Never one to hog the limelight, the past few years have been a remarkably fertile time for Guy Pearce. He’s appeared in two films that claimed Oscars for Best Picture – Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, in which he played a bomb disposal expert, and The King’s Speech, in which he featured as King Edward VIII. Yet size really doesn’t matter to Guy Pearce. Quite happy to drop in on screen for a cameo – as he did for John Hillcoat’s The Road, playing a bedraggled hobo – when he does take a lead; he’s almost too modest to accept the applause. “All the best performances I’ve done” – he cites Chris Nolan’s ingenious backwards-thriller Memento, in which he memorably played a memory-addled widower – “I haven’t had to do one iota of work. I haven’t had to work at creating something. As much as I try to accept the credit for good work, I certainly don’t feel like it was my doing.”
Maybe this is why directors love him. “Guy has an incredibly intense presence,” says Hillcoat, who initially cast him in The Proposition, his 2005 Western scripted by Nick Cave. The musician concurs: “He’s so tightly wound. You can see that in the good films that he’s made. He’s got a sort of clenched jaw and it’s all happening in his face.”
Pearce is the sort of actor who comes without the encumbrance of a 24-carat ego. When Pearce was awarded an Emmy for his work on Mildred Pierce, the first major award of his career, his acceptance speech was gloriously un-pretentious. “It really was a delightful experience making Mildred Pierce,” he said. “I got to have sex with Kate Winslet many, many times. And I didn’t realise it was going to result in this. So Kate, I share this with you, because you’re an extraordinary woman. Thank you for allowing me to insert myself in your world of Mildred!”
Pearce was born in Ely, Cambridgeshire, and it comes as no surprise to learn that Pearce’s humour has British roots. Not that his early memories are tinged with happiness. His father was an RAF test pilot, working on the Nomad aircraft programme among other projects, until a plane crash cut his life short. Pearce was eight at the time. He just remembers coming home and finding all his relatives there. His mother told him what happened, and then broke down in tears. “I’d never seen her like that before – it just added to the shock. To be honest, I can’t remember much about how I felt at the time – maybe I’ve blocked it out.”
Pearce moved with his mother and elder sister Tracy to Australia shortly afterwards, heading to Geelong, near Melbourne. “We lived a really hidden existence, and I’ve just maintained that ever since. It was never a loud household. I was never overly social. I was pretty much on my own a lot of the time. I lived in my own little fantasy world.” The person he was closest to at the time was Tracy, who has Down’s syndrome. “The relationship that she and I had, because of the special person she is, was on a totally different level to what I had with anyone else.”
Acting came along when he was 10, initially on stage in productions of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. By the time he left high school, he had an agent and his Neighbours role lined up. “I think my last exam was on a Friday and I started Neighbours on a Tuesday or something. I had to move to Melbourne in that weekend and suddenly become a professional person.” On the soap at the height of its powers, Pearce saw first-hand what it meant to be famous. “Our faces were so fresh in people’s minds. It was all about screaming teenagers. It wasn’t hard to deal with but it was definitely a monstrous aspect of my life.
If anything, it taught Pearce what he didn’t want from his career. Rather than ply his trade as a hunk-for-hire, he snapped his Neighbours image in two, playing a drag queen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the cult comedy that has since inspired a hit stage show. Brought to the attention of Hollywood, Curtis Hanson then cast Pearce as the self-righteous sergeant in his classy 1997 adaptation of James Ellroy’s LA Confidential. Arriving at the same time as Russell Crowe, with whom he co-starred.
Still based in Melbourne, Pearce’s life seems far removed to the fripperies of Hollywood. But he’s not immune from failures and frustrations – such as Gillian Armstrong’s 2007 film Death Defying Acts, in which he played escapologist Harry Houdini. “It’s a fantastic film that got released in one cinema, and they didn’t tell anybody.” It was his co-star Catherine Zeta-Jones who rang him and told him. “It was one of the most devastating things. I won’t go into why and who, but that was extremely disappointing.”
Sensitive and soulful, Pearce takes everything to heart. “You just do all this work, and sometimes you work on things and they’re terrible and they end up getting massive publicity and everyone goes on about them and you think, ‘Argh! Why is this the one that everyone’s going on about?'” Like The Time Machine, maybe? The 2002 HG Wells adaptation, with Peace in the lead, was critically lambasted but still took $123m around the world.
A full quarter of a century into his screen-acting career and we still have no idea what to expect from Guy Pearce. Not many actors can have notched up so many stand-out roles – from the catty young drag artiste in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to the grimy outlaw in The Proposition and a mesmerising turn as Andy Warhol in Factory Girl – without acquiring a marketable persona. But this ability to be undefinable is just what makes him so watchable in roles such as Prometheus (2012), and Iron Man 3 (2013). Looking at Guy Pearce now, the hunky teen idol who reached the top in Hollywood without really even trying, it’s impossible to tell exactly where he’ll go next. If you were to bet that he’d now veer between big American projects and smaller, more psychologically exploratory affairs, you’d probably be close to the mark. One thing’s for sure, though – his progress will be fascinating.