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Guy Pearce on Lawless, Prometheus, and Finely Calibrated Camp

Guy Pearce. Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

In Lawless, Guy Pearce plays one of the most memorable villains of the year, a metrosexual monster with a Hitler Youth haircut who’s on the trail of moonshiners Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy. It isn’t a thing like the other roles he’s played recently — an old man in Prometheus, an action hero in Lockout, or a lazy Lothario in Mildred Pierce — but then, one of the chief pleasures of this Aussie actor’s current career phase is how he lends his star power to so many deliciously different character parts. Pearce rang up Vulture to talk about how he does it, his predilection for camp, and just why he got cast as that old man in Prometheus to begin with.

You’re not afraid to be over-the-top in this performance, and it strikes me that Australians are awfully good at camp, whether it’s Baz Luhrmann, Muriel’s Wedding, or Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. How do you make “too far” seem “just right”?
Well, speaking of taking things too far: I guess there is the fact that we live too far away, so maybe we’re good at knowing how to handle far. [Laughs.]

It could be that.
I think, generally, Australians have a good sense of humor, and I think that we’re also not afraid to take the piss out of ourselves, so you’ve got to be able to laugh at yourself on some level to be able to attempt some of that stuff. It’s funny … I certainly don’t want to be derogatory to any of these actors, because I think they’re all great actors, but I remember watching To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, which came hot on the heels of Priscilla, and it clearly was a kind of, shall we say, homage to Priscilla. I mean, John Leguizamo was great, and Wesley Snipes wasn’t bad, but I generally felt like I could see the actors subconsciously saying, I’m not really like this, I’m not really like this, I’m not really like thisI think Australians feel like we’ve got nothing to lose, so we’re happy to try all sorts of things and fall over and sort of make fools of ourselves.

How did you come up with the look for this character? He’s so effete, with his shaved-off eyebrows and the whittled off temples and hair-part.
[Screenwriter] Nick Cave made it very clear that he wanted Rex to be someone who’s full of vanity, someone who’s full of anger, someone who’s full of judgment and a real disdain for lowly folk who live in the dirt out in the country. But I guess I then just sort of took it a step further and started bringing in ideas like, “Perhaps he’s shaved his eyebrows off because he really doesn’t want extraneous hair on his face.” And, in fact, our hairdresser had the idea of shaving the sideburns right up above my ears. We looked at some photographs of people from that period, and there was someone that had a really, super-wide part. And I just thought that would be fantastic, so we ended up shaving a really wide part into my hair. The impression that I got from the script was the he almost seemed like an alien to these boys when he turned up in this country town, so anything we could do to make him seem strange I think was important, you know?

He’s got a taste for exquisite gloves, even though he usually uses them to administer a bloody beatdown.
That’s right. It’s interesting that he can be extremely violent, but at the same time, have very particular taste in terms of fashion. I guess it seems incongruous to us. We want our baddies to be sort of animalistic. We don’t want them to be refined.

Congratulations on your Emmy award for Mildred Pierce, by the way.
Ah, look, I have to say it was a real treat. I was very excited to even be nominated, and firstly, I was very excited to even be in it. And the work was hard, and everything I said on the podium was true about owing it all to Todd [Haynes] and Kate [Winslet], really, because they’re so inspirational, the pair of them. The job itself was just one of the most divine jobs I’ve ever gotten to do. And then to top it off with an Emmy was really one of the most exciting moments in my life, I must admit. I felt very bad for Todd and for the show that it didn’t pick up any more awards than the couple that we did get, because I actually think Todd’s work is just astounding, so I was very surprised that it lost out to Downton Abbey. But on a personal level, I’ve never won an award in my life, so it was very exciting.

Let’s talk briefly about Prometheus. You put on a lot of makeup to play an old man in that, Peter Weyland, but Ridley Scott cast you because, originally, there was one scene when Weyland was supposed to appear as a young man. Did you actually shoot that?
No, we didn’t end up shooting it. We got close to shooting it, and as we got closer, Ridley just started to see it as something that would just be a little distracting, almost. And funnily enough, there was this sort of marketing idea from the outset that we would do Peter Weyland giving this TED lecture, and it was kind of funny that that ended up taking precedence over what was in the movie. So, yeah, I guess in the end, they could have cast an older actor.

Although, it’s kind of a novel thing. It reminds me of Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously, where she played a man.
And look, it was a great honor. I’ve been really lucky in the last few years, and it was a great honor to work with Ridley, and to play such an extreme character as well. It’s a really difficult thing to try and pull off playing someone who’s that old, not just on a performance level but on a physical level, since you’re trying to make that makeup look as real as possible. Those guys do an incredible job. It’s just one of those things: It’s either going to work or it’s not going to work. And I still don’t really know whether it did or not. It’s hard to say. It’s hard to be objective about it.

You’ve got Iron Man 3 coming out next year. You turned down Daredevil back in the day, and you’ve said that comic-book stuff isn’t necessarily your cup of tea, so what was different about this film that made you want to say yes?
The thing about Daredevil was that it was the role of Daredevil [that I didn’t want to do]. Certainly in those days … it was ten years ago. I’ve probably loosened up, and I feel a little more experimental in what I’ll take on these days, but I still don’t know that I would want to play the superhero myself, since I’m playing a different kind of character in this film. And I think that, based on the first two movies, there’s a great chemistry between Robert [Downey Jr.] and Gwyneth [Paltrow], and I just think the films have a fun, joyful sort of quality about them. I’ve just enjoyed them. So I just felt like I wanted to be a part of this.

You’ve been in some great big tentpoles lately. How is the experience of filming them different than when you starred in 2002’s The Time Machine?
The main difference was that, when I did The Time Machine, I was pretty much in all of it, so it was a really grueling experience. Prometheus and Iron Man are really kind of cameo stuff, so the experience of shooting them … I mean, on some level, it’s tricky because you feel like a bit of an outsider. You don’t really live the experience that you do when you’re there all day every day with everybody. But at the same time, it can be more fun sometimes because you’re just working in concentrated spurts.

It’s like being the uncle instead of the parent: You get to go in, and you get to have fun with the baby, then you get to leave and let someone else take care of it.
That’s right. That’s exactly the way to look at it.

Guy Pearce on Lawless, Prometheus, and Camp