Guy Pearce can do swagger (Iron Man 3, The King’s Speech), he can do slimy (Lawless), he can do hard-nosed (L.A. Confidential, Animal Kingdom), he can do unhinged (Memento, The Road), he can do heroic (Lockout, The Time Machine), he can do fabulous (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert). Whatever adjective he’s personifying onscreen, there’s rarely a trace of “Guy Pearce” to be found.
In his new movie, The Rover, a postapocalyptic drama that reteams the actor with Animal Kingdom director David Michôd, Pearce plays Eric, a grizzled silent-type determined to retrieve his car from a thieving trio. The reasons are murky — it’s ten years after a global “collapse” and having a car to roam the Australian dust bowl certainly looks like a perk — and Michôd relies on the brunt force of Pearce’s conviction to propel the brooding chase along. Pairing Eric with a Boo Radley–like Southerner (played by Robert Pattinson) only complicates the matter. Pearce spoke with Vulture about the enigmatic Rover and talking about movies with Pattinson (minus Twilight).
The Rover holds its cards close to its chest. We don’t know much about your character, Eric, why he’s motivated to get his car back, or what’s turned Australia into a postapocalyptic wasteland. Did David fill you in on details that weren’t on the page or is that not vital for what you do onscreen?
You need to be on the same page when you make something so that you’re in the right movie. Everything you’re thinking suits the film that the director’s going to make. The interesting thing about this is the character’s depleted by the time we find him at the beginning of the film. A lot’s happened offscreen, but a lot of who he was is not there. He’s given up. At the start of the film, he wants to kill himself. He’s reached the end of the line. So reading it, it was difficult to understand who this man was. Therefore it was difficult to play this man. David and I had to have a number of discussions for me to get a sense of if he was a moral man or a man of scruples. Who he used to be.
Is having the room to carve out a backstory a gift?
Certainly not. It’s a hurdle.
Because he could be anyone.
I don’t want to play anyone. I want to play the character.
Was it difficult to figure out if you could play this character?
There were a lot of discussions. We had so many conversations about the film, the start of the film, what he wanted to make. I think I always knew I was going to say yes. Even though I said no a couple of times at first — I was in the middle of a couple of other jobs and I was fairly burnt out. I wasn’t going to say yes easily. But in the back of my mind, I wanted to say yes because it was David and a lead role and an interesting film. I was prepared to do the work with David to the point where I could say yes. Had it been another director, a lesser director, I might have said, “There isn’t enough character here, so I don’t know if I can say yes.”
What ideas did you and David bottle up inside Eric?
David’s a poetic guy and a sensitive guy. He really responded to the way the world responded to the financial crisis of 2008. I think a lot of what happened, as well as a number of events, made him question what the world was all about and the way some countries dealt with the financial crisis better than others. Australia was one of the only Western countries in the world that didn’t go into recession because of this amazing mining industry we have and this massive market that’s in China. It was really easy for David to see that Australia could end up being this resource-rich, third-world country. When all the other Western countries collapse because of the financial crisis, people from around the world would flock to Australia because of the mining industry.
Does the harsh setting of this movie help this all sink into your character?
Compared to other parts of the country, it’s probably one of the safest. It’s a tourist spot. The Flinders Ranges is well traveled. It’s not like Winton where we shot The Proposition.
I was about to ask about The Proposition as it’s one of my favorite movies …
My favorite movie. Of the 43 films I’ve done that’s by far my favorite.
Do you see that film and The Rover commenting on similar themes? They’re both grimy as hell and exude danger.
I guess so. It’s easy to say that because they look the same. I look a bit the same [in them]. I can see that to a degree. I really wanted to make sure it wasn’t just the same.
Were you worried about that?
I wasn’t worried, but I’m careful. If I see anything similar I have to question why it’s similar, whether there’s any concern or reason to avoid it.
Both The Rover and The Proposition are Australian films. Do you have a passion for making films in your home country? So many actors uproot and never look back.
It’s not an umbrella feeling. I’ve certainly done films at home that haven’t worked as well. And I read scripts for Australian films I haven’t done because I didn’t think they were good enough. But I think expressing yourself through the culture that you know is obviously more meaningful on some level than going and telling some story in some faraway place that you learn about in a quick process. As opposed to slowly absorbing elements of the Australian culture I grew up with. The Proposition, I just love everything about it — everyone’s performances and the look of the film. I love L.A. Confidential as well.
People don’t talk enough about L.A. Confidential. They did for a few years after it came out, but we should be talking about it more today.
I think they talk about it more than they used to! I’ll have a lot of people come up to me and say, “God, it really was better than Titanic, wasn’t it?” And I’ll say, “Well, I knew at the time.” Finally everyone’s are realizing that [L.A. Confidential] is the classic and with Titanic, everyone was just thrilled by the visual effects.
You spend a large portion of the movie roughing up Robert Pattinson’s character, Rey. What does it take to get that physical with another actor?
It takes a great script and an understanding of what you’re doing. You sense the respect for each other and the you sense the other actor’s respect for the script. If you’re both heading in the same direction, then off you go.
I assume bonding and casual conversation plays a part in building that rapport. Because they’re a major part of your life, does in-between-take chatter often revolve around your movies for you?
It’s interesting talking to other actors about movies because they’ve either been in some of them or you’ve been in some of them or they know someone who’s been in some of them. It’s interesting to hear, not behind-the-scenes kind of stuff, but people’s takes on movies. I go through periods where I don’t watch films for a long time.
Because you lose a taste for them?
I just get sick of them. Your whole life is that.
So had you seen Twilight?
Had you seen Rob in anything?
I had seen Water for Elephants, which I thought was lovely. He’s great in it. He’s such a movie star. He’s got an amazing face. He’s an interesting and unusual entity. Smart, sensitive — he doesn’t have the same kind of anxieties [as other actors].
Did you and Rob talk movies? He seems to be a film buff.
To a degree. We’re both music fans as well.
What’s your shared musical ground?
I’m not sure if we have anything in common. He has different tastes than mine.
What are yours?
Anything from Mozart to Ella Fitzgerald to Jeff Buckley to Radiohead.
Do you sing or play?
A little bit. Every ten years I sing. I sang in my first film in 1988. In Heaven Tonight, I played the son of a rock singer who was a budding rock singer himself who also sings himself. In ‘98, I sang in A Slipping-Down Life. Then in 2008, I sang a silly song in Adam Sandler’s Bedtime Stories.
So in 2018 …
I’ll have to try and get it organized.