He’s very recognisable sitting in this hotel room in jeans and casual shirt, those cool specs and a bit of relaxed stubble, but Guy Pearce is unrecognisable in his new film Prometheus. Five hours of make-up every day will do that.
Listening to the utterly unpretentious Pearce with his less-than-jubilant attitude towards celebrity, it’s tempting to imagine he might have wished he had five hours’ worth of make-up on at the height of Neighbours craziness in the 1980s.
In the new sci-fi epic Prometheus, Pearce is certainly lost in the character.
“Started at 3am and I’d be ready at 8am,” Pearce says in a hotel room at Southbank. “Ten pieces had to be applied, then painting, then colour. Could only shoot till three in the arvo because you need a break after 12 hours.”
He shot for 20 days over five weeks but it was physically intense. “I was surprised I could deal with the five hours in the morning. The prospect of it. You imagine knowing you’ve got to sit in a chair for five hours while people glue stuff onto you. But it was fascinating watching the Italian couple – who were actually a couple – doing it. It was interesting watching them bicker about how things should be done. And they were right into music, so I’d play them Silverchair and Powderfinger and great Aussie stuff and they were playing bands I’d never heard of before.”
Prometheus, directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner), is a 3D return to the sci-fi genre to tell about a team of explorers who discover a clue to the origins of mankind on Earth, which leads to a battle to save the future of the human race.
It is a big film that, because Scott chose not to rely on computers for the look, needed a big studio.
“The whole thing was a fascinating experience,” Pearce says. “All the sets – the world we entered, and I wasn’t there for a lot of it – would perhaps in a lot of films these days be done on a computer later.
“Ridley builds all of this stuff, prefers to work that way. So to walk on set and see all this was fascinating. He extended the biggest Pinewood studio by another 20 per cent. Because he does have a great vision and he does see the big picture.
“We were all aware of Ridley’s films, aware of Alien, and just to be a part of something that everybody is anticipating … There was that kind of energy hovering in the air as well. It was a very memorable experience and a real honour.”
It has been a strong few years for Pearce with some highly acclaimed roles. He starred in the critically lauded The Proposition (2005), directed by John Hillcoat, with whom he worked again on The Road.
He portrayed pop artist Andy Warhol in Factory Girl and Harry Houdini in Gillian Armstrong’s Death Defying Acts. He was Edward VIII in Tom Hooper’s Academy Award-winning The King’s Speech. Last year he won an Emmy for his role opposite Kate Winslet in Mildred Pierce. In his acceptance speech, he noted that he “got to have sex with Kate Winslet many, many times”. He then good-naturedly apologised to his wife, who was in the audience, laughing.
But it hasn’t always been a smooth ride. Pearce learnt a lot about himself in 2001 when he had the largest of what was a series of mini-burnouts. He’d had enough and was even questioning his future in acting.
“We were all aware of Ridley’s films ... There was that kind of energy hovering in the air. It was a memorable experience and a real honour.” – Pearce on director Ridley Scott
“I had a bit of an overload in 2001, where I just went, ‘Hang on, I need to stop’,” he says. “I went, ‘I need to take a year off’. In that time I realised a lot of things. It was a lot about looking at the validity of acting, whether I wanted to keep doing it. I was really grumpy with everyone for the year-and-a-half before that, so I just thought, ‘I have to sort this out; this is no good’. And one of the big parts of it was I realised I did need the break between jobs. You would have mini-burnouts along the way.”
The work had started to overwhelm the rest of his life and he needed to take stock. “I just hated everybody around me at any given moment and I just knew I had to sort that out. I like to be fun and have a good time and laugh and make people laugh. I just went, ‘I am just being horrible to everybody’.”
He took time out, and it worked. Now, 11 years later, he is in a very good place. He lives in bayside Melbourne and, despite a healthy Hollywood career, wouldn’t have it any other way.
I asked him how he juggles working there and living here. “It’s not a juggle at all,” he says. “It’s just the way it works. I’ve got a bit of a system going. If I go to America for any reason, to do publicity for something, or film or something, or to do post-sync (post-production), I will then stay on for another week and do the rounds, go to meetings with directors, read scripts. I’ll do that a couple of times a year.”
He feels blessed he can live in his own city. “Absolutely. I feel like it’s a bonus. I view myself as an Australian, an Australian actor looking to do Australian work ,and anything that comes outside of that from England or America, I go, ‘Oh, bonus’. So the idea of moving overseas feels really weird to me.”
Pearce has a deep connection with Melbourne. “I just love it. My friends are here, my family’s in Geelong. I’m asked that question all the time and my agent said, ‘It might be good for you to think about moving here’. But that’s like saying, ‘You might like to go and live in Iceland’. It’s never going to happen. It was proven quite early on that I could function enough just being there the short times I was there.
“I found I’d go and do publicity for something, do a week of meetings and I’d get a job out of it. I’d go, ‘Great, I’ll go home for a few months before the job starts and then come back’.
“And I don’t want my life to all be about work, because I feel it sort of is anyway. Being an actor is like running your own little business. And I do a lot of stuff myself. Not to take anything away from (my three agents) who are spread around the world, because they do a lot for me as well. But I don’t have a personal assistant. I’m the one contacting producers saying, ‘We could do the fly from Melbourne to LA but it might be better to get a round-the-world ticket because we could stop in Europe on the way’ … I’m in charge of it all.”
He smiles. “I’m just a control freak. Most of it can be done on email. I’d rather be in my own office looking out on the dogs in the backyard and go out to a café with my wife (Kate Mestitz).”
Family is very important to Pearce. In 1976, six years after he’d moved to Australia with his parents and older sister Tracey, his father Stuart, a test pilot, was killed at work.
Tracey has an intellectual disability and young Guy watched his mother, Anne, working hard to bring up her two children without her husband. He has never lost the sense of responsibility that he felt as a young boy.
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With the roles he accepts and the staggered shoot schedules, Pearce has managed to maintain his sense of career/life balance that was once out of whack. If he’s away working too long, Pearce feels the pull of home. “I go, ‘Need to go home, need to go and see my sister, need to go and see mum’.”
No one has ever accused Pearce of being vulnerable to typecasting. He chooses a role according to whether he finds it interesting or whether it’s sufficiently different to previous roles. Also, the timing has to be right. “It’s a necessity as far as I’m concerned,” he says of playing varying roles. “I don’t do it consciously in trying to be different all the time. Even when I was a kid and I did theatre in Geelong I was always totally up for one minute playing the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz and the next doing something utterly different.
“Having grown up in the world of theatre where you do this direction, that direction, it’s not unfamiliar to me. I found doing Neighbours for four years and Snowy River for four years that it ends up being really frustrating because you just tire of that same character. What’s fascinating about this job is being able to delve into different worlds and explore it for a while and then kind of shed it like a skin and move onto the next thing.”
He gets three or four scripts a week. “Out of those a lot are not financed yet. It’s a real variety that comes in. Most films that I read don’t quite do it for me. The film’s kind of interesting but the role – there’s nothing there, or whatever happens. Or it might not be right for in the moment. It might be something I might have done five years ago. Or I’d done something that’s a bit like it. I like to be surprised. It’s all about being surprised for me. It’s all about being inspired and excited by something.”
Pearce says it’s critical to stay fresh and enthusiastic, and that overwork can kill off the mojo. “As an actor you can become vacuous and have nothing to offer,” he says. You need to refill the well? “You do. So I’ve taken the first six months of this year off because the last two years has been a bit non-stop.”
He’s looking after himself. “I realised I had to.” Did he find if he didn’t do that he would start phoning in his performance? “Not phoning it in but just really struggling to find it, to find the character. Everything felt fake because I would know I had to be angry in this scene and just didn’t have the energy to be angry, so I’d be trying my hardest and it would feel fake.”
After meeting Pearce and listening to the passion for keeping it real, no one could ever accuse him of being fake.
Watch \ Prometheus opens June 7 (Yet to be classified).