Guy Pearce was born in England, but grew up in Australia, and got his start in acting with a long stint on the Australian soap opera Neighbours. He’s since become an international star, via Memento, The Time Machine, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Prometheus, Iron Man 3, and many other films, including French and German productions. But he’s also periodically returned to Australia for smaller, more personal films, including Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert; In Her Skin; and especially John Hillcoat’s terrific The Proposition and David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom. He went home yet again for Michôd’s follow-up, The Rover, a Roaring Rampage Of Revenge movie about a man who goes to great and murderous lengths to retrieve his stolen car in a lawless, dystopian future Australia. Pearce stars as Eric, the wronged man, who loses his car to criminals on the run, and ends up on the road with Rey (Robert Pattinson), the easily led brother of one of the car thieves. Pearce plays Eric as if he’s mentally lost in his own personal hell most of the time, with his actual surroundings more as a mild secondary concern; he’s an enigma who only reveals himself gradually, through direct action. The Dissolve recently talked to Pearce about Eric’s inner life and outer violence.
The Dissolve: Your character, Eric, doesn’t reveal much about himself. He ignores questions and speaks minimally for large segments of the film. How do you prepare to play such an internal role?
Guy Pearce: I started out by having to have a number of conversations with [director] David [Michôd] about who Eric actually was. Most people in the world go around just being the people they are, rather than expressing who they are. The interesting thing about this character is that we find him at a particular point in his life, and I needed to understand who he used to be before that point. There were a number of conversations before I even said “yes” to the movie, to try and understand who the man used to be. As far as playing someone who’s internal, I think it’s about understanding the man. Once I understand the man, it’s just behaving the way he’d behave.
The Dissolve: So it wasn’t really a different experience for you, playing this character or Charlie from The Proposition, vs. somebody like Felicia in Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, or Leonard in Memento, characters whose inner lives are out in the open?
Pearce: No, every character feels very different, and the personality of the character really determines that. Whether someone does or doesn’t speak a lot, that’s made different by the sheer nature of the personality of the character. I find every film is really different for me.
The Dissolve: In one past interview, you said you sit down with a script and write yourself notecards for each scene, tracking what your character is doing or feeling. Do you still do that?
“Once you’ve got an understanding of what drives a character, all sorts of things occur naturally that wouldn’t come otherwise.”
Pearce: I don’t write notecards for myself. I storyboard the whole movie for myself, just to make sure the trajectory all makes sense in relation to the story. It depends on how much work I’ve got to do in the film. If I’ve got a lot of work to do, I need some reference point to go back to. If I’m only in a few scenes, and it’s clear that I can keep it all in my head, I will. So I still work on the same level I used to, but I’m able to step away from it in between scenes and days. I don’t feel like I’ve got to hang onto a character all night and all throughout the day if I’m not actually shooting.
The Dissolve: How much of that process is just about maintaining character continuity in a films as it’s being shot out of order? How much of it is a consistency tool?
Pearce: It’s sort of half-and-half. It’s different on each film, too. Everything we shoot is out of order, but I think that even if things were shot in order, I’d still want to have a whiteboard in front of me that I can refer to, even if it’s in a binder. I need something to refer back to.
The Dissolve: Eric spends so much of the movie as a mystery to the audience, in terms of what he wants, or who he is. Did that figure into your initial conversations with David Michôd?
Pearce: I don’t think it was about consciously trying to maintain the mystery of this character. It’s all there in the writing. That’s probably a byproduct of the kind of person this man is, and the kind of film this is. David doesn’t feel like everything has to be given away in order for an audience member to stay with the movie. I realized that he is kind of a mystery, but I don’t think it was something we specifically worked toward.
The Dissolve: You’ve repeatedly said you like to go back to doing Australian film because you get to re-immerse yourself in a familiar culture. What about Australian film, or Australian culture, is comforting for you?
Pearce: I grew up in it! It’s what I know. Even though I’m playing characters that aren’t myself, I think I’m drawn to Australian films because theirs are voices I can relate to.
The Dissolve: In terms of the writing? Or the accents?
Pearce: The culture I know as “Australian,” I relate to more than a foreign culture. It’s not about being drawn to it more than other cultures, but I have no interest in losing touch with it. I’m not necessarily looking to Australian films more than other films, I’m just drawn to interesting characters and situations. Whether that’s Serbia or Melbourne, it doesn’t matter to me. Having said that, I’m always seeking out Australian films more than films from other countries, because I’m Australian, and I’m always looking out for what sort of stories we’re telling at the moment.
The Dissolve: Do you see that expressed in The Rover? Is there anything particular to this film that you think of as culturally Australian?
Pearce: This is all stuff I find really difficult to explain, because I’m much better at playing these characters than articulating them. But I reckon I’m playing an Australian person in the movie, a person with a view of the world that might be different from other people around the world. This is quite particular, because we’re looking at a futuristic world. And I’m aware that there are aspects of this that could be told in other cultures as well, that it doesn’t necessarily pertain only to Australia. I dunno, there’s a directness about this character that might be different from other characters. But that feels too narrow a thing to pin it on. Just because I’m looking for Australian films doesn’t mean that every one fully satisfies that. I have a curiosity about maintaining work in Australia.
The Dissolve: This character is intimidating, but he’s also violent in a more intimate way than some of the other frightening characters you’ve played. He’s very hands-on and personal in assaulting people. How natural is that kind of physicality to you?
Pearce: It doesn’t come naturally to me at all. But once you’ve got an understanding of what drives a character, all sorts of things occur naturally that wouldn’t come otherwise. Once I started to understand that this guy was at the end of his road, and had lost his natural sense of empathy and civility and decency, it came to me that anything was possible, as far as how brutal he could be. Stripping away the civilized nature of a human being meant that animalistic characteristics rise to the surface, and that’s all you’re left with. I felt that his bursts of violence, I could relate to them in the same way as when you see one animal attack another. It’s short, sharp and brutal.
The Dissolve: The Robert Pattinson cult can be pretty intense. Were you filming far enough out that you didn’t have to worry about that in terms of security? Was there anything unusual about how the set was maintained, trying to keep his followers from coming around?
Pearce: Nah, we were far out enough to be left alone. Eh, there were some paparazzi that turned up at one point or another, but Robert had security with him, so it was generally fine. We were far enough away that nobody knew how to get to us. It’d be quite a drive to come find us.
The Dissolve: What were your experiences like, shooting in that heat and dust?
Pearce: The location. It’s an incredible landscape when you’re out there, undeniably evocative. It’s the heat combined with the color of the Earth. We’re in Aboriginal territory, so that’s a specific culture that you’re delving into. It’s sort of a touristy spot, where we were. There are a few art galleries down the road. It’s not as remote as it might seem in the movie.
The Dissolve: The settings often look pieced together from scrap. Everything has an old, run-down, been-there-forever feel. How often were you shooting in existing places, rather than constructed sets?
Pearce: They were all real places. The Asian café that I walk into at the beginning, that was a set, they built that. But everything else was a real location.
The Dissolve: I’ve read that David Michôd had a significantly different, more action-oriented version of the script back when he thought Nash Edgerton was going to direct it, and he changed it radically when he found out he was taking it over. Was that evolution still going on when you got involved? Or is he the sort of person that comes to the shoot with a script set in stone?
Pearce: He pretty much set it in stone by the time he came to me. I wasn’t there for any of that process in the beginning with Nash. David sent me the finished scripts. I think he’d been working on it for a couple years before he brought it to me.
The Dissolve: Is he the kind of director that wants you to stick really close to the script, or is he looser about it?
Pearce: He pretty much wants to stick to it. I mean, if there are things I have issues with, I’ll bring that stuff up. If he can explain it in a way that leaves me able to do it, great. But if not, and we can understand why I’m struggling with something, he’s certainly open to changing things.
The Dissolve: What did you struggle with in this case?
Pearce: It was just about understanding the character. What you experience when you watch the film, finding it hard to understand who this man is—I felt something similar when I read the script. I had conversations with David about who he used to be and who he had become, in order for me to say “yes,” move forward, and make the movie. That’s what I struggled with, just getting my head around who this guy was.
The Dissolve: What was the most useful thing David told you?
Pearce: It was understanding that he was a moral man and a man of ethics, that he wasn’t naturally a killer. This was a byproduct of the world developing around us. It was also important to see who this man has become, when the movie opens and he’s a broken shell of a man. David was talking to me about the animal that he had become, as far as understanding how to play him on a physical level.
The Dissolve: It seems like he’s less damaged by what he’s endured than by the fact that he was never punished for his crimes. He was expecting some kind of moral compass in the world, and he’s tortured by the fact that there isn’t one anymore.
Pearce: I think it’s a combination of those things. It was a culmination, exacerbated by the fact that he wasn’t caught. As difficult as it is for people to accept that they’ve been caught and have to go to prison, I’m sure it’s just as—or even more—confronting to realize that you’ve gotten away with something. It was an important point of David’s, to put that in the script, to highlight that the world around these characters had gone to hell.
The Dissolve: When Eric confesses his crimes, he says they happened 10 years ago, which is also when the cataclysm happened. It seems like the film is equating his personal collapse with society’s collapse, as if they’re representative of each other.
Pearce: I’m sure during whatever that collapse might have been, people behaved in a more extreme way. Some people’s behavior was ramped right up at that time, and David spoke about that as well. Ten years does seem like a long time for my character to have gotten to the point where he is now, but at least it makes you think he’s had 10 years to disintegrate.
The Dissolve: What’s next? What are you working on right now?
Pearce: Nothing at the moment, just looking at scripts and seeing what might take my fancy. I like to be surprised by things, so hopefully something will come along and inspire me.
The Dissolve: You’ve played an eclectic set of characters. Do you look for variety, or resist duplicating the last character type you played?
Pearce: That’s pretty much it. I always want to do something different than the last thing, but it’s not my driving motivation. Then, I feel like I’m looking for something that might not exist. I’m happy to wait and see what the universe brings, and what I feel surprised by. Looking at it like that, I have no idea what’s next. I don’t like to specifically look for things; I don’t even understand that way of thinking, to be honest. Whenever I look back at the last year, I think, “Wow, who would’ve thought I’d end up doing that?”