The Total Film Interview - Guy Pearce

In a Beverly Hills bar, Guy Pearce is showing Total Film his favourite shoes, a pair of white and green Adidas trainers ‘customised’ by the famous thesp. In black marker pen down two of the three white stripes are scribbled the words ‘holy moly’ and ‘gee whiz’.

“God knows why I did that,” he says, looking genuinely bemused. “I must have been really stoned.”

This revelation prompts the 39-year-old English-born, Aussie-raised actor to tell a story long and considered – like many of his stories – about how his dope-smoking days are now behind him, but that if you were to indulge, always use tobacco and weed together as it’s the one-two punch of the combo that works. “That instant hit from the tobacco followed by feeling stoned,” he suggests. “You really can’t do one without the other.” Handy tips indeed from such a bright star of stage and screen.

As we settle into a quiet corner, he runs his hands through his neatly coiffed hair and apologises for looking “a bit smart casual”, saying he’d really prefer long hair, only the demands of his profession don’t usually allow it.

“When I did The Proposition I was so happy,” he says of last year’s grizzly Western. “That was the longest my hair had ever been.”

Fans of The Proposition may remember Mr Pearce for once again hiding his billboard-worthy phizog under stubble and grease, much as he’s hidden it under white powder and a bad wig in this month’s release, Factory Girl, in which he plays Andy Warhol.

Today, however, he’s scrubbed up and shiny, looking not unlike a wirier Brad Pitt. He’s in particularly good shape having prepared for the rigours of filming Death Defying Acts, in which he plays Houdini, and at length he gushes over the exercise technique Pilates.

“It’s really the best thing in the world,” he suggests. “Everyone should do it.”

So, fashion, fitness and, er, recreational activities covered, he orders a bottle of water and settles down for the Total Film interview…

You’ve flown in from Melbourne to promote Factory Girl. How do you like stepping onto the publicity treadmill?
I enjoy it. I had real trouble with it years ago but I’ve learned that enjoying things can be a decision. I decided to have fun with it. My wife’s here too and that really helps. It’s interesting to get another perspective on a film, the audience’s perspective. Though critics can be a little scary.

You read the reviews?
I don’t generally, no – they can make you lose your own perspective. If they’re really bad reviews you don’t want to read them too much. Having said that, if they’re all good that can also be a dangerous game to play.

Have you read any Factory Girl reviews?
I’ve seen a couple of things... I take everything now with a grain of salt.

They’ve been a little negative...
Oh well – so be it. I didn’t make the movie so it’s okay [laughs] I haven’t seen the finished film yet... I felt really happy with what I’d done, and I think Sienna [Miller]’s really good as well.

Is it different, taking on the role of a real person?
On some levels it’s not, because you’re really just trying to find the various truths and the engine that drives whoever you’re playing. But yes, particularly with somebody like Andy Warhol – who everybody has an opinion on – that was quite daunting.

Ultimately, it’s not a fantastically sympathetic portrayal of Warhol. He comes across as rather petty, jealous and cruel.
Oh. [Laughs] Okay. Maybe all the nice stuff’s been cut out.

In many ways he’s the villain of the piece.
That’s interesting. One thing I was constantly fighting against was the portrayal of him as a villainous character. I actually see him as a very sensitive human being with an inability to deal with his emotional state. It was important to me to inject that into it, but it may have ended up on the cutting-room floor [Laughs].

How did you decide to pick a role like that, or any role for that matter?
It’s just an emotional response. When I got sent the Factory Girl script my first response was I didn’t know anything about Andy Warhol and I’d be mad to take it on. But I latched on to his coming from a poor background and having that dream to dance down Hollywood Boulevard.

Could you relate his story to yours, the small town boy coming to Hollywood?
Not at all, no... I just felt I could connect and understood his story. I have an understanding of people’s insecurities and what they do to survive those insecurities, possibly because I’ve become aware of what mine have been and what I’ve done to deal with them.

Did your own insecurities motivate you to become an actor?
I probably did it to feel a sense of power. I used to watch a lot of theatre with Mum and I remember being so moved by what I was seeing that it was a real envy – I wanted that kind of control over other people.

You had quite a difficult childhood. Was acting an escape route?
It’s hard to say. I don’t remember having a feeling of “my life’s tough because I’ve got a sister with an intellectual disability,” and funnily enough I probably didn’t realise until I was about 30 how tragic a thing it was emotionally that Dad died when I was eight. Though I don’t tend to pick happy, fluffy movies most of the time.

You also keep your film star looks hidden – you’ve not gone for many handsome leading man roles.
I don’t feel comfortable doing that. It’s always more fun to hide behind a bit of white makeup and a fake nose. I’ve never really felt like the confident, cocky guy’s guy and to be honest I never really get offered that stuff.

Do you feel that being handsome can get in the way of juicy roles?
I did get knocked back for a job once because they said, “He’s too good looking”. It was a romantic comedy with Sandra Bullock and... um...

Ben Affleck?
Yeah, him.

So Ben Affleck was ugly enough to get the role in Forces Of Nature?
Well... that’s what my agent told me. [Laughs] “Yeah, your client’s talented, but he’s clearly way too good looking.” If you’re not right for a role you’re not right for it: too tall, too urban, too white collar... whatever it happens to be. Hopefully, now after playing a number of ugly roles I can go, “Hey look, I can be ugly”.

The Time Machine was a kind of handsome, action hero type role...
Yeah, it ended up being like that. To me, the whole point of the story was that the guy lost his fiancée and tried to go back in time and to change things, yet the second half of the film ends up with him spending three months running. I remember during filming feeling that the wheels had fallen off and not remembering why I’d wanted to do the film. And it was tricky because our director ended up having some kind of exhaustion breakdown about a month before we finished.

Weren’t you offered Daredevil after it?
I don’t know if I was offered it, but there was talk of it for a while. The script just didn’t grab me: I wasn’t a huge fan of comic books and I find a lot of films just don’t really interest me. What I’m interested in ultimately isn’t so much films, it’s the psychology of human beings. A whole lot of films don’t even address human psychology at all: on some level I’m more interested in Radiohead than scripts that I come across.

Were you ever in the frame for Chris Nolan’s Batman?
No. I think people must have gone ‘Chris Nolan’, ‘Guy Pearce’... which was funny, because I did start to contemplate it, but it was already cast. If I were going to do anything like that, it would be with Chris Nolan – he’s so fascinated with human psychology. I’m interested in playing any character in any situation from any period in any style of film as long as the perspective at the heart of it is on the emotional drive of each character. A lot of films are just amusement parks that want to take you on a ride, which just doesn’t do anything for me.

You mentioned Radiohead. You also write and play music yourself.
It’s a really great release and I’ve done it all my life. I’ve got a studio at home, I collect old guitars, write songs and I have a lot of friends who are great musicians.

Are you going to do the ‘film star releases album’ thing?
I wouldn’t say never because if I made something and said, “This is alright”, then maybe I would. But I’m not interested in being in the music business. Maybe I’d just give copies to friends.

Going back to when you started... You got your first burst of celebrity playing Mike Young in the soap Neighbours.
Yeah, it was huge, and I learned very quickly that I couldn’t cope with that. I was 18 and I think caring for my sister… I feel bad for her and sad for her and I’m always aware of what she can’t have in life, so I’ve always thought, “Don’t favour me any more than you would her”. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly had great moments where three gorgeous chicks were walking down the street and would scream… But in the back of my mind I wanted it to end. The idea of playing Mike Young for four years was fucking excruciating. I was really happy for Jason and Kylie to spearhead the whole thing.

Are you still in touch?
With Jason, yeah. We’re good mates, we really clicked – we can laugh about the whole thing. But I haven’t seen Kylie for a long time, maybe even 10 years.

It’s an unlikely career arc – from a soap to the kind of movies you’ve been making.
To me, Neighbours was near the halfway point; because I’d already been doing theatre. Even though it was amateur and in a small town and not many people saw it, in my mind it was everything. I suppose on some level I’m opportunistic, but I wasn’t necessarily that ambitious. I never imagined wanting to go to Hollywood... I came here originally just to do publicity for The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert and my agent in Sydney told me to go and meet some agents. I remember thinking I didn’t want to waste my time, that if I was going to be out of work I’d rather be out of work back in Australia. I felt that Priscilla itself was a bit of a lucky break.

You’re right – the jump to Priscilla from Neighbours is huge.
I think that came about because Stephan [Elliott, director] thought, “How funny to have this very straight dork from Neighbours in a dress”. I think that amused him endlessly.

How was it strapping into Felicia’s high heels?
Fantastic – such a joy and fascinating for a number of reasons. It felt very honest and it was fun too because of the musical side of things. I don’t think I really enjoyed the shock value until the film came out. Then everyone went, “Oh God, you’re the guy from Neighbours, how can you do this?” But to me I was also the guy that did The King And I and The Wizard Of Oz at school. I felt that Felicia was just another feather to my boa, though hanging out of a helicopter in a white fluffy G-string wasn’t an experience I ever thought I’d have in my life.

It was quite a phenomenon, but not one you were initially able to capitalise on.
I guess not, but again it was just about the work I was doing. I tried to care about a lot of that other stuff and be interested in it… but I guess I’m not.

What kind of relationship do you have with Hollywood?
I have a good one now, though I struggled when I first came because I didn’t believe I had a place here. I found the competitive nature of the industry really difficult. I still don’t like it, but I just don’t give it any energy now.

Does living in Melbourne help you not compete?
I’m not sure, because I don’t want to leave Melbourne anyway. It probably does help: I go home and forget Hollywood exists. I don’t want to live next to the office.

LA Confidential was your next big role...
That came at a time when I’d visit LA every few months, stay with my agent, do 35 auditions in two weeks, get nothing and go home. Then I got it and it was like an acting class for four months. I knew we had a great cast and that Curtis [Hanson] was an extraordinary guy. I felt lucky to be there.

Have you seen it recently?
No. In the last 12-18 months I reckon I’ve seen three films. I’ve completely dropped off wanting to see films. I saw Capote twice and Ten Canoes, a wonderful Australian film.

Talking of Australian film, with the likes of Blanchett, Kidman and Watts, the country’s really made its mark on the international stage...
I’ve no idea why. You can look at people individually and see why, but I’m not sure if there’s a general thing. I’m not surprised that we have talent in Australia.

What’s it like making an Australian film, as opposed to an American one?
It’s easier to make an Australian film because one, you’re not doing an accent and two, you’re dealing with a whole lot of Aussies, which makes your day flow easily. I go through periods where I find accents really hard to do – it can overwhelm the day. Maybe I’ve become lazy. I used to be pretty intense at work, studying the script 24 hours a day, and making sure I was really engaged so I’d keep believing in what I was doing.

In a Method sense?
I don’t think so. It was more like a way of trying to maintain concentration. I didn’t go to drama school or anything like that.

Why not?
Well, I auditioned for NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) when I was 18 and maybe I wasn’t good enough. The guy basically told me to come back in a couple of years.

Has not having formal training affected the way you act?
I went through a huge period where I was meeting all these actors that had been to NIDA and I was really paranoid and insecure that I’d never been – that I’d just been on a soap for a few years. But that has certainly resolved itself since I’ve been working a lot, though I do feel insecure if other actors are talking about this play and that play and I don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m not very literary at all, so I quickly walk away to the catering tent.

You married your childhood sweetheart – Kate Mestitz – who’s a psychology and social work student, not an actress. Was that another attempt to remove yourself from the business?
Oh, she’s an actress, believe me. I’m not interested in living in Hollywood. I’m not interested in any of the actresses I met and marrying them. The girl I fell in love with just happened not to be an actress. There was nothing contrived about it. But my desire to lead a life that exists outside the industry is also connected with the people I’m drawn to and Kate’s clearly one of those.

What does Kate think of your work?
She always says it’s pretty good. [Laughs] She can certainly be honest and tell me what doesn’t work.

What are your favourites?
Certainly LA Confidential, Memento, The Proposition. People saw Memento and were like, “Oh, that’s incredible, how on earth did you manage to keep up, it must have been so hard”. In fact, it was the easiest job I’ve ever done. Chris Nolan had a great ability to express what it was all about, though the structure was the head-fuck. I pulled the script apart at one point and put it in the order it would run chronologically, but at some point I went, “Alright, this is a character that forgets everything.” So I just forgot everything I learned and turned up each day and treated each scene like a sketch comedy.

You once said you don’t see yourself acting forever – is that still the case?
There was certainly a period where I felt I was done. It was probably after I did Time Machine, The Count Of Monte Cristo and The Hard Word, all back to back. But I took a big break after that and questioned why I was doing it. I came back realising I could learn to love Hollywood and have my life. So now I kind of feel I will be acting for the rest of my life.

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.