At the Toronto Film Festival, Geoffrey Rush is earning rave reviews and Oscar buzz for his turn in Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, as an eccentric Australian actor who befriends a stuttering King George VI (Colin Firth) and teaches him to speak with regal aplomb. Rush told us he took a certain satisfaction in instructing the English on how to speak, since an English director had once called his Australian wife “a common little colonial” and he himself has played his own part in a cinematic “revenge of the colonies.”
You play a failed actor in The King’s Speech who then coaches and advises the future king. What’s the worst acting advice you’ve ever received?
I’d spent so much of my career in the theater up until my mid-40s. And people would always go: “In film, dahling, the camera is there. It’s all in the eyes. It’s all internal. You don’t act. You be!” And then on my first major film, Shine, I said to the director, “Look, you really gotta help me, because this character is physically and vocally and emotionally very eccentric and yet everyone’s telling me ‘it’s all in the eyes’ … ” The whole folklore of “it’s all in the eyes” — you can end up with a kind of bad non-acting where there’s no commitment to the moment at all.
Have you seen a lot of performances where that’s been all that the actor has had to offer?
You do see that. Somebody like Sergio Leone made that an art form. You look at The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and you get all those shots of Lee Van Cleef … There’s an absence, but that works through montage. I think one of my favorite screen performances in the last five years, the one I’m most in awe of, is Bruno Ganz playing Hitler in Downfall. Controversial film, the humanizing of the political monster, but I found that with his detail and the volcanic ferocity he managed to hit a level of truthfulness.
Do you feel like there’s a big style difference between Australian and British actors?
There’s a dynamic difference, I suppose. There is a tradition in the English theater that is very vocally orientated, acting from the neck up. If I name eight Australian actors who have reasonably high-profile international recognition — which we never used to have; we had a wasteland for most of the twentieth century — like Toni Collette, Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Eric Bana, I can’t see what the common thread is except that they’re all Australian. But I think there’s sometimes a slight cavalier, maverick undercurrent, some kind of audacity … a playfulness or something, a risk-taking.
In The King’s Speech, they gave your character a hard time during the audition because you were Australian. Has that ever happened to you?
While I was living in London, I could feel this imperial attitude that I was from a culture that was not sophisticated. An example I often use is that in the early eighties my wife studied at the Central School of Drama in London. And she mispronounced a word: She said “nude” instead of “nyuude”. And this very old-school drama teacher went “It’s ‘nyuuuude,’ you common little colonial.” I find that just so distasteful. I’m not demonizing the whole English race — we hadn’t proved our cultural worth at that stage. There was an awakening in the seventies when our film industry went through a kind of renaissance and suddenly out of nowhere we had Peter Weir and Fred Schepisi and Julian Armstrong and Bruce Beresford and George Miller, and then fifteen years later we had Baz Luhrmann and Stefan Eliot and Scott Hicks. And now we’ve got indigenous filmmakers actually making films about their culture.
Did Brits ever give you a hard time about your background?
In my very early years, I was in the Queensland Theatre Company and we had this guest English director who was just very very old-school English, an old English gent. He’d directed a lot of famous operas and I think he taught at Juilliard. And we were having a conversation one day, and he said — not in an imperial, imperious, snobbish way — he said: “I’ve never seen white-hot acting on the Australian stage.” And that always stayed with me: Don’t think that because we’re Australian and colonial and a young country, we can’t we have compelling passion in our work. I thought maybe we just haven’t been challenged enough. And you’ve just given me the challenge.
Did you ever feel like you didn’t get a role because of your background?
There was a strange reverse that happened. David Hare, the British playwright, he knows Australian theater very well. And this guy Neil Armfield has done nearly all the Australian productions of David’s plays … and I know that David was particularly a fan of the film Elizabeth. Hare said to me, “Oh, I loved Elizabeth, that was the film where you and Cate Blanchett taught the English people how to act.” Certain stuffy traditions had built up around that earlier period, and there was something fresher by having outsiders in the role. It was an Indian director, Shekhar Kapur, and I always thought it was the revenge of the colonies.
Has it been going in that direction since Elizabeth came out?
Our film industry in Australia is about the same size as the Norwegian film industry. And if I said to you, can you name me ten internationally known, interesting Norwegian film actors, you might struggle for a bit. But in Australia, there has been an outpouring. Even this beautiful young Mia Wasikowska … In Australia, as Russell Crowe says, “We fight above our weight.”