Guy Pearce Is Feeling a Bit Girlie
Females and fame have pursued him since he was a teenager. And yet Pearce is so damned uncomfortable with it all. A joint will help.
A lot of men look like Guy Pearce. Skinny, ripply men with thick lips, jagged cheekbones and blue jeans that barely snag their narrow hips. If you were to find yourself in a West Hollywood café trying to identify Guy Pearce, you would rise many times, hand extended buffoonlike in the air, before shaking the delicate fingers of your intended. Then Pearce (it is him, isn't it?) would sit down, and you would think, My God. Brad Pitt with better skin.
Pearce is what a leading man should be: A man of complexity, depth and angles; a man who is convincing via talent, not toothy grins and arrogant hair; an actor who pursues messy roles, disappearing into dark places and unheroic people. And perhaps because he is so special, a genuine presence, a naked soul, maybe that's why his hands flutter when you shake them and his eyes find it hard to settle and he seems downright terrified when he sits down to talk about himself, a subject he loathes but to which he has given some thought.
"I can get pretty angry," he warns. "I have a lot of people say, 'You're so nice,' then three days later they see. It's all about myself. My inability to deal with arrogance or narrow-mindedness. If I'm in an intellectual corner with somebody, my natural response is to get quite childish. Or, you know, shitty. That's why I became an actor, I suppose. People pay you to do it."
I consider telling Pearce his fly is unbuttoned. I do not, because clearly he is already feeling exposed, his slate eyes so vigilant for predators the pupils quiver, his laughter blunted to an apologetic mumble. He has thick black hair on his neck, aggressive overgrowth, and he strokes it absentmindedly. The hair on his head, also overgrown, needs a wash. The net effect is too pathetic to be affectation.
"I always go home after an interview and feel like I've prostituted myself. Ultimately, I'd rather actors be seen as their characters and you didn't really know anything about their personal lives. They say, 'Give the public what they want.' But they don't say, 'Give the rapist what he wants.'"
Pearce says all this quickly, in a voice that seems deeper than it should be. He has an oddly formal way of speaking, and his sentences are littered with qualifiers as if he is afraid of asserting anything too vehemently, of coming off as rigid and unforgiving. Instead he appears brittle and lonely, a baby bird. And it is this aura of vulnerability that causes his shoulders to shiver a bit and his torso to snake into itself and his jaw to seem torturously locked.
It is suggested that we quit the story and send him home. He raises his eyebrows, unwinding ever so slightly.
"I think I'd like to eat my lunch first, if you don't mind."
The newsroom café in Beverly Hills is the sort of place frequented by intentionally bald men in expensive, clunky eyeglasses. The sort of place that calls potatoes "whippers" and serves "sensual" smoothies the price of a glass of port. Guy Pearce likes the joint because it's healthy, and since he comes to Los Angeles only to work, he finds the contrived populace amusing rather than frightening.
"When I first visited L.A., I broke out in this rash. I became reptilian." He laughs a little. "I don't anymore. I've adapted. Scary."
Pearce came to Los Angeles from Melbourne, Australia, to star in L.A. Confidential, a film that would eventually garner nine Academy Award nominations. Already an actor of note in his home country, he seized his American debut, playing the simmering prig detective Ed Exley. Unfortunately, another Aussie, Russell Crowe, played the less complicated role of the sexy brute and as such exploded more emphatically. It was Crowe who went on to collect the Oscar and the A-list offers while Pearce dropped back into indie films, his performance hailed but untranslatable. He was not the "next" anything, nor did he care to be, and so he took his considerable talent to Slovakia and made a barely seen horror-satire about cannibalism called Ravenous, followed by the cheap but riveting mind bender Memento.
Pearce's flight from fame is in some part a result of his early exposure to it. He was a child star. An Aussie teen idol on par with our Justin Timberlake. He was part of the Neighbours phenomenon that spewed forth Kylie Minogue and Natalie Imbruglia, a frothy soap that was to the rest of the English-speaking world what Beverly Hills 90210 was to the United States. As a teenager, Pearce was hounded by the press and chased by ripening girls set on tearing off a piece of his shirt or snatching a chunk of his hair.
"Admittedly, I wasn't first in the firing line; there were a couple of other people, blond people, who had it worse," he says. "But still we were inundated. It got a bit messy. We definitely, you know, indulged."
But Pearce was no Robert Downey, Jr. "I've got this thing: Even when I'm falling over and vomiting in the gutter, I know when it's time to go home. While one part of me indulges, I know I'll get myself back on track, as opposed to a junkie who can't. It's only because of this thing I was brought up with."
Pearce alludes to this "thing" often. This thing that harnesses and plagues him, finger wags and mocks him. Some subconscious shoulder sitter that clucks and chides and makes his hands tremble with anxiety. As it turns out, this thing is a person and that person is his mother.
"I think she's tremendously proud of me," he says warmly. "It's important to her that I'm doing what I want to do. But she's from the north of England. Very stoic. So to her, pride is something you keep in check. She's a very contained, controlled woman. And she can be quite judgmental of people who expross emotion easily. Someone who gets excited or says 'Aren't I fabulous?' or cries. She rolls her eyes."
Pearce talks a bit about his upcoming roles. Big movies - the highly anticipated remake of The Time Machine and Disney's production of The Count of Monte Cristo. He snagged anchor parts in both films, and either one could be his Hollywood coming-out party. Yet when asked if he's excited about the films, this "thing" returns.
"The word excited is not one I can express so easily," he says. "People always say to me, 'You got this amazing part! Aren't you excited?' And the cynical part of me says, 'Well, you're obviously excited enough for the both of us.'"
He sips some water, his hand a little wobbly on the glass.
"I get wildly excited on the inside. And nervous. But it's so funny even saying that: 'I get excited.' I picture my mother looking at some idiot, going, 'Wee whee la la la!' and shaking her head. That's the image I have in my mind."
Your mother is very present with you.
Guy Pearce's upbringing was of the hard-knock variety, though he would never say so. His father died in a plane crash when Pearce was 8 years old. He was a test pilot for the Royal Air Force, a hero of sorts, and then he went down and vanished from his son's life.
"It's interesting. I'm dealing with somebody who got taken away. One of the things my mom often says is 'At least he didn't leave me for another woman.' It's heart wrenching."
In 1976, the year his father died, Pearce took a part in a school play, a Cockney kid with adjustment problems. At home he played a different role.
"It was all about being responsible, carrying on. My mother always said, 'Get that sourpuss look off your face. Smile, for God's sake.' So I would. I would cheer myself up to make her feel better."
There were other strains.
I have an older sister who is intellectually disabled and requires a particular kind of looking after. It's quite a rare thing, really. One of the reasons they tell astronauts and pilots not to have children is because the altitude and g-force tests can chemically alter sperm. My dad did a lot of intense physical testing. And so she was born that way."
"That way" meaning? "My sister is a pressure cooker. She has the potential to be the most crazed, wild creature you could ever come across. I love that in her. That honesty. But Mom's way, and consequently my way, was to balance it out by staying contained all the time. My observation as a kid was that I was supposed to keep things under control," he explains. "People ask, 'How long have you been an actor?' All my life, really."
Know that Pearce doesn't want your sympathy. Not in life or in his work, in which he sabotages the inclination by infusing his characters with threads of unplesantness, making them intricate and human enough that audiences cringe whith the recognition of their ugly-ass selves on-screen. Pearce doesn't do heroic. His are not the roles one swoons over. People don't want to sleep with Ed Exley, the overwound detective of L.A. Confidential, or wake up with Adam, the bitter queen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, or befriend the memory-impaired vengeance seeker of Memento. Nor will they yearn for his latest characters. Fernand, a conniving aristocrat who deceives his best friend and sends him to prison so he can steal his fiancée in The Count of Monte Cristo, or the scientist-inventor who builds the dubious contraption in The Time Machine.
"The distinguishing thing about Guy," says Memento director Christopher Nolan, "is that he looks at his characters as real people. He chooses his roles with such sincerity; he's meticulous and specific, and he can be very dark." Nolan has watched Memento thousands of times, and he says he continually finds new layers to Pearce's work. "If you see it a second or third time," he says, "you'll see something different in him. Every actor tries to do that, but Guy actually succeeds."
Pearce exposes the thorny truth that we're all murky puzzles with affinities for both the holy and the debauched. He specializes in edgy. He refuses to seduce. Name another actor willing to do that. And try to remember a time you've seen him smile.
Guy was so adamant about looking horrible," says Count costar Dagmara Dominczyk, who plays Pearce's embattled wife. "He had these hideous fake nails, and he made his teeth filthy. He didn't care on bit about looking sexy on-screen. So many actors are suffocating, fame is their whole world, and Guy couldn't be more different from that. Actig is a job to him, not a lifestyle."
And yet Pearce continues, inspiring if not wet dreams then nightmares or, at the very least, imaginations.
"Guy is not interested in developing a movie-star persona," Nolan says. "He sees it as part of his responsibility as an actor not to."
Or, as Pearce explains it, "I look at what I do as a need. I know that it is feasible I'll wake up
one day and I won't need to do it anymore. The need for me to be an actor is something that
happened when I was 8 years old. So there are times when I think I just need to grow up and do
something a little more worthy. You could think of what I have as a gift," he jokes. "Or you
could think of it as an affliction."
Guy Pearce is a girl. Not literally, of course. But he has more than hus share of girlie attributes. He is acutely sunsitive to the undercurrents of interpersonal dynamics. He notices things - that his lunch companion is squinting or his colleague is tired - and he feels compelled to help, to offer sunglasses or a couch or counseling. He adjusts and relinquishes and recedes. "You take the shady seat," he offers. "Are you too cold?" he asks. "Would you prefer my salad?"
Indeed, Pearce seems incapable of just ignoring life so he can simply enjoy it.
"I'm completely envious of people who aren't affected by other people. My natural inclination is to be responsible for things and people, and it's too much. It's draining, you know. So I try to turn up late for things now," he says, knowing it's a lie. He is always prompt. He is, he acknowledges, many things. A nervous wreck. A mama's boy. A cat person. A pothead. A gifted actor. A sad case. A girl.
"I do feel very girlie all the time. It is what it is. So much of being an actor for me is about the response to feeling fragile. People watch and go, 'Wow! You have so much confidence!' Well, thank you. I certainly did between 'Action' and 'Cut,'" he says, laughing, "but after that it all fell apart."
He laughs. "You meet those people who are confident all the time. They annoy me, and I wonder if it's because I'm envious of them or if it's because they're just shallow."
There are a lot of shallow people at the Samuel French bookshop. The store, specializing in theater and film literature, is a cozy spot on Sunset Boulevard with whole sections devoted to musicals and screenwriting how-to. Pearce is looking for a Tennessee Williams play, Sweet Bird of Youth, which he plans to star in when he returns to Melbourne.
"The whole concept of me doing this play freaks the agents out because it's not a big jazzy movie the whole world is going to see," he says. But still he loves the play and he misses home, and so he will act even if only fifty locals turn up to watch.
"No one chases me, ripping off my clothes, anymore," he jokes, then weeps animatedly.
Back in Oz, Pearce lives alife of domestic stupor. He adores his wife, Kate, and their many pets. Together they tend their garden and wash their car and smoke a lot of dope in their happy home in a Melbourne suburb. It seems all that's missing from the scene is a child.
"I don't feel the urge to have a baby," Pearce says firmly. "I hold parenting in a really high regard. I wouldn't want to do it halfheartedly, like I seem to do lots of things in my life. I do think that a lot of people are shocked by the consequences. I can't imagine anything more tumultuous."
Pearce does not need offspring to jolt him to life. He is far too alive as it is, sponging up every vibe, exposing his heart to repeated battering by the yuck of the world.
"I'm like a sea anemone. Something swims by, and I catch it, and it's...[shrieks like a man electrocuted] Ahhhhhhh!"
Pearce stops in front of the sheet-music display. On the rack is the music from Priscilla. He pics it up, smiles.
"There I am," he says, pointing to the drag queen mounted atop the bus, an impossible trail of chiffon blown out miles behind him. He seems pleased to see himself being someone else. He puts the music down.
"I deal with that thing a lot better now than I did ten years ago. I'm a Libra, so I'm always
trying to balance things out with a sense of humor. As my mother always said, 'What doesn't kill
you makes you stronger.'"
At the Whole Foods Market, Pearce shows me exactly where he dodged her.
"She was over there by the prepared foods, and I stood here, trembling behind the slotted spoons."
The she in question is an Australian friend, an actress who supplements her income by filing gossipy reports from L.A. about other famous expats. Pearce saw her when he was picking up his tofu and greens and knew he couldn't bear an interaction. "I hid the whole time. What a dickhead."
Today Pearce is buying more tofu and greens. He dutifully recycles his plastic trays (they're all over the backseat of his car) and layers them with rather unappetizing assortments of health food. Pearce admits he doesn't "eat much," and from his selections it's clear why.
"I had dinner once with Madonna," he says unexpectedly. "She was lovely."
It freaks him out, this all-access pass he has. It's one thing to be famous in Australia; even Kylie Minogue can do that. But to command attention in Hollywood is another beast altogether.
"Australians suffer a kind of insecurity complex," he says. "We're constantly made to feel that we're never going to be as good as Americans or Europeans."
This was clear to Pearce even in prep school, where he donned a Kelly green uniform and pretended to care about lessons while his head screamed with perceived inadequacies.
"I was a terrible student," he says. "I couldn't come to terms with school. I was too affected by the people in the room rather than what they were teaching. Then, at 16, I started going to the gym. My mom was going, so I went with her."
At the gym, Pearce lifted weights. "My body responded quickly," he recalls, "and I suddenly became
fascinated with this concept of creating myself. I ended up winning this state junior
competition. I won a traphy with a little gold bodybuilder on it. It was funny because I'd done
a lot of musical theater already and I really felt like a complete outsider at that competition.
There I was, watching them do their routines to music, and I was wondering if they actually heard
the rhythm. Whereas I was fabulously spot-on."
Pearce needs to buy a Jeff Buckley CD for a friend. As he pulls into the Virgin Megastore parking garage, the ticket dispenser talks to him.
"Please drive your car forward."
The inanity of the machine amuses him.
"Please drive your car forward," he mimics in a convincing robotic lisp. "Please take the key out of the ignition. Go spend your money in the store."
Inside he finds the CD, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk; then, after a short, yearning pit stop near the Kate Bush selections ("I know the president of her fan club"), he cruises the DVD aisle. He removes a tattered hand-penned list from his wallet.
"Films I already own," he explains. "Joe Pantoliano [who was in Memento] told me I should just call Warner Bros. and tell them who I am and they'll give me every movie they've ever made." He looks bewildered. "I said, 'I'm not that guy. They'd hang up on me.'"
So instead he pays retail like every other schmuck. Lately, he's been in a Marlon Brando mood. He picks up A Streetcar Named Desire.
"Can you believe he didn't win an Oscar for that? Everyone won but him!"
As for his own Oscar aspirations, he says, "I'm incredibly conflicted. I struggle with the idea of awards. I don't believe they're representative. I got in trouble last year, emceeing in Australia, by saying, 'The award for the supposedly best film goes to...' Part of me hopes never to be nominated for anything, but, then, my ego of course wants to be. But, then again, it feels like it would be just as rewarding to have people come up to me on the street and tell me how a film affected them."
Which reminds him of an analogy. "I look at my two cats," he says. "And I can see myself evenly distributed between them. One is quite insecure. Needing constant attention. Very fragile. The other is a real arrogant shit. Of course they piss each other off continually." Back in the car, Pearce plays his own Buckley CD and sings along in a mournful key.
"Don't you find it all a bit depressing?" he asks, driving down Sunset. "Too much everything. Too much music. Too many movies. Too much rubbish in everybody's bins." He stops, flips to a new song. "I guess I'm a bit of a sad case, really."
Along the road is a field of gum trees. They remind him of home, and suddenly he is giddy.
"Did you know that koalas fall out of the trees because they're hallucinating?" Pearce asks. "That's why they seem so dopey and placid. They're really quite vicious animals. You think they like you. But they're just stoned. They're off their heads."
The thought comforts him. And for a moment, he is still. But only for a moment. Then he begins vibrating again. The thing returns; his eyes narrow and sharpen. He drives aimlessly down Sunset Boulevard. Jeff Buckley wails quietly in the background.
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