FROM slicked-back sleuth in the sexy noir of LA Confidential to tormented amnesiac in Christopher Nolan’s psychological thriller Memento, Guy Pearce is nothing if not one of cinema’s most diverse actors.
Yet it has been the former Neighbours star’s ability to morph in to each of his impressive roles that has often served as his casting handicap. Sometimes, Hollywood just hasn’t known what to do with Pearce. At times, he would be the first to admit, he hasn’t known quite what to do with himself either.
Like an Aussie Daniel Day-Lewis, Pearce thrives on transformation. The ultimate quick-change artist, he has changed from a grubby outlaw tasked with killing his brother (The Proposition) to a bitchy cross-dresser on a tour of the outback (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert).
Pearce has made movies in just about every genre, from literary adaptations (The Count of Monte Cristo) and mind-bending thrillers (the aforementioned Memento, which won two Oscar nominations and $25 million at the US box office) to creature features (Don't Be Afraid of the Dark) and war pictures (The Hurt Locker). However, he has rarely been given the chance to play the swaggering action star. With his new film, Lockout, though, he makes up for lost time.
Newly buff and about 50lb heavier, thanks to a regime of “protein powder, lots of Serbian meat and weight-lifting", Pearce plays Agent Snow, an irreverent wise-cracker and tough guy. “When I first met with the directors, they told me they wanted a leading guy who [the audience] could laugh at and laugh with," recalls Pearce, who was born in born in Ely, Cambridgeshire, but moved to Geelong, near Melbourne, at the age of three.
“Snow kind of thinks he's pretty funny but he's probably more troubled than he gives himself credit for or allows himself to be. And so he masks that with humour and being a smart Alec. I liked that."
Part sci-fi thriller and part blood-and-thunder action movie, Lockout has an international flavour. It was shot in Serbia, produced and co-written by the prolific French movie-maker Luc Besson (Taken, La Femme Nikita) and directed by the Irish team of Stephen Saint Leger and James Mather.
It didn't take long for unlikely action hero Pearce to earn his tough-guy stripes on the set. All he had to do was perform some of his own stunts, including a number of complicated moves that left him with a host of injuries. “I injured myself every week," he recalls. “Not necessarily major injuries. But I would pull a muscle in my leg or, one time, I fired a gun in this tiny little tunnel and the bullet casing flew out of the gun and ricocheted off the roof and went straight down the back of my shirt.
“And, of course, I had a flak vest on, which is kind of tricky to get off, and the casing was really hot. So it burned a mark on my back in the shape of a bullet. I'm sure they have me on film going, ‘Oh, oh, oh, oh,'" he adds with a laugh. “I'm nervous that's going to be on the DVD."
When the movie begins, Snow is dispatched to MS One, a prison where the US president's daughter (Maggie Grace) is being held hostage. The twist is that the prison is located on a floating space station where the world's 500 baddest criminals are kept in an artificial sleep. As it turns out, one of Snow's best buddies is an inmate and Snow is venturing into deep space as much to rescue him as to bring back the president's daughter. “I enjoyed where Snow's head was at," says Pearce.
“I loved the fact that he [couldn’t have cared less] about the president's daughter. He's just there for his buddy. I thought that was quite funny."
Pearce's Agent Snow has been compared to Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies and Kurt Russell in Escape From New York and Escape From Los Angeles. But the actor insists he didn't base the character on any other action heroes. “I'm sure, subconsciously, all those Bruce Willis-type characters sit somewhere in [my] psyche. But I find it best not to sort of delve back into that stuff too much, otherwise it feels like you're sort of a plagiarist. I'm always struggling to try and feel original in what I'm doing."
Although he's only 44 years old, Pearce has been an actor since 1976. “I started my working life when I was eight instead of 18," he notes. Pearce became interested in acting around the same time his father Stuart – a New Zealand-born air force test pilot – died in a plane crash. Pearce’s mother is a teacher from County Durham. As a youngster, he began landing roles in theatre productions.
He also entered his share of amateur body-building contests, eventually netting the title of Junior Mr Victoria at 16. Two years later, he became a regular on the popular Aussie soap Neighbours as Mike, best friend to Jason Donovan’s Scott, just as the soap hit its peak – during the Scott and Charlene (Kylie Minogue) romance years. The adulation and screaming fans, however, were not something Pearce encouraged.
Despite his reluctance to play the celebrity game, since enjoying his film breakthrough in 1994 with The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Pearce has rarely been without a job – or two or three. He's equally at home top-lining movies or playing supporting roles (Bedtime Stories, Rules of Engagement, as Andy Warhol to Sienna Miller’s Edie Sedgwick in Factory Girl.)
In 2008, however, Pearce said in an interview that, after appearing in a few unsuccessful blockbusters – an adaptation of HG Wells’s The Time Machine and The Count of Monte Cristo and a number of other so-so features in the early 2000s, he briefly considered changing professions and experienced “a bit of a breakdown", taking himself off to a beach hut. Pearce has admitted to “taking too many drugs”, and so took a year out of answering Hollywood’s calls, got some therapy, took up meditation and re-evaluated his life.
Re-invigorated, he returned in John Hillcoat’s classy western about brothers Pearce and Danny Huston, written by Nick Cave. Now, Pearce adds, he's more selective about the projects he accepts. “I needed to sit back and sort of find the validity in it and look at it from a mature point of view. I mean, I've worked as an actor since I was a kid.
“Before I knew it, I was having this career as an actor but it was all based on the decisions of an eight-year-old. I needed to kind of step back and go, ‘Hang on a second’ as a 38-year-old and find worth [in my profession], and find the importance in it – if there was any."
These days, Pearce recognises the need for recharging his batteries. At the moment, he's on an extended holiday. And the chameleon admits he's happy not to have to change for a spell. “I've worked way too much in the last two years and I'm just sort of blank," he says. “I read scripts and glaze over at the moment. So I needed to just kind of go back home and be me for a while."
Home for Pearce continues to be Australia. He and his wife of 15 years, psychologist Kate Mestitz, the childhood sweetheart he married in 1997, live in Melbourne. “I just love Australia, so there's no reason for me to move," he says. “And I do enjoy the distance [from Hollywood]. I do enjoy when I finish work being able to go home and not be in the office still."
Pearce isn't allowed to say much about his next film – Alien director Ridley Scott's much-anticipated, shrouded-in-secrecy outer-space thriller Prometheus. Co-starring Charlize Theron, Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender, is due in cinemas in June.
While there's been some speculation online that Prometheus is an Alien prequel, Pearce insists that's not strictly the case. “You can connect the dots to the Alien films but Prometheus is a stand-alone movie," he says – noting that his character, Peter Weyland, might be related to Charles Bishop Weyland from the original Alien movie.
“The ideas and themes in the film actually far outweigh any of the Alien films. It's not an Alien prequel; it's something far grander."
After Prometheus opens, Pearce's career is a big question mark – and that's just the way he likes it. “I really thrive on maintaining an openness to the universe and seeing what it brings me," he says. “I find that surprise is what keeps me going. Maybe that's kind of immature, and maybe that's a part of me that needs to change. But at the same time, I don't think so. Spontaneity is where I find inspiration."
• Lockout is released on 20 April