Geoffrey Rush’s new project sees him as a down-on-his-luck Australian movie star in a fraught melodrama. For the acclaimed actor who juggles blockbusters with arthouse projects, those days are long gone. Interview by Siobhan Synnot
GEOFFREY RUSH plays the uncommon man with lip-smacking relish. He was Viagra in human form as the Marquis De Sade in Quills, encouraged George VI to swear in The King’s Speech, and won an Oscar with Shine as the emotionally fragile piano prodigy David Helfgott. He’s also a cornerstone for one of the movie’s biggest commercial franchises playing Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Parts 5 and 6 are currently at the draft stage, but the sails are set to return Rush to sparring with pirate partner Johnny Depp “the best – as well as the prettiest character actor Hollywood’s ever known”. He’s not so keen on Barbossa’s monkey, though. “It’s actually a girl capuchin monkey, and quite skittish, so she has to wear a diaper all the time, unlike my other leading ladies”.
Indeed, although there are other hazards if you are Charlize Theron, playing Britt Eckland to Rush’s Peter Sellers in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. “We used a lot of prosthetics, which meant she had to be careful not to disturb my nose when we were kissing,” he says. “Also, he was a very hairy man, and I am not, so they stuck on stuff everywhere to compensate. During our animal-driven wild sex, I spent most of the scene making sure it didn’t transfer hair onto Charlize’s chest.”
When Rush stepped up to the podium to accept his Academy Award in 1997, he was that noblest of recipients, the overnight success. And like most overnight successes, it had taken him years to get there. Still, coming to movies relatively late may have been the making of him. Actors who don’t catch a break until their thirties (George Clooney, Sean Connery, Gene Hackman) prove to be pretty durable. Movie stars who don’t find their key light until their forties may be indestructible.
There may have been controversy about the way Shine depicted Helfgott’s relationship with his father, but the quality of Rush’s performance was never disputed. He was a revelation from the moment he burst into a restaurant, stroked its piano, then flew into Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight Of The Bumblebee, without disturbing the ash on his roll-up. Yet Hollywood struggled to find a place for him. “Soon afterwards, someone offered me a script about Liberace,” recalls Rush, drily. “There was a thought there, and it was, ‘he could bring a piano playing film to life!’”
There are still echoes of the pianist about him when he talks, his long slender fingers fluttering up invisible scales to punctuate words. Born in Brisbane 61 years ago, Rush was originally a stage actor who wasn’t very interested in making movies. His work even penetrated David Helfgott’s hazy consciousness. “Ah Geoffrey,” he said, pumping Rush’s hand enthusiastically when they were introduced. “Great Shakespearian actor. Great Shakespearian actor.”
His new film, Eye of the Storm, was not only made close to home, but is close to some of his own experiences. Based on a massive novel by Australian writer Patrick White, Rush and Judy Davis play expatriate siblings who return home from overseas to await the death of their dragonish and dismissive mother (Charlotte Rampling). “My character is an Australian actor whose career has taken a downturn, and he’s drinking heavily,” says Rush, allowing a comedy beat. “It’s a semi-autobiographical piece.”
Strictly speaking, Basil Hunter is more emblematic of an older breed of Australian actor; the Errol Flynns, Peter Finches or Rod Taylors, who left to carve careers in the UK and USA, and rarely returned. “As a young actor I knew the generation above me had all migrated in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s because that’s what you did,” says Rush. “There was nothing to keep people employed back then and the old colonial bonds still meant something. In my young days I’d worked with some of these expat actors who came back.”
His wave of Australian actors were less enchanted by Blighty and Hollywood. Rather than a London drama school, Rush chose to go to Paris and trained at the Jacques Lecoq School of Mime, Movement and Theatre. He returned home determined to loosen the shackles of heritage drama. “I had found an idiom that somehow worked for me and for the audience that was distinctly but not self-consciously Australian,” he says. “A director said to me that he’d never seen really powerful acting on the Australian stage – and that really annoyed me, because I knew that I had. What we were doing led us away from a lot of the borrowed conventions of English theatre, which had pretty much dominated earlier generations”
The black comedy of Eye of the Storm touches on these issues of Australian identity, circling an uneasy relationship with a mother country and her conflicted children. Some actors, like Rush’s former flatmate Mel Gibson, used the emerging Australian arts scene as a stepping stone to global fame. They performed a well-received Waiting For Godot together onstage, and at night slept in a house “without a stick of furniture”. Then Gibson got the lead in a low-budget road movie called Mad Max, and by the early 80s he had gone.
Rush, however, stayed (“I didn’t have the same chest dimensions”), and in 1988 he met Jane Menelaus when they appeared in a play together in Adelaide. A tour of The Importance of Being Earnest served as their honeymoon, which allowed Rush to propose every night on stage, “which isn’t romantic when you’re wearing a wig and make-up.” Although he has worked all over the world, his base remains Melbourne, with his wife and two children.
Steadfastly loyal to the Australian culture scene, he regularly appears in homegrown projects on TV, film and stage and has also just completed 12 months as Australian of the Year, a title that comes with a glass trophy and tremendous symbolic weight. Usually the award is given to sports heroes, politicians or academic achievers; in fact, this is only the third time an actor has been honoured. “Robert Helpmann was awarded it in the 1960s and in the 1980s it went to Paul Hogan, so I took it quite seriously. In terms of visibility or credibility, it doesn’t hurt to give the arts a leg up.”
Rush thinks and reads widely – and sometimes unexpectedly. I can’t think of many other actors who can turn Les Miserables into a discourse on the state of French sewage systems in the 19th century. Even Pirates of the Caribbean can take a detour to the history of Bristol, because that’s most likely to be the source of the pirate’s hearty “Arrrr”.
Famously, he even reads unsolicited scripts; the producers of The King’s Speech defied the usual movie etiquette of posting a script to Rush’s agent, and instead contrived to have David Seidler’s screenplay hand-delivered to Rush’s house.
His management complained, but Rush took a shine to the idea of a bromance between two middle aged men, one a British king, one a commoner from the colonies. He came on board as both co-star and producer of the film, and is now torn between pride at the Oscar-garlanded result, and the fact that he is now inundated with unsolicited scripts on his doorstep. Budding Seidlers are now being firmly steered to his agent.
He remains careful of the roles that he accepts, not least because the critical backlash can begin in his own house. “When my son was 14, I took him to see the third Pirates film,” recalls Rush. “Afterwards, I said something leading like ‘what was your favourite scene? And he immediately said, ‘Well, I thought Bill Nighy really stole the picture!’”