Guy Pearce has been one of the screen’s most consistently compelling actors ever since his major breakout roles in 1994’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and 1997’s L.A. Confidential. He has managed to shift easily between leading roles and character parts, both in larger films and quirkier, smaller ones, and his resume includes the period horror/comedy Ravenous (1999), Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), the brutal Western The Proposition (2005), Best Picture winner The King’s Speech (2010), and last year’s Iron Man 3, in which he played nemesis Aldrich Killian.
In The Rover, Pearce is Eric, a man whose disheveled appearance, brooding presence and thousand-yard stare define life in the 10 years since “the Collapse,” an unspecified event that has brought civilization to its knees in Australia and presumably elsewhere. Eric exists in a kind of ennui that is broken by the theft of his car — and his implacable pursuit of the men who took it brings him into contact with Rey (Robert Pattinson), a simpleton with whom Eric strikes up an unlikely and co-dependent relationship.
Animal Kingdom director David Michod’s post-Collapse world is unyieldingly harsh and bleak, and Pearce’s Eric is a man who has had almost all his humanity and compassion stripped away — but not all. There are moments in The Rover where emotions surface on Pearce’s face like gathering storm clouds, making Eric one of the most oddly moving anti-heroes in recent memory. We had a chance to talk with Pearce about the part, working with Pattinson, and shooting in the tough Australian desert.
Den Of Geek: Congratulations on your tremendous work in this film. It plays almost like a tone poem.
Guy Pearce: Yeah, it’s a pretty interesting piece. It’s a funny one because it’s one of those ones that is almost difficult for me to get my head around too, because I think the effect of the movie goes much deeper than what’s there on the screen, and it’s hard to be objective about that stuff when you’re in a movie. You often deal with the sort of literal stuff. I mean obviously you’re talking about the big ideas and how you want an audience to be affected and what you want them to think about, but the work that I do, the actual work is about just being convincing in the character that I’m playing. So it is an interesting one because there’s not a lot offered up as far as who the character is.
But David and I had some work to do before we started shooting for me to understand not only who the character was now as we see him in the movie but who he used to be before he went through the experience that he’s been through. And I think as an audience member when you’re not sort of spoon-fed everything, every detail and every kind of reason behind everything in every sort of aspect of a character, (it’s) like reading a great book where you have to use your imagination. So it’s an odd one, I think, because you don’t know how audiences are sort of responding to it. Even if people say that they really get something out of it, I think everyone kind of responds kind of differently to this film.
How did David initially present it to you and what did you see in it? Because from what he told me it started out as kind of as a car chase movie and evolved into something different.
Yes, and I didn’t know all that. I didn’t know any of that stuff. I mean he just emailed me one day or called me, I can’t remember, but said, “I have a script and I want you to have a look at it.” I was so excited because I think he’s a great filmmaker and obviously did a great job at Animal Kingdom. And he said he had written this thing with me in mind, which is hard to believe at first but he’s a really honest guy so I believe him, but it was a pretty flattering that he thought like that. And so I read it and I was really sort of struck by it and it kept sort of sitting with me day after day. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I didn’t really understand what it was he was going for. There’s obviously the literal stuff about the world, the collapse and the objective of this man to get his car back for a particular sort of reason. But I called him straight away and said look, let’s talk, seriously let’s start talking about this because obviously I was really interested in working with him again. I really wanted to say yes, but it just took a little bit of a process to get through. And then when I hear him talk now about having had worked on it for some time and having had me in mind I was thinking why didn’t you tell me earlier while you were doing it? But I get that as well, you want to get something right before you start handing it out to people.
Is it important to you to have a fully fleshed-out back story for the character yourself, even though we only get little bits of it in the film?
No, to be honest. Only if there are questions that I need answered. I think sometimes for me personally I can go too far with that back story stuff because if you ask me certain questions about my own personal life I’d have trouble trying to remember them, and as a character you don’t remember everything from your history, but obviously you need the stuff that informs the performance that you’re giving now. For me it’s more about understanding personality then say a series of events that had led to a particular point. Obviously the series of events in this film led to the version of the man we see at the start of the movie, but the personality of the man that was fully formed before the series of events, that’s what I had needed to sort of get my teeth into so I could then go okay, I feel comfortable and confident with who he was. He was a moral man. He had ethics. Now I can actually let that stuff go and see who he’s become now. So yeah, it was an interesting process.
You don’t have a lot of dialogue in this movie. Is it any more challenging or difficult to prepare for a role where you have to rely much more on just your face then what you can say?
It’s less challenging for me to be honest. I’d rather play something than have a character sort of say what he’s going through. I mean obviously if the writing’s great and it’s beautifully articulated, then fantastic. Because sometimes you can actually learn a lot by character through what it is that they’re saying even if what they’re saying contradicts what they’re feeling. But I was never a great talker when I was young anyways so the playing of things is generally more natural for me I think.
Were you guys uncomfortable during the shoot and did you want to be, to help get into the spirit of the film?
Well, there is a certain level of uncomfortability that’s necessary obviously because you’re out there in the heat and it’s dusty, but I find it awe inspiring as well because that landscape is incredible. You feel like you’re just away from everything. You’re away from all the noise of the city and all those things that you sort of live your life by these days, iPads and iPhones and all the i’s, you know, all that stuff slowly didn’t work the further north we got. The phones didn’t work and then we sort of lost Internet connection. So it’s sort of tough but it’s equally kind of inspiring because you’re aware of it being put down on film and it being part of this film that you’re making. Every kind of difficult and fascinating location we got to, you would just think, “Oh wow, this is going to be incredible on film.” We had pretty hot weather but we had breaks in the weather too occasionally, like it would rain and cool down for a bit so we kind of felt like we were okay. I mean it was pretty brutal and pretty hot a lot of the time, and I know it was hot for Rob because he wasn’t so used to it. I’ve done a couple of films in the desert now. I love it out there.
How was it working with Rob? His fame maybe has overshadowed his talent to some degree.
Well, I mean, that performance that you see him deliver in the film — I detected that on the first or second day or whenever I went to set and watched him work, I was like, “Wow this is going to be great.” I mean, Rob is a pretty quietly spoken guy. I think it is difficult for him dealing with all of the publicity that he gets and all that sort of stuff and so he just sort of wants to get out of the way and not get hassled. You don’t get too much of a sense of who he is and then he starts performing and you just think, “Wow, this kid’s incredible.” And you think about the popularity that he has and how amazing he looks, and you couple that with that talent and you think, “Wow, this guy is going to have just the most incredible career.” He has an amazing career already, but for him to now be able to just string together one more interesting role after another I think will be fantastic.
He was great to work with. He was so relieved to be out there and not be hassled by paparazzi and press and fans and stuff that he had a really great time. We didn’t really know each other very well, in fact we didn’t know each other at all and just slowly got to know each other through the course of the film, which was good because we’re not meant to know each other at the beginning anyway. We all just sort of slipped into it kind of nicely. There was a nice respect for David and for the movie he was making and for each other, and the characters we were playing. I think what was interesting was once I started to realize what that dynamic between us was going to be — I got it on the page on an intellectual level, but once I started to see what Rob was doing and how needy and vulnerable the character was, then I really knew what was going to work as far as what I offered up and what I delivered with him. It’s always interesting when you are reading relationships in a script, the transition between that and the actual doing of it, once you start meeting actors. Something can go wrong and another actor would be horrible or they could think you’re horrible and you just think this is going to be really difficult. But then other times you just go wow, this whole thing is opening up now. Now I get it so it’s interesting.
I just read somewhere you going to work with Kristen Stewart in a movie (Equals).
Possibly, yeah. It’s not booked yet. We’re talking about it.
That film is also set in the near future, from what I understand, like this one. You’ve done a bunch of science fiction related films, is that a genre you have a taste for yourself?
Well, not really. I mean generally wouldn’t say that I followed them much when I was younger. I liked certain kind of films. I was a big fan of The Time Machine and Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Battlestar Galactica. They were sort of random films that I took a shine to, but I wouldn’t say overall I’m a big sci-fi fans by any means. For me, and particularly the films I choose to be in, it’s always about character anyway. I’m always interested in the world that they’re in, whether it’s the 1750s or whether it’s 2050. It’s interesting to think about what life might be like in the future. Obviously this film is so closely related to the times we live in now in a way, and there are countries around the world that live the way that these characters live in this movie anyway. It wasn’t a film set after some sort of apocalypse that we don’t understand, it really is just an extension of this greed and the world that we’re kind of living in now.
What do you look for generally in a role these days?
Well, the only thing I look for is to be surprised to be honest. I don’t really look for anything other than just to feel like I’m surprised by the genuine nature of the character and if it’s something I haven’t done before. And even if it’s something I’ve done before, it might be a totally different sort of director so it’s a very different style of film. I don’t feel like I’m looking for things. I just feel like I read things and suddenly I go, “Oh, this is interesting. Look at this. I wouldn’t have imagined playing a scientist all of a sudden.” So I quite like the idea of being surprised.
The Rover is out now in limited release and expands this Friday (June 20).