He gives digital aliens personality, holds his own against Johnny Depp and fought to get a small film about stuttering made. Just three reasons why the star of ‘The King’s Speech’ still shines
If you walked in on my conversation with Geoffrey Rush without hearing the start of it, you would be forgiven for thinking he was talking about his role as the therapist in The King’s Speech, the film that won all those Oscars this year.
“You see, the director had included a charming cover note with the script saying how much he admired the work of Sir Alec Guinness, that style of acting where what you see on the outside is in total contradiction to what you suspect is going on in the inside. He said that he thought my acting had that same quality and that he’d like me to read this script with that in mind.” Actually, he’s talking about his role in Pirates of the Caribbean, the one in which he plays a pirate with brown teeth, a false beard and a monkey on his shoulder.
But you see his point. Not since Guinness has there been an actor who can carry off serious drama and blockbuster frivolity with such deftness. Guinness could convince as the stiff colonel in Bridge on the River Kwai in one film and Obi-Wan Kenobi in another. Rush can take on the subtlety of a character such as Lionel Logue in The King’s Speech and yet also be plausible as the cutlass-wielding Captain Barbossa in Pirates 4, as the latest instalment in the multi-billion dollar franchise has become known in advance of its release this month.
One big difference between the two actors though is this: Guinness found fame on the silver screen as a young man; for Rush it came late in life, after a midlife crisis, in fact. And, in a strange way, it was this very crisis that led to him playing the tortured pianist in Shine, the 1996 film that would make him one of the most bankable character actors in Hollywood. He won an Oscar for that role and followed it up with Oscar nominations for Quills and Shakespeare in Love. (He also won an Emmy for The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and a Bafta for Elizabeth.)
Born in Brisbane, Australia, 59 years ago, Rush rejected the safe career path taken by his father, an accountant, and joined a repertory company immediately after graduating from the University of Queensland with a degree in English literature. If you studied the arts in Australia back then you were considered “a bit sissy”, he says. “You had to be into sport and, sad to say, I’m a traitor to my country because I don’t have a sporting bone in my body.” He doesn’t drive either.
He remained working in Australian theatre for 28 years, everything from Shakespeare to Beckett. With his long face and lugubrious manner he was never going to be a matinee idol. “But I always felt thrilled and amazed that I could put actor on my tax form,” he says. Then, in 1992, he had a breakdown, partly caused by overwork, partly from feeling that his stage career was stuck in a rut.
“I had hit a wall in terms of the degree of my perceived success,” he says, speaking from his home in Melbourne. “I was a jobbing actor in the Australian theatre scene, trying to explore the repertoire, but around that time I turned 40 and got married and had my first child.
“So I did go through some crazy panic attacks. The term ‘stage fright’ didn’t quite cover it because the fear was happening away from the stage as well. I was in a permanent state of panic, caused by my adrenal glands being in overdrive. My body was in a sort of fight or flight cycle.”
Then he was cast as David Helfgott, the pianist who has a breakdown in Shine. “But Shine kept getting postponed because it couldn’t get its $6million budget, which is modest by today’s standards. The film was on hold for three years and that gave me a chance to stop gallivanting around Australia, putting on eight plays a year to keep my career buoyant. It also gave me the chance to change the way I looked at my acting. I was unfamiliar with the camera and knew there was much to explore. It was like finding myself in a new playpen. I knew I had nothing to lose.”
Did he think that even at that late stage in his career he could still become the new Alec Guinness? “Actually, the film actor I most admired at that time was Gene Hackman. I’d been a massive fan of all those counterculture movies coming out of Hollywood in the Seventies. What I did feel was that my entire stage career up to that point had been one long audition for Shine.” The child, a daughter, who he says added to his anxieties with her arrival in 1992, is now almost 20 and has a brother, born in 1995. Together, he says, he and his young family lived through a golden age in which parents could enjoy family films as much as their children.
Before Pixar and DreamWorks raised CGI to an art form and introduced jokes that could work on different levels, parents would have to endure the films they went to see with their children. And perhaps the films which appeal to the broadest range of ages are those in the Pirates series.
“I think [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer had an inkling of its potential right from the start but he knew that no one had cracked a pirate film for 50 years, so he wasn’t being cocky. When the 2003 season started to highlight the big blockbusters for that summer there were a few sequels, such as Hulk and Charlie’s Angels, and then a list of 50 other films due to open, and Pirates was way down that list. Then it took off and the first idea we had that it might become a summer blockbuster franchise was when we saw that they had put a colon after the title Pirates of the Caribbean.” That one was Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl.
The latest, number four, is Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. It features mermaids and a fountain of youth. Jack Sparrow is of course played by Johnny Depp as the slurring Keith Richards of the sea. And one of the most enjoyable aspects of the series so far has been the chemistry between Depp’s character and Rush’s, the two bicker like old maids. For his part, Rush has said that when he stands next to Depp, who is über-cool, he feels like a prat.
“You know, Johnny can wear a torn T-shirt and a bit of jewellery and look cool. If I do that, I look like my mother.” But how does he resist the temptation to slip into high camp when acting alongside Depp? “I think the contrast between the two characters was important right from the start, they sparked off one another.
“Johnny and I always think of the Black Pearl [the pirate ship] as being a shared girlfriend we are always fighting over.” The idea had been to have three male characters: Orlando Bloom as a contemporary version of Errol Flynn, Rush as a latter-day Robert Newton and Depp as a misfit somewhere in between the two.
“Johnny said to me that he had had this idea of playing Jack as someone whose brain is fried because he’s out in the sun all day and permanently soaked in rum. Yet, he’s also quite cunning. The real key to his character, though, is his strange walk. He had this idea that a pirate must spend half his time at sea, half on land, and so would never quite get his legs right.”
This is a huge juggernaut with much at stake for the Disney studio financially, does that affect the mood of the production?
“Well, I can’t deny the scale of it. I remember we were all about to sit down for a table read through at the Disney offices once and Johnny decided we should do it in his club, the Viper Room, instead, so as we would feel on a human scale. So if there is a relaxed atmosphere on set I think it is down to him. He says he sees it as an independent film that happens to have a s— load of money attached to it.”
Rush also remembers shooting a scene for Pirates 3 that made him appreciate quite how big the budget was. “It’s the scene where we have a big parlay and the pre-war chat.
“To shoot that one short scene we went 30 miles out to sea to a sandbar that was only visible eight hours a day. There they grappled together three oil tankers to use as a production base. When I saw that, I suddenly realised what a monster this had become. For six actors to have a dialogue on a beach meant there were 800 people to provide lunch for, stunt men, people to rake the sand between takes and so on. So yes, at that point we did feel a pressure not to screw up.”
His has been quite an unconventional career, I note, given that for most of it he was a stage actor, then for his very first film at the age of 45 he won an Oscar. Does he still have to pinch himself? “Yeah, self-pinching has been part of it for the past 14 years. When the role of David Helfgott came up I felt sure I could bring something to it, having had experience of playing strange roles such as Lear’s Fool and Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night.”
But after Shine, Hollywood didn’t know quite what to do with him. “One of the things the studio offered me after that was to play Liberace, which I thought was hilarious. I suppose they thought I could open up the keyboard genre.” At that point the only names that were internationally known from Australia were Rod Taylor, Frank Thring and then, much later, Rush’s former flatmate Mel Gibson. The two had appeared together in Waiting for Godot and then Gibson had headed off for Hollywood.
“Mel was very much an anomaly at that point because in the late Seventies he was the first indication that we were having a renaissance in the Australian film industry. It had been moribund for four decades with no home-grown product. Then came a generation of directors such as Peter Weir and Gillian Armstrong and Bruce Beresford emerging internationally. And Mel, who was probably the first true Hollywood star to come out of Australia.” Are they still in touch? “Not directly, we did some theatre together way back in the Seventies when he was in his early twenties.” Does the troubled actor need an old friend to put an arm around his shoulder? “I suppose in some ways his public image isn’t great at the moment but I was pleased to read something the other day about Jodie Foster going in to bat for him. She said she trusted his friendship and goodness and artistry, and I think I do, too. They have a film out which has been invited to Cannes this year. The Beaver. It will give the media a lot of fodder because, from what I gather, in that film some of Mel’s troubles find a very interesting outlet.”
Rush lives in a leafy suburb in Melbourne. One morning a couple of years ago he found a brown paper package on his doormat. “It was lying there like an orphan.” The attached letter said “excuse the invasion, and for not going through the protocol of your agent, but we’re desperate for you to know that this script exists, because there is a wonderful role that we would love for you to consider”. So he read it and saw the script had potential. It was The King’s Speech.
How gratifying must that be that he spotted it first? “Actually my primal response was that this would be tricky to film and would probably have no viable commercial life but that it was a fantastic story: two men and their relationship which grows out of a class divide between royalty and commoners and a cultural divide between Australia and England.”
And that latter aspect is especially intriguing at the moment as Australia moves gradually towards a republic. “I never deliberately claimed that there was a republican stance behind Logue. But there was always a fundamental egalitarian aspect to the Australian life which meant Logue had the nerve to say to a rigidly formal king that he needed a new set of rules.” As an Aussie, Rush says, he supposes he leans towards the republican movement, but not in an aggressive way. And he does believe the monarchy has its place in British society. “Prince William was out in Australia not long ago and he surprised the locals by being pretty adept at kicking a football. It was about breaking down that mystique.”
Has he ever been tempted to up sticks and live here in the mother country, as did others from his generation, such as Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer? “I’ve got older colleagues who are now in their seventies and eighties and they remember beating that path to England in the Sixties and Seventies, because there was nothing here to keep people employed then. But there is now. I’m part of a generation of actors who didn’t feel they had to do that because there was an awakening in Australian film-making and theatre in the Seventies. I guess I’ve been fortunate in having an ongoing film career while being based in Melbourne. I’m happy to commute. A day on a plane. Come on. It’s easy.”
He did one of his “days on the plane” recently to record a voice for Green Lantern, another big family film planned for release this summer. “That was a great thrill for me. It came out of nowhere. When the agent approached me I said: ‘But isn’t that about to open?’ And he said, ‘There is one character which is completely CGI and they want you to provide the voice.’ I thought, why not?”
He’s also just been over in the United States acting in a play on Broadway, The Diary of a Mad Man. This follows his critically acclaimed performance in Exit The King. Given he has suffered stage fright in the past, why does he still put himself through the torture of live theatre?
“Originally it was part of my self-imposed therapy because when I had those panic attacks back in the early Nineties, I went to see various psychologists and did behavioural therapy. Everyone had different solutions and most said I was in a state of self repair because I had gone back on stage. It was like getting used to going in deep water when you fear you are not a good swimmer. You realise you can swim and you can get yourself out of any tricky situation.”