Good Guy, Bad Guy

Text by Andrew Rodgers

When the forgettable film Rules of Engagement was released six years ago, it was almost universally panned, but Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan had some kind words for one of the film’s supporting players, Guy Pearce. In his review, Turan singled out Pearce’s “impressive” work in the film and suggested that the then-33-year-old actor was “proving a master at reinventing himself for each new role.” High praise, indeed.

Based on this good response, Pearce’s agent asked if he’d like to see other reviews for the film from around the United States. Pearce did – and it nearly devastated him. The New York Times criticized his accent in the film, for instance, while other critics liberally heaped their scorn on each of the film’s actors. The result?
“I really went into a depression after that,” Pearce recalls over the phone from his home in Australia. “I learned a lot from that experience. I learned that the only opinion that matters is my own.”

And that’s really the best way to explain Pearce, now 38. Not only does he completely eschew reading reviews now, but through trial and error he’s learned to listen to his own instincts and make choices for personal reasons. Of course, it’s been a hard lesson to learn. When he was approached to play the lead in the Dreamworks remake of The Time Machine, for example, everyone told him it would be a perfect fit for him. The original story was strong and it just seemed like the right time and role to try establishing himself as a leading man in Hollywood. But when the film went through numerous rewrites and added piles upon piles of producers to the credits, the whole production quickly spun out of control and became yet another unmemorable Hollywood extravaganza. “I had such a response to the original film. I was really drawn to it. And yet, it was lost in the wash,” says Pearce. “[Luckily], we didn’t have to make a sequel.”

Since then, Pearce has primarily focused his time working on quirky ensemble pieces, the area where he feels most at home. The actor originally gained attention as someone willing to tackle unconventional roles in films with strong supporting casts. His memorable appearance as a drag queen in the Australian breakthrough The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert opposite Terence Stamp and Hugo Weaving was what first drew American audiences to him. Following that, he appeared in a string of critically lauded films, including L.A. Confidential (co-starring Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey and Kim Basinger) and Memento (co-starring Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano).
“I feel like I really flourish when I’m working as a member of a team,” Pearce explains. “I’m clever enough to know that whatever attention I might want will come about eventually if you’re a part of a great team. I mean, you look at Memento, it required everybody on the set and the film to be inspired and understand what Chris [Nolan, the film’s director] was all about. And consequently we all collectively made a great film. That to me is the kind of attention that I want to be part of.”

In his latest film, The Proposition, Pearce again appears as a supporting leg in a film that requires each of its actors to do a lot of heavy lifting. Written by Nick Cave (of the Bad Seeds fame) and directed by John Hillcoat, the film is set against the harsh and unforgiving landscape of the 1880s Australian outback and features Pearce as Charlie Burns, a renegade wanted for murder. The film, which also stars Emily Watson, Ray Winstone and John Hurt, opens up with a proposition by the local law officer to entice Charlie to kill his psychotic older brother Arthur Burns in order to win redemption. This proposition of course sets into motion a difficult moral dilemma and leads to a very bloody climax.

“It’s not that I’m necessarily interested in Westerns,” Pearce admits. “I think originally it was just the style of the writing and that it was written so beautifully. Very harsh and bleak. I like the fact that it’s different. Sometimes you’re there to pull everything along, to really create the story. And sometimes you’re there really as window-dressing.”

In this case, Pearce certainly provides more than figurative window-dressing. Appearing throughout the film as a sweaty, bearded villain, audiences will appreciate that this work was driven less by ego than by the impulse to do something interesting and edgy. “I think subconsciously I wanted to tackle this character. But it wasn’t until we were almost making the film that it dawned on me that I had no idea who this guy was. If I end up getting too heady about something or doing too much research, I lose the ability to respond honestly.” It can be easy for him to get a little too caught up in the preparations for a role and lose track of what interested him in a part to begin with. With The Proposition, he had to take a step back and remind himself that what initially attracted him to the character was how Charlie could serve as a mirror for the audience – and how they could see themselves in him, despite his despicable flaws.

As it turns out though, the end result isn’t as interesting for Pearce as the process. As for The Proposition, the film is likely to receive a very modest theatrical distribution in the U.S. But that doesn’t bother him any. “What means something to me is the honesty of the project and the response people have to it, whether that’s 6 billion people or three people. Besides, I’m generally not into the payoffs at the end. I’m much more interested in the journey along the way. If you want the payoff at the end, go play sports.”


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