Guy Pearce: He's come a long way since 'Neighbours'

Guy Pearce's latest film, 'The Proposition', is being hailed as a masterpiece. But strangely, as Guy Pearce tells Craig MacLean, it's a fear of fame that lies behind his success

Drinking a pink drink and wearing chipped nail varnish, Guy Pearce pronounces himself with a laugh the "girliest guy that I know. Other than all the poofs that I know I suppose! It's a funny thing."

In a way, it's a sad thing, too. The Australian actor ascribes his troubled sense of masculinity to the fact that his dad, a test pilot, died when he was eight. He was raised in a largely female environment. "Just growing up with mum and my sister, I'm very comfortable around women. I feel like I'm aware of how to be sensitive towards a woman, and of what's gonna piss 'em off."

There were few male role-models in his life. The men he did encounter were "unpredictable. Some of them are arrogant bastards and some are intellectual snobs..."

The confusion seems to have lasted well into adulthood. "Every now and then you'd meet one" - he says "one" as if men were an alien species - "like [director] Curtis Hanson who you could tell was a sensitive guy and would take care of you. Not in a mollycoddling way, but more like, 'come on, walk with me...' "

But yes, it is a funny thing. Not just because the Australian actor is rangy, muscled and forever burnt on to a certain age-group's collective consciousness as Hunky Mike in Neighbours. Or more recently as jut-jawed cop hero Ed Exley in Hanson's superlative LA Confidential.

It's also funny because in his new film, The Proposition - written by punk-tyro-turned-renaissance-man Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat (Ghosts... of the Civil Dead) - Pearce plays an Irish outlaw in 19th-century Australia, one of a wild bunch of raping 'n' pillaging brothers. He's far from the most violent member of the Burns Gang. But the fiery intensity with which Pearce plays man-of-few-words Charlie Burns fries up the screen as unrelentingly as the scorching outback sun. The film reeks of testosterone, and the evil that men do. For a self-confessed girly-bloke, it's some performance.

In a hotel room in Los Angeles, Guy Pearce pours himself a vodka and pink lemonade, another one, and talks about the film, which he was attached to for "a couple of years" before the budget was secured.

"I'd put it on the shelf," the 38-year-old actor says of The Proposition script. "I don't like to get too caught up in films too early on." Otherwise, he says, he feels like he's "done" his character already.

When he arrives on a set, Guy Pearce wants to be fresh, and kind of raw, and ready for action. To play a ragged, starved, beaten-up Irish bandit tasked with betraying his psychopathic older brother in order to save his teenage brother from a Christmas Day hanging - and do this in the unforgivingly harsh landscape of the Australian desert - Pearce had to be seriously on top of his game.

And he was. This is the actor who managed the gobsmacking transition from Neighbours to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, from LA Confidential to Chris Nolan's dazzling amnesiac thriller Memento. But Cave's visceral story, and Hillcoat's intense dramatisation, provide a dizzying new high in Pearce's zig-zagging career.

"For a fictional tale it's quite real?" chuckles Pearce. "There's been lots of bushrangers stories done at home but they're always about Ned Kelly or the like. This feels like the first one where you go, woah! This is how it was."

The Proposition is a potent, pungent, powerful film. It opens with the murder of settlers and a terrific shoot out. It cuts to a tethered and feral-looking Charlie Burns being interrogated by Ray Winstone's policeman Captain Stanley, who's left a comfortable existence in Victorian England to enforce Her Majesty's law and order in the Empire's furthest and wildest frontier.

You don't so much watch The Proposition as wade through its treacly expanse. It's set in an Australia we've never seen before: a sunbaked, bleached- white, dust-caked, flyblown hellhole, populated by hardscrabble Victorian colonists, savage coppers, brutalised Aborigines and murderous gangsters like the Burns gang. The film sets the meditative pacing of Pale Rider in a breathtaking but brain-frying Mad Max landscape, with extra stinkiness. Once Upon A Time Down Under, if you like.

Guy Pearce was born in Ely, Cambridgeshire, but moved to Australia when he was three. He's a proud Aussie, and still lives in Geelong, outside Melbourne, where he grew up. As soon as this week's work commitments in LA are over, he and his wife Kate are heading straight back home.

Hollywood has never been his thing - his celebrity-phobia, or fame-fear, in part stems from Neighbours and experiencing pop-star levels of fanaticism in Britain in the late Eighties. It sat ill with him. But he's a trouper, and pushes on, and past, the problems: the misfiring low-budget movies, the soft-focus TV dramas (Guy Pearce as well-pressed frontiersman The Man From Snowy River). Even the post-Neighbours stints in panto in Preston and Oxford. "I was Dandini in Cinderella!" he says proudly.

He prefers independent films, and films that don't quite confer, or require, leading-man status. In 2001 and 2002 he made two big-budget films, The Count Of Monte Cristo (with Jim Caviezel) and The Time Machine (with, um, Samantha Mumba). Neither was a particularly enjoyable experience.

"Working on films where the money's more important than the creativity, I just get a bit freaked out by that. I just don't feel comfortable," he winces. "I feel like the headmaster's around."

All of which conspires to give Pearce a mild "reputation". He's on great form today, lounging in his and Kate's hotel room, relaxed and jokey and honest. Maybe it's the pink vodka, or the looming Qantas flight home. But his default mode in interviews is supposedly no-nonsense briskness, while he is apparently an actor who, as he gets older, manifests an ever-more-intense approach to his work. No job is taken lightly. (omega)

So, I ask him, was part of the appeal of The Proposition the fact that it takes a brutally realistic look at the building blocks of his adopted homeland?

"Look, it was," he says, conveying candour rather than chippiness, "But in all honesty my initial interest in any film on some level is whether the writing feels believable enough to spark my imagination, so you just end up riding the wave.

"Because it is such a weird thing being an actor, I have to say. It's strange, 'cause it comes from some level of survival as a kid and feeling like you've got to please everybody. I was always really aware of what was going on for other people. What was gonna piss other people off. So I was always really aware of the audience as such."

Pearce stretches out on the sofa. He's lean and grungily dressed, unshaven, with straggly hair - his preferred demeanour between jobs. When he's not filming, it's as if he de-evolves. Best to keep all the aesthetic effort for the roles.

"And so I haven't taken on acting as something that, say, other actors might have," he continues. "It feels to me like it's really ingrained. I can only do it if it feels very real. But, having said that, I definitely have a huge, sympathetic ear for the Aboriginal people in Australia. So I feel more interested in the history of the country now having done the film. I find that's a little bit the same on every film I work on. I sort of come away saying, 'Now I want to go away and study this subject.' "

He pauses to consider this, then takes another sip of his pink drink and grins.

"I feel like I'm a bit of a tosser most of the time 'cause I'm floating around going, 'I don't really know what I'm interested in,' until something smacks me in the face."

Pearce is a huge music fan, and an eager musician. And a "proper" one. During the Neighbours days, when Kylie, Jason, Craig McLachlan and even Stefan Dennis were all getting record deals, Pearce didn't. The songs he was writing were too "weird" and "obscure" to be corralled into Stock-Aitken-Waterman disco-pop.

"But remember Stefan's single 'Don't It Make You Feel Good?' " He sings me a quick, hilarious reminder. "That's my hands playing the saxophone in the video!"

There's a copy of Guitarist magazine on the table in between us, and he's spent his spare time in LA buying microphones. Kate Bush, Radiohead and Jeff Buckley are big loves. The chipped purple nail polish on one hand is "just a bit of colour", and to protect his picking fingers. He's just about to build a studio for himself at the bottom of his garden, wherein he can record his folk-rock-ish songs without fear of frightening the horses (or the neighbours). He owns a pub ("I only bought it 'cause a mate was stuck and needed some help"), a former dancehall called The Palais in Hepburn Springs, 90 minutes from Melbourne, and is proud of its reputation as a premium live venue. An upcoming show by Eddi Reader is one of the highlights on his calendar.

Little wonder that meeting and working with Cave was especially exciting.

"He really is an inspirational character. I was useless at school 'cause I was so fixated on what was going on for the teachers personally that I wasn't listening to x-plus-y over b-equals-whatever. And Nick to me feels the same way, in that he's not really sure necessarily of himself. But he's very aware of what's going on around him. And the by-product is that we read this wonderfully written stuff or listen to these songs. He's like a synapse, this nerve ending that's taking it all in." He sighs with a fan's appreciation. "It was so great to work with him."

Let's rewind a minute. Fixating on what teachers were feeling. Worrying about pleasing others. Where did those impulses come from?

"From a bunch of different things. But the most obvious thing is that dad died when I was really young."

Pearce's mother brought up Pearce and his older sister, Tracey, who is intellectually disabled, surrounded by "various relatives from the north of England". The cliché was true, he says: English stoicism ruled the day: "OK, well, carry on, no, don't cry...

"So you then start to operate on that frequency," recalls Pearce, sucking his teeth. "And there's a part of you that just wants to go, 'Why can't I cry? Why can't I be angry? Why is it not OK to smash someone's face in?' So I reckon it stemmed from that. People used to say to me when I was really young, 'Oh it's so great that you're such an adult and you're so mature and you can help your mother look after your sister.' It was that combination of not having a dad and having Tracey, where people didn't know what to say to mum and everyone was pretending everything was OK. And they'd be going about me, 'isn't he fabulous? Aren't we proud of him? And...' "

...and you weren't allowed to be yourself, I suggest. A little kid who had this emotional volcano bubbling inside.

"Absolutely. So you cultivate this whole thing of making sure that everyone else is alright. It's not till you become 30 or whatever that you go, why do I feel shit? What's going on? I started to realise it's actually important to start taking care of yourself.'

Has he thought more about all this since he's reached the age and stage - he and Kate have been married almost nine years - where he might be thinking about becoming a dad?

"No, 'cause I've no desire to be a dad at all."

Why not?

"I'd be too emotionally inconsistent. There's enough people in the world anyway!"

"Emotionally inconsistent?" I say. "I can't see that in you, albeit on the basis of a couple of hours' chat and some shared beer and vodka."

"Well, I definitely still have those moments where I go, 'I have to be on my own, I can't be giving to anybody at all.' I don't think it's fair to do that to a kid."

He's a complex bloke, Guy Pearce. A good man, not in any way arsey, but a puzzling one. Still and pleasant waters run very, very deep.

We spoke again, on the phone, earlier this month. He was back in Australia after a stint in New York, filming Factory Girl, the story of doomed Andy Warhol protégée Edie Sedgwick. He's Warhol, and Sienna Miller is Edie. It was on the Factory Girl set that Miller supposedly got up close and personal with co-star Hayden Christensen. But of course celeb-shy Pearce won't be chatting about that. Nor will the craftsman in him - he doesn't like talking about unfinished films - allow him to discuss rumours that for this latest transformative role he donned a prosthetic upper lip. But yes, there was a wig. And he's happy to deflect attention and big-up his co-star.

"Sienna was great," he says. "Very bright and very funny. She's perceptive and smart and would give anyone a run for the money. She's a major inspiration. It's definitely Edie's story, about the effect that Andy has on her, but more about her growth and her demise. Sienna was a breath of fresh air. I just adore her."

You might not recognise Pearce in The Proposition, underneath the matted hair, bloodied face and raggedy clothes. But you'll remember the performance, and marvel at how he fills the vast, blasted outback landscape on screen, even as he's surrounded by such sterling talents as Winstone, John Hurt, Danny Huston and Emily Watson.

And you won't have a clue about the actor in there. Which is just how he likes it. Guy Pearce never wanted to be famous.

"Because of my sister I'm more aware of the underdog. Of the person who's trying to struggle through with life," says this thoughtful, decent bloke. "I can't just blindly go, 'shine the light on me, hey!' I'm happy to boost my ego and do all that - but just hint at it. And do good work that goes along with it.

"Because I'm too aware also of the person who goes to me, 'You're actually shit, aren't you? You're only in this cause you've got high cheekbones!' "

Spoken like a true girly-guy.

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