'She's going to come to Memento, I'll have to sit up the back with her, and we will have to go out and just go for a wander around the shopping centre.' But she stayed in there the whole time.
"It's weird. I don't know what Tracey thinks. I mean, I remember years ago her being so confused when I rang her while Neighbours was on [the TV]. And it really spun me out for ages that it confused her so much. So trying to ascertain her perspective on things is pretty interesting. She didn't offer anything up to me about Memento, but she more than likely will in the next 12 months out of the blue."
When Pearce and I meet over coffee at the Royal Botanic Gardens, he has just been walking Zelda, a basenji, a barkless African hunting dog that likes to climb trees. Back home are two cats called Dudley and Gabriel and another dog who's "just visiting".
Pearce lives with his wife Kate Mestitz. They were married three years ago, inviting friends over for a housewarming party and surprising them instead with a wedding ceremony. They're now feeling peer-group pressure to start having babies and it's a pressure Pearce clearly resents.
"The thing is I have a lot of pride in is my ability to be responsible. But I must admit that as I get older I am wanting to be the 18-year-old I never was. Which is embarrassing: I'm 33, and now I want to do irresponsible things? As everyone else I know is getting older and becoming responsible, I'm going, 'f ... kids. I'm not having f ...... kids!"'
Yet the idea of family clearly means a lot to Pearce. His father was a test pilot who died in a plane crash aged 39. Pearce was just eight, and suddenly found himself the man of the house.
"After Dad died, Mum didn't say, 'Right, you have to be responsible, you have to be the man of the family, you have to be this.' She didn't say that. Instead she said, 'Oh it's great you are so responsible. It's so helpful you are so responsible."'
He dives into the memory of that conversation. "'Oh yeah, right, right, I am. I am responsible. She's seen something in me. OK, I will carry on with that."'
He pauses. "I'd hate to say something as corny as that being the catalyst for me going, 'Right, I have to act to save the situation'. But I just think in line 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 that something was created."
I press him about acting and what it means to him in light of all this. His response is distinctly ambivalent. "I don't know. I think about acting every day: why you do it, what you are actually doing, and if it's some form of release or if it's just perpetuating some childish or childlike part of your personality.
"The funny thing is, this continual or perpetual anxiety that I feel about it which may just be about me and not about work makes me question the whole idea of getting out of acting. If acting is some sort of therapy or expression that is there because of a struggle in me, then obviously when I grow out of that struggle I won't need to do it any more. I'm curious to know what that happiness will mean.
"I also struggle with it because I know there are brilliant actors out there who don't have half the success that I seem to have had. I know they must be thinking, 'How can Guy Pearce even sleep at night?' I just feel embarrassed about my success."
It's rare that unease with stardom is anything but a cliche among Hollywood actors. Only the likes of Sean Penn and Gary Oldman spring to mind as personalities genuinely at war with their own charisma. But Guy Pearce is precisely that kind of figure.
"I actually had Gary Oldman tell me he was a big fan of mine," says Pearce, shaking his head in disbelief. "And I'm like, 'I don't know if I can accept this'.
"I just never thought, for some reason or other, that I would ever get that respect, let alone work with people like Kevin Spacey and Tommy Lee Jones."
He's not alone in that. When Pearce left Neighbours after four years on the show he was just 22, a former teenage body builder who had barely passed his HSC. Pantomime work and mediocrity, or oblivion, seemed assured.
Sure enough, the children's theatre and bad films followed, but so did something completely unexpected. He took on the role of a drag queen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1996), against all the advice that a gay part could damage his status as a sex symbol.
It was a career-changing role. The film became his kitsch calling card on an Abba-obsessed world, and led to the part of Ed Exner, the conniving, overconfident young cop in L.A. Confidential (1997), a role that launched him as an international matinee idol opposite a seething, thuggishly fragile Crowe.
Since then, Crowe has trodden the highest ground imaginable in Hollywood, culminating in last month's Oscar win. Meanwhile, Pearce has made some odd choices: Woundings (1998), Ravenous (1999), A Slipping-Down Life (1999), all independent efforts, quirky stories, off-centre roles. Only last year's Rules of Engagement stands out commercially, but even then, Pearce was in the background in a character role.
With Memento, though, he's picking up some rave reviews. Suddenly, Pearce is back in contention as an actor with that elusive quality Hollywood power-brokers like to call "heat". He is currently slated to star in a remake of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by the writer's great-grand-nephew Simon Wells. The Count of Monte Cristo is also coming up for international release, a mainstream epic with Pearce playing "the bastard" opposite Jim Caviziel.
It's hard not to wonder if Pearce has been deliberately taking the hard road up till now. And when I ask him if he is simply afraid of stardom, he says "Yeah".
But, after a long pause, he adds: "I have to be honest and say my ego is saying go for it, to listen to what my American agent wants me to do. But I think the Neighbours experience and I wasn't even in the front line like Kylie and Jason were was really enough for me.
"If I can just find a line somewhere between the independents and the mainstream, I'll be happy. Quite often people will say to me that this or that is not a good career move. But the people who work for me know I will do what I want to do. And when I come across something like Memento and see that it takes me into another world, that it's original and innovative, well of course I will want to go there.
"It's funny, you know, a lot of people say to me, 'Oh God, you've obviously given up acting after L.A. Confidential. Russell went on, but you didn't?"' He laughs at this outrageously and responds to his imaginary interrogator. "'No mate. You've really got no idea why I do what I do, or how I operate at all'.
"I just love the idea of coming out of the woodwork, saying, 'Here I am, this is what I am offering: whammo!, Seen it? OK. Goodbye'."
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