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Once a painfully shy little boy, Guy Pearce has transformed himself into one of Australia’s finest – and most in-demand – character actors. By Fenella Souter.

Pearce’s finest role as acting’s go-to guy

Guy Pearce stars in The Rover.
Credit: ROADSHOW FILMS

Fifteen minutes or so into David Michôd’s new film The Rover, with Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson, we are given a measure of Pearce’s character, Eric, “a cold and angry drifter”. A tattooed dwarf selling guns tells Eric he can either pay $US300 for a weapon or he can “fuck off”. Eric doesn’t have $US300. He solves the cash-flow problem by blowing the dwarf’s head off. At least he knows the gun works. 

If members of the audience are wondering why the gun salesman is a tattooed dwarf living in the outback among Asian acrobats and what appear to be rent boys; or why US dollars remain the sought-after currency in this post-apocalyptic world, 10 years after a Western economic collapse; or why the Robert Pattinson character is a dim-witted, white-trash American Southerner who can speak Mandarin; or even how the madam (Gillian Jones) manages a spotless white blouse amid the dystopian grime… they are left to wonder. 

The Rover doesn’t supply answers. It runs on atmosphere. It’s a bleached, man-eat-dog dreamscape where meaning, along with money, has drained away and sweaty men with beards and no backstory shoot at one another. Filmed in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, the road movie is Michôd’s minimalist follow-up to the spectacular Animal Kingdom, which also featured Pearce.

Cold, angry drifters, as we know, are men of few words. It means the actor has to rely on lines such as “I want my car back” and “I need a gun” and something resembling an expository paragraph in the middle of the film. He must squeeze every drop from a blue-eyed glare.

Because it is Guy Pearce, it is a superior class of glare. The actor who, at 46, has racked up more than 50 films and TV credits – from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and LA Confidential, to Memento and Iron Man 3 – is always superior, even when some of the films he has appeared in are not, and he has made some odd choices. In the heartless world of the net, there’s even a list devoted to “11 Crappiest Movies of Guy Pearce’s Career“ (at least he doesn’t make it onto “10 Mega Stars Who Are Secretly Horrible People” or “15 Celebs Who Are Completely Washed Up”). Some of his previous roles hint at a man who can’t say no, or doesn’t quite believe in his own worth. 

In the looming space of a studio in the Sydney Theatre Company where we meet, two black vinyl chairs share lonely centre position next to a giant Rover poster featuring Pearce and Pattinson. Pearce glances at it as he sits down and still seems a little shocked by his appearance, as if he has just been shown the future. In the film, he is aged by a wiry beard, scrawny greying hair and a desert-baked face. He could be an Old Testament prophet or an old drunk, even if the khaki shorts above muscled calves are more suggestive of a Leyland Brother gone rogue. 

On this chilly Friday afternoon, however, the real Guy Pearce is back. A handsome, middle-aged man; fine-haired, high-templed and with that boxy bone structure that looks as if he might have been eating scaffolding. He wears runners, black jeans, a dark grey T-shirt and black shirt. A pair of fine horn-rimmed glasses set on his pale, carved features gives him the look of an aesthete, or an actor relying on the prop for “brainy”. They are, however, real.

Pearce doesn’t strike you as a vain man (recall his shaved eyebrows in Lawless) but acting is one of the few jobs where staring at yourself in the mirror for long periods qualifies as professional development. It’s part of Pearce’s entry into a character, he agrees. “I’ll certainly sit in front of it and go, ‘Well, if I pluck those hairs out …
and what if I colour this in and do that?’ But it’s more about creativity than about ego.” 

Then it’s time to stop. “There comes a point where I can’t look in the mirror because it’s Guy looking for the character, as opposed to me allowing that character to inhabit this physical form. 

“It’s like putting the script down. At a certain point you have to go, I now need to own these words. I now need to own this walk. I need to own this voice rather than” – he puts on a quavering falsetto – “trying to find it and doing experiments.” 

Whatever he is doing, it’s working. Pearce’s great gift is the way he can utterly inhabit a role. It has made him a remarkable character actor, although being able to erase himself like that may go some way to explaining why he is not a star in the way, say, the bustlingly charismatic Russell Crowe is a star. Then again, he’s never shown much real interest in fame. 

Pearce has spent the day giving interviews. “Only 12 today,” he says, genially. “It’s not like when you do a junket in the States and you sit in a hotel room from 9 in the morning until 6 at night and every five minutes they bring someone else in.”

If he is weary of answering the same questions, he doesn’t let it show. The chatty, confident manner seems effortless, but then, as Laurence Olivier once said, “Scratch an actor and you find an actor.” 

It wouldn’t be a stretch for Pearce to play a chatty, confident actor giving interviews, so there’s no way of knowing if this is a performance he has perfected, or testament to 12 years of therapy, or just adulthood. Certainly this man does a convincing job of hiding any sign of the shy, awkward person Guy Pearce insists he once was – a bit of a mess, really, for much of his childhood and early adult life, complete with 24/7 marijuana habit and self-doubt.

“I was completely socially anxious,” he says. “I was kind of constantly unhinged. I felt dumber than everybody. I didn’t feel funny. I felt I had no sense of identity. I was just intimidated by everybody.”

So you weren’t in the “popular” group at school?

“I wasn’t in any group,” he says, with a laugh. “I kept away from groups. I loved being on my own and I still do. But I’m much better at handling it now than I used to be.”

His solution to shyness, at eight years old, was to join drama groups and go on stage. His mother had often taken him to the theatre.

“Looking at people on stage getting to be confident,” he says, “getting to speak and be articulate and eloquent and look like they knew what they were doing … that was extremely appealing to me.”

It’s not so unusual, he says. “You’d be surprised how many actors are shy. There’s a common assumption that it’s the loud class clown who goes on to become the actor, when, in fact, people like Cate Blanchett, all these wonderful actors out there, are quiet, thoughtful, sensitive, shy people who are really great at transforming. I totally get that.”

Plagued by anxiety

There was a reason eight years of age was a critical point. It was when his father, a test pilot, was killed in a plane crash. Guy remembers coming home from school and seeing relatives gathered there. His mother took him aside and broke the news. The family had come to Geelong from Cambridge when Guy was three and now consisted of him, his mother and his intellectually disabled sister,  who was two years older. He brushes over the loss, but over the years he has talked of how it left him nervy and anxious and led to an overdeveloped sense of responsibility at an early age. For a long while, too, his sister’s situation made him ashamed to bask in his own successes. 

He also took up body-building in his teens. “It was probably part of trying to look like I had some sort of identity,” he says. “I was a skinny kid. I didn’t do a lot of team sports stuff because, again, I found the whole big-group situation intimidating. At the gym, you could do stuff on your own.” 

And it suited his obsessive streak. At 15, he won the Junior Mr Melbourne title. His build is normal now but photos show his weight veering wildly. At times he has looked almost anorexic, but he can also beef up for action movies such as Lockout, where he played a wronged CIA agent who has to rescue the president’s daughter from villains in outer space (yes, it’s on the list of 11), or Iron Man 3.

At 17, he was cast as Mike Young in Neighbours. At a G’Day USA event honouring Pearce in 2012, Kate Winslet confessed that, as a schoolgirl, she was so in love with Mike that she used to fake illness to stay home and watch double episodes of Neighbours. “Thank God I didn’t know you were in Home and Away as well or I never would have got a fucking education,” she joked.

Pearce appeared opposite Winslet in the mini-series remake of Mildred Pierce and won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Mini-series or a Movie.

The central Kate in his life, however, is his wife of 17 years, Kate Mestitz, a clear-eyed and now seriously tattooed psychologist and social worker. 

“We met when we were 12,” Pearce says. “I adored her. Absolutely adored her. We went out for a little minute back then. I think we held hands a few times. Then she dropped me for the spunky boy at school.

“We finished school in 1985 and then didn’t see each other for 10 years. We were sort of close but not overly. She was with cooler people.” 

Destiny, or St Kilda, brought them together again. “We just started dating. I couldn’t believe it because I’d had her on a pedestal for all these years, so I had to do a bit of work to get her off the pedestal … I mean, she’s still on it, of course.” 

In Los Angeles, mention of their long partnership is like producing a dodo’s egg.

“People in Hollywood go, ‘So how long have you two been married?’ ” Pearce says, “and we go, ‘Seventeen years’ and it’s like, ‘Oh … my … God! Really!?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah’, and they’re like, ‘Wow!’ They find it astounding. Four years seems to be the Hollywood marriage.”

Pearce credits Mestitz with grounding him. She was supportive, he says, during the dark month of the soul he faced in 2001, worn out after the dream run of LA Confidential, Memento, Rules of Engagement, etc. 

“As an actor, when you have time off between jobs, you just go, ‘Shit, I’m unemployed, I’ve got to find some work.’ You don’t realise the value of that time you have off – regrouping, finding the energy for the next thing. 

“So when you reach that fortunate position of being able to work and then have, oooh, another job and, oooh, another one, suddenly those gaps don’t exist and you exhaust yourself.”

Pearce had also been smoking pot “all day, every day”, for 10 years, as well as indulging in any other drugs that came his way. It probably wasn’t helping with the mood swings. 

“I just found myself being so irritable and on every job I was on, everybody gave me the shits, and I’d get to the next job and everybody would give me the shits. I was finding acting really difficult. I was like, ‘I’ve so got to sort this out.’” 

He lit out for Cape Leveque, north of Broome in Western Australia, where he stayed alone for a month in “a bark hut on a beach with a concrete floor and a fridge” and a collection of books on Buddhism, rather predictably; no one ever seems to become a Christadelphian or a Muggletonian in a crisis. He meditated, cut back on the weed – and now doesn’t smoke it at all – and decided he wanted to keep acting. 

Aside from The Rover, playing raffish criminal lawyer Jack Irish, in the television movies of the same name, has allowed him to stay in Australia. The telemovies, based on the Peter Temple novels, have been a hit, although Pearce has had to win over the doubters.

“There are some serious Peter Temple fans out there. I’ve had a few people come up to me and go, ‘You? Jack Irish? Fuck off,’ ” he says, laughing. “Even a very good friend of mine went, ‘Nah, nah, that’s not going to work. You’re too young, you’re too thin, you don’t look like you’ve drunk enough. Nah, you’re not Jack. It should be Jack Thompson. That’s who should be Jack Irish.’ I was like, Oh God. But even he has come around, sort of.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 14, 2014 as "The go-to guy". Subscribe here.

Fenella Souter
is a Sydney-based feature writer.