Guy Pearce on drag queens, deranged fans and losing out to Liam Neeson for Batman Begins
When Guy Pearce decided to stop being a teen idol, he did it in style.
It was exactly 20 years ago that he put aside the leather jacket of Mike Young, the troubled hunk who set teen hearts racing in the Australian soap opera Neighbours, and shimmied into the sequins and heels of Felicia Jollygoodfellow, the most beautiful and waspish of the drag queens in the seminal Australian comedy Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
The experience was a revelation for him. On the last day of rehearsals, Pearce and his co-stars, Terence Stamp and Hugo Weaving, did make-up and costume tests. They then made the decision to go out that night in full drag to some of Sydney’s most flamboyant gay clubs.
“It was fascinating for me,” says Pearce, as we sit in a chilly hotel room in central London, “because I’d been on this TV show, and no one recognised me. And it was fantastic.” He stops and laughs. “But a lot of the local drag queens were basically going, who the f--- are these b------ who have just turned up, lookin’ fabulous! So that was interesting to see. And I remember Hugo getting so drunk that he ended up under a table somewhere, in some club. It was like in the movie, I’m going, 'come on darl, get up, it’s time to go.’”
Pearce has been thinking about Priscilla recently, not only because it’s the anniversary of the film’s release, but also because one of the roads they careered down in their silver tour bus (the Priscilla of the title) crossed over the location of his new movie. The two films could not be more different. The Rover is a spare, remorseless post-apocalyptic road movie. In it Pearce plays Eric, a man on a mission to recover his car, stolen by fellow survivors of the unspecified “collapse”. He has become more animal than man, his shirt caked in dirt, his hair chopped into patches (Pearce cut it himself), growling the same line again and again: “Have you seen my car?”
Pearce’s co-star in the film is Robert Pattinson, playing a slow-witted, vulnerable young man cast adrift in the desert; it’s a simultaneously brilliant and self-conscious performance, and one that shows his range way beyond the teenage silliness of the Twilight series, in which he played a brooding but chaste vampire.
Did the two former teen idols compare notes? “Rob’s on a stratospheric level that’s kind of crazy, really,” says Pearce. “But yes, I can relate to it. And I could see Rob enjoying the fact that he was a million miles from anywhere, being left alone.”
Eric is a man without a past, and Pearce initially struggled to work out the character of the man he was meant to be playing. “I was trying to understand who he was as a person, and I think I needed to get rid of all that civilised stuff and all that learnt human behaviour, and go, well if I was just this f------ dying dog out in the desert, how would I be?”
Pearce has always been interested in transformation; most actors are, of course, but few are able to articulate their motivations as precisely as he is. There is something delicate about Pearce; aside from his fine features – high cheekbones and thin, slightly hard mouth – he has a natural grace, his fingers often fluttering up to his neck when he talks. He’s a protean actor, although he’s especially good at illuminating the darker sides of human nature: the ambitious, puritanical police sergeant Ed Exley in LA Confidential, his breakthrough role, or the man with no memory trying to solve his wife’s murder in Christopher Nolan’s Memento.
Pearce grew up a shy, anxious child. When he was three years old his mother and father moved him and his older sister, Tracy, from Ely in Cambridgeshire to Australia. Pearce’s father was a test pilot, and when Pearce was eight, he returned home to find out that his father had been killed in a crash. His sister had Down’s Syndrome, and required the lion’s share of his mother’s attention. “On some level,” he says, “acting was a survival thing, I suppose. I never made the connection at the time, certainly, but this ability to go on stage and take on some lines that are written for you and perform in this costume that’s been given to you, and have an audience that’s all ready for you: it just seems like a perfect way to live your life. But it was also a wonderful escape.”
At the same time as Pearce was auditioning for and getting into different theatre groups, he was also working on himself physically. Thirty years ago – he was 16 at the time – he won a body-building contest, Mr Junior Victoria. “I always went to the gym with my mother – I guess that’s what you do when it’s only the two of you,” he says. “I was always a really isolated kid, and I loved doing anything on my own. I started doing weight training, and I noticed a bit of a change occurring. It was like moulding clay, and I was just fascinated by the fact that on stage I could turn into another character if I wanted to, and in the gym I could mould myself physically as well as emotionally.”
When Pearce was 18, he joined the cast of Neighbours: “I remember on the first day I had this producer go, 'now listen! If I catch you turning up late or you take drugs, you’re out!’ And I was like,” – he puts on a tearful voice – “'I don’t know what you’re talking about! I just want a job, I’ll stay on set, I’ll sleep here!’ I had no desire to be awkward or contrary or difficult or anything.”
For someone as lacking in confidence as Pearce was, being thrust into the spotlight was troubling. He was lucky, he says, to have had the buffer of Kylie and Jason, who played the soap’s sweethearts, Charlene and Scott. “It’s a bit like hanging out with him,” he says, nodding in the general direction of Robert Pattinson, who is somewhere in the building. “You can sneak in the back way and no one even notices you because all the attention’s on them, which is great.”
Although they took the heat off, the experiences from that time were often overwhelming. “We’d go to shopping centres and six trillion fans would turn up,” he says. “I had a shirt ripped off once. I hated it. Hated it, hated it, hated it. I think what I hated was the disconnect between feeling even vaguely decent about what I was doing as an actor, and all the adulation that came with it.”
The same anxiety would sometimes creep up on him later in his career. After LA Confidential came out, Pearce remembers being bombarded with scripts. “Offers would come in sort of willy-nilly,” he says. “I’d go, 'why am I being offered that?’ Because I’d been doing so many auditions for things, and you feel like the process is a justified process; but when you suddenly get offered something for what seems like no reason, you go, hang on, I don’t trust this.”
He still auditions for parts today, he says. “Three times I’ve flown to London specifically for auditions over the years,” he says, “and I’ve never got any of the jobs.” One of those auditions was for the part of Ra’s al Ghul in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. “When I got here, literally when I got here,” he says, “Chris went, 'yeah, I don’t think it’s going to work’. I was like, you could’ve told me 24 hours ago, before I got on the plane, man! He says, come and look at the Batmobile anyway, it’s fun.” (The role went to Liam Neeson.)
In fact, Pearce later learnt that he would never have won the role, even if Nolan had wanted him. “I was never going to be employed by Warner Bros. My agent told me, the head of the studio [Alan Horn] doesn’t like you. He told my agent he would never employ me.” You must have been stung, I say. “You know, there are some actors you like and some you don’t,” he says calmly, “and it’s the same if you’re an executive.”
Pearce has taken the past year off, something he also did at the beginning of the 2000s, when he was burnt out from making several big movies in a row. A recent interview with Australian GQ suggested that he’d picked up a potentially career-ending drug habit at the time. “That’s a load of crap,” says Pearce. “The use of dope, marijuana, for me, certainly didn’t nearly end my career. The thing that I really realised was that as an actor you spend 85 per cent of your time out of work. No one ever tells you that there’s any value at all in that time. I learnt that if I do a really intense job I need to give myself some time afterwards.”
Did he find smoking pot helpful? “Ah, look,” he says, “it was good on some levels, I suppose, it’s pretty creative. But there’s pretty much nothing good about it in the end, so I was happy to stop in 2005, I think it was. So that was a relief. A relief on my lungs as well.”
Later this month Pearce will release his debut album in Australia; he sings and plays the guitar. He’s always written music but only now decided to bring it to the public. “I’ve always avoided it,” he says, “because people cringe when they hear another actor wants to release any music.” As he’s got older, he finds that he is freer. He took a part in Iron Man 3 last year. “I think I was always really fighting to find the things with the most integrity, because I was just trying to find that in myself,” he says. “I’ve realised that you’ve just got to get this stuff out of your system, and move on.”
The Rover is out now.