Guy Pearce: at home with himself
There was nothing remarkable about the sight - a man baring his chest to the sun on the grass outside a quiet South Melbourne office, his T-shirt hiding his face.
It was a little surprising to learn that he was, in fact, hard at work as he lay there. But the most astounding thing of all was the manís identity - none other than Guy Pearce, one of cinemaís hottest properties and an outside chance for Best Actor at the Academy Awards in March.
The star of the film-noir hit, Memento, has another five movies due for release this year, including big budget offerings, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Time Machine.
But just now he is deepening his tan for a role in a play, rather than another film. Even so, he would have had trouble getting back to the Melbourne Theatre Companyís rehearsal rooms if any passing female could have identified him.
Pearce would not have it any other way. He is strongly opposed to the cult of personality that rules in Hollywood and insists on being his own man in his home town. "Americans are perplexed that Los Angeles and Hollywood are just an office for me and that I need to be able to come home," he says.
Even some Australians assume he is only back for a visit when they bump into him. "I donít understand why living in Melbourne should be such an issue," he says.
"It leads me to question what people must think is the be-all and end-all, as if you get on some machine where you see the lights and the fame of Hollywood and the more see, the more you want."
Not for Pearce. His wife of four years, Kate, lives here, as does his mother. His only interest professionally is to keep polishing his acting skills, rather than being featured in Hollywood gossip columns.
This is the main reason he has agreed to play the lead character, Chance Wayne, in the MTCís next production, Tennessee Williamsí Sweet Bird of Youth.
Like Pearce, Wayne is another home-town boy, but one who has lost his way in the wider world and whose return brings even more insecurity and danger.
"It is a great vehicle to work on because he is so erratic. This is the real end of the line for him and all those emotions get heightened even more."
The play, which was filmed with Paul Newman in the role, is a portrait of Wayne and his lover, an ageing film star (played by Wendy Hughes) fleeing what she believes is a disastrous film comeback.
It is set in a small town on the Gulf of Mexico in the early '50s, when black men were still attacked on the streets by white vigilantes and the local politician is defying the equal-rights movement.
Pearce says he jumped at the chance to perform in a work by Williams, and rejects suggestions that the play is a period piece.
"In some eyes, it might be regarded as over-the-top, but so are many people's lives," he says. "It is still standard business, especially among people you run into in Hollywood."
He points out that racism is still alive in the southern US, as illustrated by the barbaric 1998 murder in Texas of James Byrd, who was chained to a truck and dragged to his death by white racists.
The play's director, Kate Cherry, says Pearce has an "extraordinary ability" to take on the Wayne character. She and Pearce have been discussing possible roles for more than two years in a process Cherry describes as "a slow courtship".
But Pearce's first return to the Melbourne stage since he became a Hollywood leading man was in David Williamson's Face To Face at the Playbox in 2000.
The playwright says the experience proved for him that great screen actors don't get to be that way simply because "the camera loves them".
"First and foremost, they have to be great actors, and he is," Williamson says. "His energy, skill and charisma helped make the production memorable."
Pearce says Face To Face was the first time in seven years he had been on stage and he came away rejuvenated. While filming, he misses the development that comes in rehearsal and the sense of community that follows.
"I miss that in film, where it seems to get shunted to the side more and more." Proper rehearsal also builds his confidence. "I love to work feeling confident - I don't enjoy it when I'm insecure," he says.
"I understand that I shouldn't be, but my natural inclination is to feel stressed at times about what I can come up with."
He speaks quietly, as if surprised that someone of his experience could make such an admission.
The 34-year-old's career began with a four-year stint in Neighbours after finishing high school at Geelong College.
He speculates that his experience of the general hysteria over Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan in the "80s has provided him with a life-long immunity to its appeal.
Roles in Home and Away and The Man From Snowy River followed, before his breakthrough role came in the drag hit Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. This led to his first US performance in Curtis Hanson's LA Confidential opposite Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey.
He has been in constant demand ever since. His latest film to be released, Memento, came into Oscar speculation earlier this month after winning four awards from the Las Vegas Film Critics Society.
Pearce, who plays a man trying to regain his memory of events leading up to his wife's death, claimed the best actor prize, while Memento won best film. It also took top prize at the recent Toronto Film Festival.
But Pearce is typically diffident when it comes to awards. "I find it hard enough to work out what sort of film I'm going to do next, let alone work out the awards ceremony over there," he chuckles.
He goes on to say that he hopes Memento's writer and director, Christopher Nolan, is at least nominated for his screenplay, which used a reverse chronology to drive the film.
"But I can't help but be cynical and think of the things in the past that have been overlooked and by-passed," he says. Pearce is confident that in time Hanson's LA Confidential will be remembered as a more classic film than the one that beat it for the best-movie Oscar, Titanic. He says the only way to survive Hollywood is "to embrace the hypocrisy" because he finds so much of the industry "so ridiculous".
"It is difficult to understand that what we laud as the representation of the best films out there is the Academy Awards."
This is part of his love-hate relationship with Hollywood's insistence on personalities and turning people into stars. Memento was one of his favorite projects because it was a small-scale and intimate thriller that depended on its innovative concept for audience appeal, rather than big-budget special effects.
It was a stark contrast to his previous film, Rules of Engagement, opposite Samuel L.Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones, which he describes as "a monstrous, testosterone-driven, studio-orientated, money-driven project".
At times, Pearce felt as if he was part of old Hollywood, but he says he lacks "the chutzpah to cope with it constantly". He jokes that this is one of the differences between him and Oscar winner Russell Crowe, his co-star in LA Confidential.
"I feel he has far more energy than I do," he says, before bursting out laughing. "Russell likes to play the alpha dog," he says. "I'm a much more submissive type."
All this makes his decision to take on such commercial vehicles as The Time Machine and The Count of Monte Cristo all the more surprising.
"I felt the need to loosen up and go with what people say is fun," he says - not that it was a complete success.
He says the shoot for Time Machine was a long 95 days and the experience wore thin. He was envious of his co-star, Jeremy Irons, who was only on set for a week. "That's the way to do it," he smiles.
His other films coming out this year are Till Human Voices Wake Us, shot around Castlemaine with Helena Bonham Carter; The Hard Word, an Australian comedy with Rachel Griffiths, and A Slipping Down Life, made in Texas in 1998 with Lili Taylor, but which has been held up by studio politics.
"It's weird," he says. "I don't like publicity but there is going to be a lot of it this year."
He has agreed to extend the season for Sweet Bird of Youth by a week to March 2, but has to leave the next day for California to promote Time Machine. Otherwise, he would be happier for it to run even longer.
He has already interrupted rehearsals to do a satellite link-up to promote Count of Monte Cristo ahead of its US release at the end of this month. But he is keeping the rest of the year free from filming to recharge his batteries and to renew his inspiration.
His plans centre on spending time with his wife and other members of his family. "I want to finish things at home that I have been putting off for what seems an eternity," he says. For the first time in the conversation about his career, he looks perfectly content at such a prospect.
Guy Pearce has come home.
guy edward pearce