It takes a fair amount of talent to appear in a film alongside practiced scene-stealers like Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke and Shia LaBeouf. But of course, as audiences have been aware for nearly two decades, since he came to attention in "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert," Guy Pearce is possessed of an unusual amount of talent.
While he's had a few leading man roles (notably in Christopher Nolan's "Memento"), it's in supporting parts where Pearce has truly made an impression — see "Animal Kingdom," "The King's Speech" and "Mildred Pierce." And he's got a doozy of one in John Hillcoat's "Lawless," as Charlie Rakes, a sneering, violent marshall who aims to make life hell for the bootleggin' Bondurant brothers.
It's only the mid-point of a banner year for Pearce, who already starred in the surprisingly enjoyable "Lockout," will shortly be seen in "Prometheus," and has Drake Doremus' next film on the way too (have a look here to see what he said about that project). Before Pearce left Cannes, where "Lawless" premiered this week, to go and shoot "Iron Man 3," he sat down with Playlist correspondent Aaron Hillis to talk about his third film with Hillcoat, the origins of his bizarre character, and how he feels about his current run of fortune.
This is one of the most villainous characters I've seen in a long time. How much of the physicality and look came from the book or the script, or from you?
I didn't read the book, because the guys said to me that Rakes is quite different then he was in the book. In the book he was a local, and I think there was another character who had come in from out of town. So they kind of took Rakes' character and combined it with the guy who had come in from out of town and so that created a really different dynamic. So, that's where it starts off in the script, so I stayed away from the book. The character was so particular and so present. You know, his sort of disdain for this disgusting town that he had come to and these… dirty, vile, animals that he had to now face. I think it was clearer in the script then in the finished film, there's lots of bits and pieces that have been cut out, but we still get a clear picture that he is sort of an alien in this territory. The character that you see is the character that I imagine when I read him and there were particular references in the script to him dying his hair, and being very particular about his gloves, and Nick [Cave, who wrote the screenplay] would talk to me on the phone and say, "You know he's so pristine and he's so disgusted by it, by all of this stuff around him and yet he's so violent as well." I certainly didn't create anything new or invent anything really. Although it was my decision to shave my eyebrows off and shave a part into my hair you know?
Really, that was you?
Yeah, I just thought in the strangeness of this, I didn't want him to be the clean cut city guy who's a bit fucking crazy. The way Nick talked about him was he was this strange creature that turns up, so I wanted him to be a strange creature that turns up. In the discussions about hair and the look and the sort of severity and his sort of vanity and ego, I just wanted to see how far we could take that stuff, so I did send John [Hillcoat] a picture of me with shaved eyebrows that made him a bit nervous.
When you have a character as flamboyant as this, I'm sure there's not an exact science but what are the processes to figure out how far you can stretch it to not turn it into camp.
Well, I think he is camp.
I think the character is camp, but you don't play it as camp.
No, sure. That's where I rely on John, he's a great director and a good barometer. If you go too far John will certainly let you know, he's very clear, but also incredibly encouraging. He has a great sort of inspired kind of quality so he's always wanting you to give as much as you can possibly give, and he'll certainly as I say bring it down if you take it too far. So that's the trick on any job really to be constantly reminded of the movie arena, and make sure you're in the right one. Actors have a tendency to go over the top anyway I mean I can't speak on behalf of everyone, I'm sure Cate Blanchett would argue with me on that. She's extraordinary, but for the rest of us we can tend to go over the top. I'm always naturally trying to find the reality in what I'm doing anyway.
I did an Adam Sandler movie ["Bedtime Stories"], and the character I played was over the top, sort of all of the characters are a bit over the top, a bit colorful. I would never do that in this movie because it's just a different style. It's like playing music, and suddenly somebody's kind of rocking out, you're playing some standards and you're going "Man, you're in the wrong band." You just find the rhythm and the tone of what the world is. And it's interesting, because Nick has a great way of writing these extreme kind of characters, and John has a really great way of bringing them to life and making them real. John has a great way of taking a character that could seemingly be over the top and extremely strange, but who we might see out there in the real world. It's a combination of the way he shoots and the time he spends on the character and stuff and how he edits them and stuff. He has a way of making you go "Oh no, that really is a real fucking person."
You were talking about him as a foreigner; what's your take on this kind of American story? Do you have a certain fascination having that cultural detachment from it?
Well, I probably I don't know if I understand any more then just doing a contemporary American story. I have a fascination with different cultures generally, and religions, and a variety of other worlds that are different to my own. It's nerve-wracking though, delving into other worlds, because you're not doing something organically. You're having to make sure you don’t stray. But I don't know whether I have an interest in that particular genre or time period necessarily any more then any other. Even if we made this movie and it was set in Australia in that time, it would still be as much of a stretch. I mean John’s got a fascination with the Western and has had a fascination for quite some time. I mean Nick obviously does to a certain degree. "The Proposition" could have been set in America, really. But the reality is that John realized before he made "The Proposition" that those stories occurred in Australia as much as they happened in America. No one had really done it before. We make Bushranger movies in Australia, those criminal stories from that time which on some level are the same, but it doesn't really take in the desert, those vast landscapes, riding horses across hundreds of miles to survive. So John likes to do a bit of cross-genre work. I feel like I respond to the people in it ultimately.
Lately you've had so many high profile roles. Do you think there's any reason why these things have come out all at once?
I don't know, it's funny isn't it? You can find yourself having a period in your life, and you go "Is this me, is this something I'm making happen? Is the universe bringing stuff to me?" So I'm not really sure what it would be. It could come down to the fact that I'm you just slowly becoming more and more confident of what I'm capable of doing. I know with the machinations of the film industry, someone sees you in one thing and that means you get a job in something else, and therefore you get another job in something else. And then if that last one you did didn't get seen so much, then that person doesn't ask you to be in their movie because you weren't in that movie, then suddenly you weren’t in that movie, and you’re having a lean period as well. So it's a bit hard to say to be honest.
Is there anything you're hoping to see at Cannes?
I'm not going to get to see anything. Last night was the exciting night really just getting to hang out with John and Nick, you know and Tom and everybody was good to see but I think I might have a free night tonight, I might go to dinner or something like that. I'm going to fly out early tomorrow morning.
"Lawless" hits theaters on August 29th. Interview by Aaron Hillis