In the best performance last year not to be nominated for an Oscar, Guy Pearce plays a man who can't remember anything that happened to him more than five minutes before. And since Memento unspools backward, nor can the audience as they seek to follow Leonard Shelby's desperate struggle to get from moment to moment with reminder notes scribbled on Polaroids or tattooed on his body-and seek vengeance for his wife's murder.
If Pearce's recent screen career played out like Memento, it would read something like this: dark goatee, love scenes with Helena Bonham Carter, could be the Aussie indie flick Till Human Voices Wake Us, due in June; foppish hair, sword fighting, has to be The Count of Monte Cristo, April 25; long hair, big budget, must be the remake of The Time Machine, April 4. "We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are-I'm no different," says Leonard Shelby. "Now where was I?"
Guy Pearce is a bit like that. He doesn't dwell too much on the past or second-guess the future. He prefers to stay truly in the moment. Right now he's starring in the Melbourne Theatre Company revival of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth-and seizing the moment to hone his stage skills and recharge his batteries before The Time Machine's publicity juggernaut lifts off in the U.S. next month. "I don't see a busy film career as the be-all and end-all," says the 34-year-old actor, who was born in Cambridge, England, and raised in Geelong, Australia. "I tend to feel rather vacuous after I've done a job or two jobs or three jobs, and I really need to just get home and settle and start being creative again."
In Sweet Bird of Youth, Pearce plays Southern grifter Chance Wayne, a former golden boy who revisits his hometown of St. Cloud as the consort of ageing movie star Alexandra Del Lago (Wendy Hughes). But having previously despoiled the local politician's daughter, castration is his brightest career prospect. Tanned, pinch-waisted and bottle-blond, Pearce's Wayne talks and moves around the stage in a tranquilized fog-"something slightly broken," says director Kate Cherry. Yet Pearce invests his victim of the American Dream with sardonic sweetness and, finally, dignity. "Guy's able to do that because he's not a person who has swallowed that idea [of celebrity] whole," says Cherry. "You always feel when you're in the rehearsal room with him that you're in the rehearsal room with an actor, not a celebrity."
The down-to-earth Pearce has experienced life as both. As mullet-haired orphan Mike Young in the soap opera Neighbours, he was caught up in the hype and hoopla of the show's late-'80s heyday with Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue. For years he struggled to shrug off the teen-idol tag, appearing in British pantomimes and on the Australian stage in Grease. Then along came The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). The film's director Stephan Elliott, "did an incredible job," recalls Pearce. "He just unlocked something for people in regard to their prejudices and their ability to be slightly more open-minded about people who we consider to be different, whether they're drag queens or black people or handicapped people." Or, for that matter, Guy Pearce.
As tart-tongued cross-dresser Adam/ Felicia, he raised his natural baritone an octave or two, showed off his newly buff body in Versace rip-offs, and planted in the public mind an image every bit as iconic as that of Neighbours' Ramsay Street: astride a bus careering through the Outback, he became the silver-streaming goddess of drag. Along the way, Pearce also proved "his particular power as an actor," recalls the movie's producer, Al Clark, "which is his capacity for self-transformation." As one of the film's Oscar-winning costume designers, Tim Chappel quipped at the time: "He went from kissing Kylie when she was Charlene to being Charlene-being Charlene singing, ‘I've Never Been to Me.' "
It's been difficult to sight the real Guy Pearce since. As the prissy detective-lieutenant Edward Exley in Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential (1997), he is cold-blooded calculation stripped bare, the id to offsider Russell Crowe's raging ego. (As Anthony Lane noted in the New Yorker, "there is a constant battle for finesse between Exley's sense of morality and his cheekbones.") In Memento (2001), he is a physical and psychic tabula rasa, more acted upon than acting. Even with his ridiculous bouffant hair in the Hollywood soufflé The Count of Monte Cristo, he suggests a villain with issues beneath the surface. When asked to explain the betrayal of his childhood friend and hero of the piece, Pearce's Mondego replies, "It's complicated." With feeling.
"I would liken him at his best to someone who turns on the headlights in the dark and then starts to navigate," says producer Clark, who reunites with Pearce in the upcoming Australian crime caper The Hard Word. "No detail is too small for him to consider unworthy of attention. No question goes unasked or unanswered. It's a capacity for concentration which I haven't seen equalled."
In preparation for Priscilla, Pearce and his fellow cast members famously took to the streets of Sydney in drag. "Guy was scandalous," recalls Clark. "If the nightclubs we visited were a pool, he dived right in." For Memento, the former Mr. Junior Victoria bodybuilder honed his physique with a combination of sit-ups, push-ups and yoga. And filming The Time Machine last year-in which he plays inventor Alexander Hartdegen, who travels 800,000 years into the future-Pearce tore a muscle and cracked a rib during a fight scene. "It was one of the most grueling things I've done, like Memento fourfold," he says of the 95-day shoot, which saw director Simon Wells take time out for exhaustion. "You know you've been on a film too long when you've broken your ribs and they've healed before the film's even finished."
These days, as Tennessee Williams' spiritually broken Chance Wayne, he's looking more fragile. Each night on stage, the normally non-smoking Pearce puffs through six or seven cigarettes and, to keep his dissolute antihero suitably thin, is watching what he eats. At a restaurant for a recent pre-show dinner, Pearce orders an appetizer serve of salmon salad. "How big is it?" he asks the waiter.
Out of character, "he's a grounded person," assures Clark, "which is a great asset when he has to take so many tightrope walks." On arriving in Los Angeles to film L.A. Confidential, for instance, one of the first things the actor did was study the city's bus routes. Hardly Crowe material. "I find communicating with people in Hollywood is tricky, it's hard work," Pearce admits, "and I can't help but notice that there is a slightly obscure agenda going on. It's challenging in a dirty kind of way."
A well balanced home life in Melbourne seems the perfect antidote. There's his wife of four years, Kate, an African hunting dog called Zelda, and a passion for piano, sax and guitar. Once his promotional duties finish later this year, Pearce would like nothing more than to sit in a classroom and study music. And chill. "He's very mellow," says Michael Petroni, writer-director of the upcoming Till Human Voices Wake Us.
Yet each night on stage, when he sounds Chance Wayne's heartfelt lament, the actor can take your breath away with his character's urgency and pain: "I don't ask for your pity…" says this not so sweet bird of youth, "just for your recognition of me in you, and the enemy, time, in us all." Dropping into the moment, as he does here so effortlessly, and letting it riff, is Pearce's own way of staving off time. "It's what us as human beings would be better off doing rather than dwelling so much on the past or fantasizing about the future," says Pearce. "We'd all be better off if we focused on the present moment, you know." As with Memento's Leonard Shelby, his time is now.
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