"There's four biggies," says Geoffrey Rush, on the British monarchy. "There was Elizabeth I, George III, Victoria, and the current queen, who really dominated four eras."
The Australian actor has had his nose in the history books for the past two years, as he prepares to reprise the role of Sir Francis Walsingham in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, re-uniting him with Cate Blanchett, with whom he co-starred in 1998's Elizabeth.
Congratulate him on his excellent British accent, and Rush is modest: " I think it's lousy, personally. When I worked in the theatre there'd always be someone who was so naturally gifted, like Cate's got it. But as my voice coach keeps saying, if we actually spoke the way they imagine the Elizabethan voice might have been, we wouldn't be able to understand it."
Rush, 56, approaches his work with the joy and sheer enthusiasm of a man to whom success came later in life. At 45, he was a struggling stage actor, with just four small film credits, when he won a best actor Oscar for Shine, 11 years ago. Since then, he has been Oscar-nominated for Quills and Shakespeare in Love, and won a Bafta for Elizabeth and an Emmy for The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.
Thus assured of Hollywood immortality, Rush admits to having had his doubts when asked to film his death scene on the very first day of shooting The Golden Age. "Nobody ever said that growing old would be easy. Just having to hold the newspaper out in your forties and then hair growing out of unusual parts of your body in your fifties. It's tough on the ego," he says. "So it was another wake-up call when we shot my death on day one! I thought, 'Oh, say goodbye to the character, and I've barely got to know him.'"
The experience wasn't helped when a crew member suggested he check himself out at www.cinemorgue.com, a website devoted to cinematic deaths.
"I feature quite boldly on this site, because I'm the sort of actor who gets given characters who, you're 90 per cent certain, are going to get the chop. I mean, in Les Misérables, I slap on the handcuffs as Javert and throw myself into the Seine as suicide. I get a pick-axe in the head as Trotsky [Frida]. I die as Walsingham, but that's a spoiler. And I get shot at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean. Peter Sellers has a heart attack... I was going through them all, thinking: 'I die in almost every film I've been in'." He fails to mention the Marquis de Sade, in Quills; his total disintegration in Mystery Men; and House on Haunted Hill, where he is consumed by a supernatural force.
"There's something hovering over all my roles," he says. " They're more often than not characters in some sort of extreme circumstances and that inevitably means we're going to track this person through to their moment of death. And playing Walsingham's death scene was possibly the most disturbing, because I look like a husk in that scene. It does affect you."
Rush uses his late-life success to bring his family with him, travelling around the world to exotic locales. Never more so than with three months spent in the Bahamas, shooting Pirates. He has been married for 19 years to the actress Jane Menelaus, and they have two children, James, 12, and Angelica, 14. Menelaus has set aside her career. "She's committed to the stability of our lives, and keeping the kids having as normal a childhood as possible. We work meticulously at that."
The Golden Age introduced the family to the best of Britain's architectural heritage, including filming at Westminster Cathedral, Ely Cathedral, St John's College, Cambridge, and Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.
"My daughter was doing a project on medieval England at the time, and I told her: 'I'm going to take you on the best field trip that you'll ever get to go on.' So the whole family came on the trip, with tutors, and Angelica is now quite the expert on Norman and Gothic architecture," he says proudly.
"When we first travelled, we'd rent a house, but now we do hotels, which we've agreed works so much better because if we rent a house, then Jane's role becomes being an at-home person preparing meals and looking after kids. Most of the time they hang out on the set because we were in terribly interesting locations, especially with The Golden Age."
Does he regret that Shine didn't happen earlier? "I don't know. You can't re-write it, and I'm quite fatalistic. You do have to make conscious decisions about the direction you want to go in, even though its all unknown. I mean, I still don't know now what I'm doing next because nothing's been inked in and there are many ideas up in the air, but none of them go beyond next April. In late 2008, it could be that I retire, and the work dries up, or there might be something comes along.
"At the same time, I've consciously tried to strike a balance between opportunities of working in Australia; doing smaller films like Swimming Upstream, that everyone thought I would pass on but I read it, and I said, 'I grew up in Brisbane in the 1950s and I know these men.' And it was a great challenge for me to play a 'wharfie', a stevedore. That's not my normal terrain.
"And I've also had a taste of some of the biggest films a studio can get with the Pirates trilogy, which was extraordinary to be on. The scale of making that kind of film was enormous, and very exciting to witness."
It has been nine years since the original Elizabeth, and Rush has been privy to various drafts of the sequel: "The opening of the film was to have been the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, which was a very significant event of that period – but the budget defeated it because it would have been very expensive to do. At the end of the first Elizabeth film, my work is technically almost done. I always say that Walsingham was the makeover man and, as history tells us, he was a serious architect behind almost her entire reign apart from the last 10 years of her life, which involved Essex and Shakespeare and all that sort of stuff.
"So before The Golden Age, we've already seen Walsingham with all of his spiritual guidance, his political acumen, his philosophical background. He's mentored this young woman who's pretty ill-prepared to take on the throne of a country that, at that stage, is relatively small and not a big power-player in Europe, but by the end of the reign, it's the beginnings of an empire that then goes on for another 350 years or more.
"But you certainly get a feel when you re-meet Elizabeth and Walsingham that this is like an administration where you think, 'What if Bush and Condoleezza Rice had been a team for 25 years in an administration? What happens to that?' If you do speculate on those things, it's like her reign is almost the equivalent of having had one president since the Korean War. That's three or four generations," he muses.
"It's amazing to watch Cate portray how Elizabeth's reign sucks all of the humanity out of her, so that she's now become this divine, immortal being.
"If there's any resonances with the contemporary experience, I think its what we've witnessed, and certainly in my generation, of how corporatised and how globalised our lives have become, which I think has diminished the potential of the mystery of being human – that somehow that is suppressed in the way that it doesn't get to flourish because there are parameters. You see it with new technology; it's shaping young people's minds in a way that's, not always negative, but it's certainly not helping."
It's a subject he might happily debate into the wee hours with his old pal Mel Gibson, although Rush admits the two men rarely see one another.
"The most freaky occurrence was when I won the Oscar for Shine, and he happened to be presenting the Best Director, because he'd won for Braveheart the year before. And, so, feeling like an absolutely new boy on the block at that time in my career, it just seemed strange and freaky that, as I'm leaving the stage, I'm passing an old mate. You know what I mean? Of all the gin joints, in all the world..."
'Elizabeth: The Golden Age' opens on 2 NovemberReuse content