CANNES, France — Guy Pearce is no stranger to harsh realities, going back to L.a. Confidential and his relentless hunter in Memento. But his work lately is looking particularly grim, if also extremely rewarding: There was last year’s Animal Kingdom, and his two latest projects, Lawless, showing at this week’s Cannes Film Festival, and Prometheus, the Ridley Scott sci-fi project no one can stop talking about. We talked to him here this weekend about that, and about what he’d really like to do: stay in Australia.
ESQUIRE.COM: I was talking to some people who saw Lawless, and it was suggested that your character seems sort of, well, ambivalently gay? He takes great issue with being called —
GUY PEARCE: a nance.
ESQ: exactly. and then in the scene with Jessica Chastain, when he says, “I don’t drink from a dirty — “
GP: “I don’t drink from a greasy cup.” Well, that’s implying that she’s a slovenly woman, because he’s a married man. I think his preening and such, and also when I turn up to Shia [LaBeouf], and I say, “Oh, you’re a peach” — it would make sense that people would ask that question. But if he is a homosexual, it’s incredibly repressed.
ESQ: and the lack of eyebrows? Was that a period detail I missed?
GP: no. We wanted to create a strangeness. and a vanity. I think when people are repressing things, or burying things, that can manifest in all sorts of ways. funny enough, if you are looking at people these days who are putting Botox in their face and getting all sorts of plastic surgery, we look at them and go, I can tell you’ve had Botox. I can tell you’ve had plastic surgery. You look really strange to me. But no one’s saying anything. We’re just accepting the fact that they’re strange-looking. In a similar way, I think [Special Agent Charlie Rakes in Lawless] has an obscure sort of ego that is keeping him buoyant, as hideous and despicable as he is. He’s just gone too far with things. There were even descriptions in the script about the dyeing of the hair.
ESQ: and the hair part, too?
GP: Not the part. that was my idea. from a photograph. [Director] John [Hillcoat] had supplied a bunch of photographs from that period, and I was like, “Whoa, look at this part on this guy. It’s so severe.” Everything we tried to create was kind of severe. I remember, when we were cutting my sideburns and figuring out where to stop it, the hairdresser, Calvin, said, “It would actually be really interesting to get it right up here.” If you look at the period, there are some haircuts that are like that.
ESQ: I thought he was an interesting counterpoint to your character in Mildred Pierce, which I actually just watched. it seems like both of them are unethical by the standards of the times. Like their excess defines them.
GP: I don’t know how relevant the time period is to that. Monty [in Mildred Pierce] only comes to fruition when we see that he realizes Mildred is a stronger woman than he gave her credit for, and eventually he turns on her. That’s something of the period, but it still occurs today. Men often still expect women to be under their thumb. But neither you nor I were there in 1931, so it’s sort of hard to know, I suppose.
ESQ: In its own sci-fi way, Prometheus is also about the past.
GP: Yeah, it’s interesting that Ridley [Scott] has gone back to sci-fi. I think he treats the genre better than most. You look at the original Alien, and it looks more like a horror film than a sci-fi movie. But it’s a very realistic story about people, you know? and I think that’s what makes his films work so well. It’s a world that none of us really know, so anything could happen. and yet he gives it a sense of reality that we all can relate to. it taps into what our worst nightmares about outer space are.
SA: from what I’ve seen, Prometheus looks like a more straightforward adventure than Alien, but are there any similar themes that you picked up?
GP: I haven’t seen the finished film, to be honest, and I’m only in a tiny snippet of it, so it would be hard for me to say. from memory of the script I read, there are a bunch of elements that relate, but I think he’s looking at much bigger, grander things in this than were in the original Alien. and not just to get it away from being a prequel, but I think he’s had a longer period of time to decide what he wants to make his next science-fiction film about. I would say it doesn’t really operate on the same level as Alien. The ideas in Prometheus, the questions about where we come from, I think are so monumental and powerful. I think Ridley was pretty ready to put a lot of that previous stuff aside and say, “This is a lot more interesting to me now.”
ESQ: The other movie I remember seeing you in recently is Animal Kingdom, and I was curious what you think of Australian cinema right now, if there’s anything that people should have their eyes on.
GP: Well, there’s plenty we should have our eyes on that I’m not even aware of myself. I always think the really unfortunate thing about the Australian film industry is its lack of momentum. and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way. I’m always wanting it to pick up momentum, and I’m wondering if that’s even possible. I think there’s probably more momentum here in the French film industry. You get little bursts of success coming out of Australia, you know — there was that Muriel’s Wedding period. that was sort of the dance party. But even with Animal Kingdom — there hasn’t really been a slew of things since then. obviously, the practical issue is that an Australian makes a great film, and then they get a chance to go to Hollywood, so they go to Hollywood. for us actors, it’s much easier, because we don’t spend three years of our lives trying to get a movie up and running. But they do. They’ve got to decide to keep going in Australia or jump ship and come to the States, or do a bit of both. But I’m always amazed that they’re not funding movies at home like they should. because there are great stories to be told, and great filmmakers, and great cinematographers, and great actors, so I’m always keen to work at home. and this sounds really wanky, but you try and do what you can to help. I don’t even know if I can help, but I just want to keep working at home because I really like making Australian movies. When Australian filmmakers and actors get that little sniff and taste and then they’re on the plane to L.a., you think, “What a shame, what a shame,” and it takes people like Fred Schepisi to go back and make a film with Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis for good Australian films to be made.
ESQ: do you think doing a crime drama, like Animal Kingdom, is one way of getting your foot in the international-cinema door?
GP: Maybe. It’s unfortunate that it should have to be that way, even though I think we do crime things pretty well at home. That’s a big bulk of what we do in Australia. There’s a very original style to Animal Kingdom that [writer-director] David Michôd found and executed. But I don’t think it should have to be that way. You know, I think back to those great films that Miranda Otto did in the ’90s — The Well, and these really unusual dramas about strange parts of the country. and I think, why don’t they take off? Maybe it does take something more familiar for people to latch onto. funny enough, as great as Animal Kingdom was, I was surprised that people latched onto it like it’s the only good movie that’s ever come out of Australia. I was like, sure, it’s great, but there are lots of other great movies being made in Australia.
ESQ: I was really hoping The Proposition would take off.
GP: oh, me, too. I mean, that’s my favorite film out of all the films that I’ve done. Definitely. That’s an extraordinary piece of work.