It is quite a trick to gain the status of suave leading man – or woman for that matter – while still getting to play fleshy humans with nuanced personalities. Character actors have long careers, but they rarely get to play the man on the biggest, whitest horse.
Guy Pearce might be an exception. Now in his mid 40s, he still has the sharp, smooth features we remember from his time as Mike – the thinking person's Scott – in the era-defining Australian soap Neighbours. But, since breaking into the bigger time with LA Confidential, he has managed to play an impressive array of rough-grained maniacs and beaten-down vagabonds. Think of the haunted protagonist in Christopher Nolan's Memento. Recall his hairy villain in John Hillcoat's The Proposition. No equivalent of the McConaissance is required here.
Pearce is at it again in the sweaty postapocalyptic thriller The Rover. David Michod's follow-up to Animal Kingdom casts Pearce as a puzzlingly ruthless loner who will stop at nothing to retrieve his stolen car. Never having been exactly pre-apocalyptic, the Australian outback offers the perfect location for a tale set on a wasted Earth.
“Yeah, it’s such a confronting place to be,” Pearce says. “That really adds to the impression that the world is collapsing about you.”
Mind you, it must be a tough place to film. There aren’t too many luxury hotels about the baking interior. “Oh I don’t need that stuff,” he says. “It’s fantastic out there in the desert. I love the heat, if it’s not too humid. As far as the glamour of film-making goes, I am okay without all that.”
You hear this sort of thing a lot from actors. (How many sub-headings on interviews use the words "reluctant star"?) But Pearce really has steered a course around the celebrity fleshpots. Every interview he's given has stressed his discomfort with the glamour of it all. At the start of this decade, he told the Guardian that, when fame really struck, he suffered a "mini-nervous breakdown".
“Oh, well it certainly wasn’t a nervous breakdown,” he says, audibly embarrassed. “It was just this thing of trying to manage too much work. I didn’t really want to handle the real heights of fame. I had to ask myself: ‘how do you really want to handle this?’”
We’ll come back to that. Pearce admits that his difficulties resulted from the near-accidental way he fell backwards into celebrity. It’s a story worth telling. Pearce was born in the quiet cathedral city of Ely near Cambridge. The family moved to Australia when he was a child with the intention of staying for just a few years. They liked the place and never left. Then, just as they had settled in, his father, a test pilot, was killed at work. That must have been awfully tough on his mother.
“Well, she’s a strong woman. She is from the north of England, after all,” he laughs. From Durham, I believe. You don’t mess with folk from the northeast. “No. You’re right there.”
Mr Junior Victoria It sounds as if Pearce was the sort of kid who relished a challenge. As a teenager, he took to bodybuilding and ended up becoming Mr Junior Victoria. Meanwhile, his mother, a teacher, was working hard to take care of his intellectually disabled sister, Tracey. Pearce began acting when he was tiny and, already an experienced hand, secured the role in Neighbours at the age of 17. He could have had no idea what was about to happen. Pearce started on the show before it was being broadcast in the UK. Two years later, Kylie, Jason and the rest found themselves the living manifestation of a distant nation's aspirations for sunny escape.
“That’s true. It was a real surprise,” he says. “But to be honest we were surprised it took off like it did in Australia. It had been axed on Channel 7. Then Channel 10 took it on and marketed the hell out of it. Then it hit everywhere. We were in the public spotlight – particularly Jason and Kylie. It was one thing after another. I struggled with all of that. I had no confidence in myself as an actor. I felt it was all out of balance. I was getting acclaim for something I didn’t feel suited to.”
How we laughed at the silly actors in the silly Australian soap operas. To paraphrase Bob Monkhouse, we're not laughing now. Both Home and Away and Neighbours offered early experience to a host of future stars. Pearce, Russell Crowe, Heath Ledger, Isla Fisher, Chris Hemsworth and Naomi Watts all appeared on one or the other. Obviously, those TV shows taught their actors something worth knowing.
"I learned all sorts," Pearce says. "Hey, I did four years on Neighbours. I probably learned a lot of bad habits. I learned a lot about working on camera. I also learned a lot about exposure and dealing with the public eye. That was a learning curve. I learned about honing my craft. And I also learned how any desire for fame or celebrity left a real bad taste in my mouth."
Neck deep in the fame-pot Good grief. Pearce really is not joking about his ambivalence towards the celebrity carousel. Come to think of it, "ambivalence" may be too mild a word. People express ambivalence about cabbage or corduroy. Pearce really loathes all this stuff. At any rate, he and many of his compatriots soon found themselves neck-deep in the Hollywood fame-pot. Twenty years ago, there were no more than two or three Australian stars. Now, we're coming down with them: Kidman, Crowe, Hemsworth, Blanchett. Meanwhile, young talents such as Jason Clarke creep up on the inside straight.
“That’s true,” Pearce says. “I just think at a certain point Hollywood casting directors and producers said: ‘we need to go down to Australia and have a look at the talent. It seems that there is some.’ Russell was there before I was. I remember him saying: ‘I wonder if we are the last two over the bridge before they put the toll on it.’ Ha ha. But the floodgates did open. One bloke follows another. Two follow them and so on.”
It didn't happen immediately for Pearce. He left Neighbours in 1989 and did a spell on Home and Away in 1991. In 1994, he appeared in the cult hit The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, but that didn't kick up too many eddies in the mainstream. It was LA Confidential in 1997 that really confirmed his cinematic chops. There must have been times when he felt he wasn't going to make the transition.
“I don’t think I seriously considered doing anything else, because there was nothing else I could do,” he says. “I have always enjoyed music. But I never thought I would turn to a music career. I was looking for whatever opportunities I could. I did a lot of theatre.”
For somebody so uneasy with the business, Guy Pearce proves to be an enormously agreeable man to interview. He seems to have no time for empty guff or cautious evasions. He is happy to admit that he found success considerably more stressful than those years of scurrying around, looking for work in the theatre. By the early part of the century, he was in demand. Memento was a succès d'estime. Significant roles in the (likable) Count of Monte Cristo and (justifiably forgotten) The Time Machine loomed. Yet he wasn't happy. He took a year out to ponder life with his wife, Kate Mestitz, a psychologist.
“I think it was about stepping away from the business and assessing it from the point of view of an adult. I had been in the business since I was eight.”
So, he’d never made the decision to enter the business as a grown up? “That’s right. In that period, between 2001 and 2002, I questioned everything. I wanted to be left alone. I had to strip everything away, come back and say: ‘Is this valid? Am I any good at this? Is this valuable? Do I have anything to offer?’ It took a while to say ‘yes’ to those things.”
The answers seem to have held up effectively. Pearce and Mestitz continue to live in Melbourne from where Pearce makes strategically timed assaults on Hollywood and its precincts.
He has recorded an album – “I don’t know. People call it adult, contemporary, independent rock” – and is contemplating releasing it in the next year. He still has his looks. Everybody wants to work with him. There are worse lives.
Indeed, for all his admitted neuroses, Guy Pearce seems fairly at one with the world. “I tend not to think too much about the future,” he muses. “I do what I do at the time.”
Very sensible. Very sane.
The Rover is on general release