From his show stopping performance in LA Confidential to the mind-blowing Memento to the less awesome Time Machine, Guy Pearce has had one of the most diverse and distinguished careers of any popular young actor. Appearing most recently in John Hillcoat and Nick Cave’s The Proposition as the rugged bushman Charlie Burns, Pearce impressed critics once again with his portrayal of the unscrupulous protagonist. With The Proposition’s DVD release coming up soon, the Gauntlet had a chance to sit down and talk with Pearce all the way from his native Australia about the film, his career and the industry in general.
Gauntlet: So I was looking through your recent work on the Internet Movie Database, and it looked like you took some time off just after doing the Time Machine. What’s the reason for the hiatus?
“I was trying to get my head together. It started around 2002 when I did The Time Machine and a couple little Australian films and some stuff on stage–literally went from one job to another, to another. And yeah, I felt like I had a bit of a meltdown. So I decided to take a year off, and I realized that the gaps in-between jobs are just as important as the jobs themselves. A bit like going to the gym, really. Having that little one minute rest between lifting weights.”
G: Yeah, I read you were a body building champion at one point.
“I wouldn’t really call myself a champion. I won my one and only competition that I was a part of, so I’ve got a 100 per cent record. (Laughs) But I got to a point where I thought I didn’t want to do it anymore, like this “being an actor” wasn’t really for me. I was just really perturbed by working too much. But I kind of felt like I maybe wanted to stop all this and do something else, so I took my year off. See, I started acting when I was a kid, so I was stuck thinking that I was stupid for planning my life around a decision that an eight year old had made. I thought perhaps I had to grow up or something.”
G: Was it the script’s “Australian-ness” that attracted you to The Proposition?
“It’s definitely one of the things, no doubt about it. I mean, my radar for Australian work is on higher alert than it is for work from anywhere else, because I am Australian–and as I say–it means so much to me. But the thing that really drew me to the film in the first place was the wonderfully evocative script that Nick Cave wrote. I mean, it was just so very emotional and very real. It just felt like a snapshot of that time, without being self conscious or manipulative. It felt like a wonderfully observed piece of work.”
G: Working with a director and writer whose resume’s certainly aren’t as stacked as your own, did you have any anxieties going into that?
“Oh no, not in the slightest. I’ve worked with a couple of first-time directors before, and it doesn’t necessarily come down to how much someone has done. It really just comes down to communication and respect, I think. It’s how much someone’s ready to be honest with themselves emotionally and how clear they are about what they want. If the director can sit there and say “I don’t know how we’re going to make this work, but I want the audience to feel this way by the end of it,” that’s the most inspiring thing he can do for me.”
G: Do you think that good writing is more or less important than good directing?
“I’d say they’re equally important. There are definitely directors who do manage to make a great film out of not such a great script, but if I don’t have it in front of me, I can’t feel what it is I’m going to do. I’ve worked on things before where I was more inspired by the director than the script, but I’ve learned that if the director isn’t that inspired by the script, then I won’t be either. The best thing a director can say to me is “I don’t know how we’re going to make this scene work.” If I don’t believe what they’re saying to me, then I’m not going to believe what I’m going to do.”
G: So you never really play cut-and-dried archetypal heroes, and The Proposition is actually one of the best examples of that. How do you approach a morally ambiguous protagonist?
“I don’t feel like I approach them, I feel like that’s just how I see the world. If I’m playing a guy like Mondego from The Count of Monte Cristo, who’s seen more as a bad guy, I find that really limiting. I was like there’s got to be more to this guy than just… badness! (Laughs) Ultimately, someone who does something heroic is someone who can face their own demons and rise above them. That in itself is always more complicated than the guy who only ever does good. I love being in that area where you’re dealing with that fragility of personality, where you can be swayed to doing good or bad very easily. It’s more complex.”
G: Would you take a role where there wasn’t some kind of ‘grey area’ in the character?
“I don’t feel like I would, but sometimes when you’re dealing with something–like fantasy films, for example–where you can see yourself as ‘a particular cog in a machine’ and you really need to be one thing in order to make the whole thing work. I like the idea of being a team player, so I wouldn’t exclusively say that I wouldn’t take that kind of role. But if you make a film that’s set here on planet earth, I would find it difficult to–at least–find the other side of a character who’s written as just the “good guy” or just the “bad guy.”
“I think that’s kind of the problem. It’s in the writing: you see one character whos only doing good things throughout the film and off he goes, he’s being great, and they just haven’t recognized the discrepancies or the other side of this character. Perhaps I would look at discussing that side of things and fleshing it out.”
“I observe stuff, but I’m not cohesive enough to actually create anything. I can certainly tell when something’s honest or not. I look at a script as a slice of life. I can’t indulge in that if it isn’t honest.”
G: Did The Proposition have a fairly honest script?
“It was completely honest. Incredibly so. It was haunting. Harrowing. When you meet Nick, he’s an incredibly honest guy–he doesn’t waste any time bullshitting. It’s pretty refreshing.”
G: Yeah, there really isn’t anyone to root for in The Proposition.
“That’s right, and it’s interesting that the general attitude should be ‘who are the heroes?’ I think I get that, because people want films to be an escape from life, where life is ambiguous and messy, things surprise us and people let us down. Then we’ll do something stupid and be like, ‘aw shit.’ It’s a mess, life. So people want to go to a film and want it to be clear cut. Well I don’t. Don’t get me wrong, I can, I can go to a film and just let myself be taken by a wonderful fantasy…”
G: Like the Time Machine?
(Laughs) “Yeah, thanks for bringing that up.”
G: No worries. When I watched The Proposition, I was struck by just how absolutely unrelenting the violence was.
“Absolutely. I have an image in my mind of a film that John did called To Have and to Hold. It’s got a scene in it when a guy attacks another guy with a machete. Hits the guy in the neck, and John just holds on this long shot of the one guy staggering around awkwardly and the other guy just sort of watching him. He doesn’t cut in for a close up, he doesn’t obscure it in any way. It’s just like you’re a fly on the wall. That image has always sort of stuck with me.”
G: I think it’s the aftermath that’s really striking. You’re forced to deal with the–for lack of a better word–boring aspects of violence. There’s certainly some of that in the script, but I think that particular success has to be attributed mostly to John.
“Well, it’s kind of a combination of the two. They’re old mates, Nick and John. John knew he wanted to make a kind of Australian version of the western. They’d been talking about it for years, and they had a number of writers look at it. I’m not sure if Nick said ‘well, let me have a go,’ or if John said ‘Well, maybe you should have a go,’ but it seemed automatic that Nick was going to write what was in John’s head. Nick had actually gotten a hold of police reports from the period and a number of letters from husbands to wives and stuff like that.”
G: Would you work with John and Nick again?
“Of course, yeah. John is just great. He has a great respect for what you’re after, and he really knows how to get something out of you. If you find a director who can find stuff in you that you didn’t necessarily know you had, it’s really exciting.”