This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
As The Innocents gives us Guy Pearce as a mysterious professor-type (who may or may not be completely evil), it’s worth taking a minute to reflect on the weird and winding road that brought us Australia’s most versatile actor.
Equally at home in TV soaps, indie comedies, hard-hitting dramas and stately period pieces – he’s almost impossible to pin down. Ever flirting with leading man status but never quite pushing to the top of the A-list, Pearce is an actor who seems like he’d feel uncomfortable in a pigeonhole anyway. Mixing big budget Hollywood actioners with low-fi arthouse gems, he appears to tailor his choices (both good and bad) around whatever lets him try something different.
The Innocents sees him as a guy who teaches the art of shapeshifting – is there anyone better for the job?
Mike Young, Neighbours (1986-89)
Like almost every other Australian actor, Guy Pearce learnt his craft on Ramsay Street. Playing troubled teen Mike Young in 496 episodes of Neighbours in the mid 80s, his storylines saw him deal with an abusive dad, fall for the school dork and be best friends with Kylie Minogue. “I love it because I’ve had the chance to do other things”, he recently told the Guardian. “Although I have had situations where I’ve walked down the street and people have said: ‘Have you done any other acting since Neighbours?…’”
Felicia Jollygoodfellow, The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1994)
Pearce’s first film role was in Pino Amenta’s little-seen Heaven Tonight (1990), playing John Waters’ son. A few other early film roles followed (including his first biopic, playing Errol Flynn in 1997’s Flynn) but it was Stephan Elliott’s cult drag comedy that made his name. Hired just days before filming began, Pearce starred as Adam/Felicia – a lovingly obnoxious young drag queen who steals the whole film from Terence Stamp and Hugo Weaving. He’d never really do anything quite like Priscilla again, although rumors of a sequel have been swirling ever since.
Ed Exley, L.A. Confidential (1997)
Priscilla earned Pearce a lot of cult cred, but it also bought him to the attention of Hollywood. Taking his first American role in Curtis Hanson’s sprawling LA noir ensemble, he was suddenly sharing a poster with the likes of Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger and Danny DeVito. The polar opposite of Felicia Jollygoodfellow, Ed Exley is a strait-laced, self-righteous careerist detective – the kind of man who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a feather boa – and Pearce’s mastery of the role gave him enough traction to do whatever he wanted in Hollywood.
Leonard Shelby, Memento (2000)
But he didn’t really do it. Instead of taking the obvious route Pearce’s next few films were all markedly different from Ed Exley (and Felicia), doing an indie sci-fi that no one watched (Brave New World), a patchy William Friedkin film (Rules Of Engagement), an odd cannibal western horror (Ravenous) and a festival favourite rom-com (A Slipping-Down Life). But it wasn’t until he played Leonard Shelby that he cemented his reputation as an actor who really could take on anything. Remembered more for making Christopher Nolan’s name than Pearce’s, his fractured, frayed (partially improvised) performance as Shelby won the actor his first big awards – and arguably became his most notable role to date.
Fernand Mondego, The Count Of Monte Cristo (2002)
2002 was a big year for Pearce. Bookended by two decent Australian indies (The Hard Word and Till Human Voices Wake Us), he made two big, slightly ungainly, jumps into blockbuster territory with The Time Machine and The Count Of Monte Cristo. Both more interesting on paper then they ended up on screen, his moustache-twisting role as the villainous Fernand Mondego let Pearce indulge his quirky camp side again – playing his first bad guy in a long, kooky list that reaches its oddest peaks in 2012’s Lawless and 2016’s Brimstone. Pearce gives good baddie, but only if he can give it a really weird twist.
Charlie Burns, The Proposition (2005)
Forever tied to the Australian film industry, Pearce has done some of his best work in his native country. Arguably the best of the bunch is John Hillcoat’s savage western – a spiritual revenger that drifts through the nineteenth century outback on Nick Cave’s mythic script. Pearce takes the lead as the outlaw forced to hunt down his own brother (Danny Huston), weighting the film with psychological nuance and enough long, wincing hard stares to beat Clint Eastwood in a stand-off.
Andy Warhol, Factory Girl (2006)
Pearce’s first real-life role was Errol Flynn in 1997’s (not great) Flynn, but he went on to play Harry Houdini (Death Defying Acts), King Edward VIII (The King’s Speech) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Genius) – not to mention William Cecil in next year’s Oscar favourite, Mary Queen Of Scots. Most transformative of all was his turn as Andy Warhol in George Hickenlooper’s art-scene biopic Factory Girl. The film got panned but Pearce (and Sienna Miller) picked up a lot of deserved credit for his performance – finding something real behind the glasses, the wig and the accent.
Staff Sergeant. Matt Thompson, The Hurt Locker (2009)
Not since Judi Dench won an Oscar for eight minutes of acting in Shakespeare In Love (1998) has an actor done so much with so little. Pearce might die in the first five minutes of The Hurt Locker, but his scene is probably the best thing in the whole film – turning entire cinemas full of people into gibbering nervous wrecks almost as soon as they sat down. Given his profile by the time the film came out, it was also a brilliant decision from director Kathryn Bigelow to blow him up so quickly. If Guy Pearce can die in a flash, so can anybody.
Det. Nathan Leckie, Animal Kingdom (2010)
The other contender for Pearce’s best Aussie film, David Michôd’s ugly crime story was justly heaped with awards when it came out in 2010 – although Pearce himself only picked up a single nomination. Possibly overshadowed by Ben Mendelsohn’s frightening intensity (or by the rest of the strong ensemble cast) Pearce’s performance is actually one of his best – playing a good cop with good intentions in a film that’s full of really, really awful people. Dialling back all of the theatrics that we all know he’s capable of, Pearce’s take on Detective Leckie is quieter, calmer and more subtle than anything else he’s done before or since.
Aldrich Killian, Iron Man 3 (2013)
Probably Pearce’s most high-profile movie to date, Iron Man 3 seemed to represent everything he didn’t want to do again after he tried making a blockbuster with The Time Machine in 2002. “The main difference was that, when I did The Time Machine, I was pretty much in all of it, so it was a really gruelling experience,” he told Vulture at the time. Reportedly only signing on after he had read the script (which is nigh on unheard of for a Marvel movie), it’s easy to see why the role of Aldrich Killian appealed to Pearce. Avengers: Infinity War might have cornered the market in shock Marvel endings, but Iron Man 3 did a pretty good job of blindsiding everyone first with its big Mandarin reveal.
Peter Weyland, Alien: Covenant (2017)
Another small role with a big impact, Pearce first played Peter Weyland in the web promos for Prometheus (2012) – turning up in the film under five hours’ worth of prosthetic makeup for a tiny, confusing, scene as an old man. He got a bit more to do in Covenant (with less makeup) in a role that ultimately acts as the bridge to every film in the Alien universe – his casting in both proving that he’s old enough and big enough now to play an A-list lynchpin.
In recent years, Pearce has tended to stick to quirkier roles in smaller films (see The Rover and Brimstone), as well as carefully chosen parts in interesting TV shows (Mildred Pierce and Jack Irish). With The Innocents hopefully keeping him on our screens for a while yet, expect to see Pearce doing what he does best over the next few years – playing an Elizabethan Lord in Mary Queen Of Scots, an international crime lord in Brian DePalma’s Domino, and a mad comic-book scientist in Bloodshot. In other words, expect to see Pearce doing something completely, utterly different.
The Innocents is streaming on Netflix now.
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