Interview: Guy Pearce, actor and star of Lawless

The chameleon talents of Guy Pearce are put to good use in his latest collaboration with Nick Cave and John Hillcoat. He tells Stephen Applebaum, he’s happiest and at his best when not 
playing the lead

The chameleon talents of Guy Pearce are put to good use in his latest collaboration with Nick Cave and John Hillcoat. He tells Stephen Applebaum, he’s happiest and at his best when not 
playing the lead

SOME actors just want to be loved by an audience. Guy Pearce, on the other hand, says he hopes you’re repulsed by his sadistic Special Deputy in Lawless, the violent Prohibition-era gangster film from the creators of The Proposition – director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave.

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Charged with closing down illegal distilleries in the mountains of Virginia, Charlie Rakes is the most corrupt – and with his shaved eyebrows, bizarre centre parting and obsessive fastidiousness, the weirdest-looking – character in the movie. It is another total transformation by Pearce, who, since leaving Neighbours, has emerged as one of cinema’s most chameleonic actors.

As vivid as the character is now, though, it wasn’t as defined in the first draft that Pearce read of Cave’s screenplay. This wasn’t necessarily a problem. “When you look at a Nick Cave script, you know there are other drafts,” says Pearce, a wiry 44 year old, when we meet after the film’s world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. “Nick is a very visceral and emotional and evocative writer, but he tends to continually expand as he goes.”

Whereas he would normally leap at the chance to work with Hillcoat, who directed him in The Proposition and The Road – because the filmmaker is “nutty and prepared to do anything” – Pearce hesitated when the Brighton-based Aussie Hillcoat tapped him for Lawless. He’d just come off a string of projects, including The King’s Speech, Mildred Pierce and the action-thriller Lockout, and was exhausted.

“I can’t do film after film. So when John said, ‘I really want you to do this thing,’ I said, ‘I need a lie down.’ I just need to go home and be me occasionally, you know?”

Pearce told Cave that if he was going to do it, he didn’t want to be “the cop that’s just there for the sake of it”. Cave agreed.

“Nick said, ‘I don’t want him to be that either. He’s digusting, he’s vain, and this, that and the other.’ I was a little hard on him because I wanted to take a break, and I said, ‘Well not all that’s in the script yet.’ So he slowly implemented things and we shot more than has ended up in the film.”

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Together, they came up with someone who should seem “strange and disgusting” to both the audience and the other characters.

“That was really important, and that’s why I love working for John, because I find he’s prepared to go where other directors wouldn’t. He really loves extreme characters and I appreciate that bravery in him.”

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Cave says he was just as thrilled to have another chance to work with one of his favourite actors: “The stuff Guy did on LA Confidential, all his films, really, is kind of riveting. There’s something about him that’s so wound up inside that face of his. So I re-invented Rakes from the character that’s in the book for something that he could get his teeth into.”

“The book” was Matt Bondurant’s 2008 novel based on the exploits of his moonshine-making grandfather Jack and grand-uncles Forrest and Howard, played in the film by Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke respectively. While the confrontations between the siblings and Rakes are frequently graphically brutal – Hillcoat always tries to make the violence in his films “confronting” –life off camera was altogether lighter.

“Tom Hardy and I played these two angry characters and we’d sit together in the make-up room playing Angry Birds,” says Pearce, laughing. “That’s how we connected to our anger.” It was the same on the grim Outback western The Proposition, working alongside Ray Winstone, Danny Huston and John Hurt. “We laughed a lot on that. And we kept thinking that it’s really funny that we keep laughing on this really violent movie, which made us laugh even more.” In one especially shocking scene in Lawless, Rakes makes mincemeat of Jake’s face with his fist. Did the violence affect him?

“It’s a million miles from [real violence], and it affects you as much as you allow it to affect you… It’s kind of therapeutic in a way. It’s dangerous therapy, but it’s therapeutic.”

Pearce should know about this: his wife, Kate Mestitz, is a psychologist, and after what he describes as a “meltdown” in his early thirties, brought on by “doing too much work and not having enough breaks and all sorts of other things” (he’s admitted to using drugs in the past) – he walked away from work for a year, went into therapy, took up meditation, and thought about whether acting was really what he wanted to do.

Although Neighbours was the first time many of us saw him, Pearce had in fact been acting since childhood.

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“I was still working and making decisions based on that decision of an eight-year-old,” he says. “So I needed to step back and actually, as an adult, go, ‘I do have some skills, there is some validity in this, I see the honour in it, and I see how it can help people,’ and I saw all sorts of things in it that I couldn’t see before.”

Born in Ely, Cambridgeshire, and raised in Australia, he was first drawn to acting after the death of his father, Stuart, an air force test-pilot from New Zealand, in a plane crash. Despite his tender years, Pearce suddenly found himself thrust into the role of “man of the house”, which included looking after his older sister, Tracy, who had Downs Syndrome. Was it the escapism of acting that appealed to him? He thinks for a moment. “I’m sure that it was, but I don’t know how conscious I was of it. The only thing I remember being conscious of is sitting in an audience with my mum, and being so enamoured and so in awe of how that person on stage was making me feel, and thinking about the power of that. On some level it was about power.”

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By the time he joined the cast of Neighbours in 1986, as clean-cut teacher Mike, Pearce had years of stage experience under his belt. The show’s producers gave him time off to make films, but each time required him to sign on for another six or 12 months. He never worried that he would get stuck on the show, but admits that he “got sick of playing the same character”. He finally said goodbye to Ramsay Street at the end of 1989 and did a run of work in the theatre. Movies eluded Pearce for a couple of years, but when Stephan Elliot cast him as a bitchy drag queen, in the high-camp musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, everything changed.

“The idea of sticking this dorky guy from Neighbours in a dress seemed hilarious to Steph,” he recalls, “whereas to me, I just saw it as another opportunity as far as a character goes. In my mind and in reality, I had been doing theatre since I was about eight, and had been doing a variety of characters all along. And then I got onto this TV show and it just happened to last for four years, which was too long.”

Even so, for many Neighbours fans in the UK – me included, at the time – the transformation was a shock. In America, where the soap was virtually unknown, the shock happened later, when Pearce appeared as a cop in Curtis Hanson’s tough period noir, LA Confidential.

“They had only seen Priscilla, so everyone thought I was a raging drag queen. Now suddenly I am in a suit, in a 1950s cop movie, with Russell Crowe, and people are going, ‘Hang on a sec, wasn’t that the poof that was standing on top of the bus singing the opera?’”

Over the years, Pearce has transformed himself again and again, convincing in roles as diverse as a tormented amnesiac in Memento, Andy Warhol in Factory Girl, and, more recently, buried under five hours’ worth of make-up as an aged billionaire in Prometheus. These were all supporting roles, and while he enjoyed playing the action hero in the April release Lockout, that is how he likes his acting jobs these days: short and sweet.

“I don’t know if playing lead roles is my forte, to be honest,” he offers candidly. “They never seem to work.” What about Memento? “But that’s Chris Nolan, it’s hardly a normal movie, is it? No, I think I’m much better off as a team player; being one of the cogs in the machine, ultimately.”

• Lawless is in cinemas from 7 September.

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