A chat with Guy Pearce, Guy Pearce interview, Memento, L.A. Confidential
Guy Pearce

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Of the revelations offered by Guy Pearce during our conversation in conjunction with the release of the 10th anniversary Blu-ray of “Memento,” the one which proved the most immediately startling was that he’d most recently seen the film when he was compiling a show reel to spotlight his best work. It’s not that he’d want to include “Memento” – if you’re searching for his signature role, it’s right up there with “L.A. Confidential” – but, rather, that an actor of his caliber and credits should still need to compile a show reel. Upon further consideration, however, it’s hard to deny that the man has a tendency to look more than a little bit different from role to role. Although the purpose of our conversation may have been “Memento,” we still managed to have brief discussions about “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” “Ravenous,” and “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” and Pearce himself discussed a few others as well, including the unfairly-forgotten “A Slipping-Down Life.”

Guy Pearce: Hi, Will!

Bullz-Eye: Hey, Guy, good to talk to you! We actually were in the same room back in January: I was at the TCA tour when you were there to promote HBO’s “Mildred Pierce.”

GP: Oh, right! (Hesitates) Did we meet?

BE: We did not, unfortunately. You were kind of rushing around that day, and I think you were mostly making the electronic press rounds.

GP: Ah, yes, of course.

BE: We haven’t gotten screeners yet, but I’m very much looking forward to seeing the miniseries when the time comes.

GP: Oh, it’s great! It’s...well, as you know, Todd Haynes is fantastic, and Kate Winslet is fantastic, so it should do really well, I think. It’s such a beautiful period.

(Writer’s note: Just as a brief sidebar, I didn’t really feel comfortable asking a great deal about “Mildred Pierce,” having not yet seen anything of the production beyond a handful of clips, but Pearce offered his thoughts on playing the role of Monty Beragon during the TCA panel for the miniseries, so I thought I’d offer them up here.

On reading the script for "Memento": "Chris (Nolan), being as clever as he is, was capable of creating that film and able to articulate it in such a way and get it down on the page where everything, including the emotions of the story, was evident, and the logic, if you will, and the unusual nature of it was all very clear-cut. So even though it was tricky in the same way the film is tricky, you at least had the benefit when you read the script of going, 'Hang on, I’m just going to go back and look at that last page again before I go on…'"

“It was delightful playing Monty,” said Pearce. “He’s somebody who really is pleasure-seeking. You know, he’s had everything pretty much that he’s ever wanted in life. Financially, he’s never struggled, and I think having been brought up in a particular world which is obviously very different to what Mildred has experienced, he just doesn’t struggle with the same things that someone like Mildred does. On some level, the coming together of these two people is really quite fascinating. He obviously sees this woman who is very attractive, very able, and I think just doesn’t have the pretensions or brittleness that perhaps other people in his class might have, and so there’s something very appealing about her and meeting her at this point in her life. At any other time they may not have been drawn together, or he might not have been drawn to her so easily, but because she’s experiencing what she’s experiencing with the sort of the breakdown of her relationship, she’s obviously, whether she knows it or not, looking for new experiences, and I think the way in which he sees that in her is very appealing in this very attractive woman that he comes across.

“Obviously, the relationship develops and, you know, the strange sort of twist about all of this is she has this daughter who is far more like somebody from Monty’s world, anyway, and so it’s very easy for Monty to relate to the daughter from very early on, even when she’s very, very young. I think she’s 11, really, when Monty first comes into Mildred’s life, and so I think we see the childlike quality in Monty brought to the surface very quickly, because he’s able to relate to these kids like a kid himself, but also like the person that he is, of the upper class that he’s naturally from, that this kid wishes that she was from. On some level, it’s like she’s from another world, and she’s been born into the wrong family. So it’s a very strange, twisted little trio that’s going on. But for me personally, it was a delight to play such a character, obviously so well written, and in Todd’s hands…you know, Todd makes you feel very…not necessarily comfortable, but very capable of doing what it is that he’s cast you for. So it was a real delight, I have to say.”

You know, in retrospect, calling this “a brief sidebar” may not have been entirely accurate. Oh, well, onward and downward…)

BE: Well, since we’re here to talk first and foremost about “Memento,” I guess my first question is if you still thank your lucky stars that Brad Pitt had a scheduling conflict.

GP: (Laughs) Well, I never knew what the history was prior to my coming onboard, but if that’s what it was, then absolutely! Yeah, it really was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had, and obviously Chris Nolan has proven himself as quite a genius. It definitely felt very special, particularly to work with Chris early in his career, and on such a seminal film, too. It’s one of the one that people have responded to the most, and it’s certainly one that I’ve gotten one of the biggest kicks out of. So, yeah, definitely a great experience.

BE: It’s a film that everyone says you have to see more than once. How many times have you yourself watched “Memento”?

GP: When it came out, I probably saw it…maybe three or four times at various screenings and openings and stuff. And then I watched it again just about a year and a half ago, maybe two years ago, because I was making a show reel, so I went back and watched all of my films again. Which was a very strange thing to do. (Laughs) But I had to try and choose things from each film, so I obviously went back and saw “Memento” again, and…that was a tough one. Because, you know, I’m in most of the film, and the film’s so good that it was kind of tricky to know which bits to pick. But, yeah, I think the producers were probably very happy with the fact that everybody saw the film twice!

BE: When you first read the script, I’m curious how well it played for you. I don’t think there’s any question that “Memento” is rather mind-blowing when you see it play out on the big screen, but was the effect as pronounced on the printed page?

Guy PearceGP: Yes. Absolutely. There was kind of no difference. It’s a strange experience, that film, because it ended up pretty much exactly the way it was on the page…and I guess it kind of had to. Chris, being as clever as he is, was capable of creating that film and able to articulate it in such a way and get it down on the page where everything, including the emotions of the story, was evident, and the logic, if you will, and the unusual nature of it was all very clear-cut. So even though it was tricky in the same way the film is tricky, you at least had the benefit when you read the script of going, “Hang on, I’m just going to go back and look at that last page again before I go on…” (Laughs) But, yes, as I say, it was very much as you see it, and I think even after reading it at the time, even though I couldn’t store all the information about what had just happened and what was happening next, etcetera, I certainly understood the plight of that character emotionally in regards to me being able to play the character. So it was beautifully penned, absolutely beautifully written. A third of the way in, I was saying, “I want to do this! I want to do this!”

BE: Given the structure of “Memento,” was it a particular bitch to film?

GP: No, not at all. You know, it’s a bitch to film any film, because everything’s always out of order. (Laughs) Look, there definitely were a couple of things that were weird, because…and this potentially could happen on another movie…you’re basically filming things in regards to location availability or just practicality. All the things at Natalie’s house we’d film together in one week, and all the things at the bar you’d film together in one week, and all the things at the hotel you’d film together in one week…which you’d do on any film, you know?

But there were a couple of unusual instances where it was the props that were the tricky aspect of it, because I’m running around carrying Polaroid photos, the camera, and I’m writing things on those Polaroid photos, and I’m writing more and more as the film goes on – or less and less as the film goes on, depending on whether you’re watching the black and white stuff or the color stuff – and there was one instance when I had a photograph of a car which I’d taken in another scene…except that we hadn’t filmed that other scene yet! So we had to go out to the location, do a little bit of a rehearsal, put the car where we thought it was going to be, snap the photo, and then use that photo as a prop for the other scene…which, funnily enough, comes before the scene that we filmed where I actually take the photo! So it was a little bit of a mind trip. But, obviously, we had the time to prepare, whereas an audience sort of just walks in and goes, “Whoa! What’s going on?”

"You sort of can’t miss anything in 'Memento,' otherwise you’re completely lost. I always found that with 'Seinfeld' as well. If ever I came in halfway, if I didn’t see the beginning of that show, I could never truly follow it! And I know there’s something a lot simpler about the structure of 'Seinfeld,' but there was something so clever in the way they would set off a little idea at the beginning and then be meandering around that idea. But if you missed what the idea was at the beginning…? I just couldn’t enjoy the show!"

It was unusual, actually, that it was the first male continuity person, script supervisor, I’d ever worked with. They’re always women, but on one of the most complicated films I’ve worked on, it was a man! (Laughs) Not to be disparaging towards him at all, ‘cause he did a great job, but you’re always trusting that woman’s instinct to sort of find the thru-line, so it was odd that on that film it should be a bloke!

BE: “Memento” has certainly been critically acclaimed, but at the same time, it’s also somewhat of a polarizing film with mainstream audiences because of its non-linear structure. For instance, I love it, but it just gives my wife a headache. (Laughs) Did that reaction surprise you?

GP: No, it doesn’t surprise me at all. I mean, it surprised me a bit that the film, even on a commercial level, did as well as it did, because it is so unusual, I suppose. It sparked a little slew of other films that were sort of jagged in their structure. “21 Grams” came after that, and I think a bunch of other filmmakers went, “Oh, hang on a second, this non-linear idea, it’s highly effective, and it can actually work!” But it’s got to be done well. It can’t just be a gimmick. But, still, it’s difficult for audiences, I think, who perhaps want more escapism than to work hard while they’re at the movies. And “Memento” does require a bit of work. You know, there’s an iPhone app you can get where you can type in the movie that you’re about to go and see, and it will suggest to you good times during the movie to go and have a bathroom break, in case you’re needing one. (Laughs) I’m curious as to whether, if you were to type in “Memento,” there would be any suggestions at all…because I’m betting there aren’t!

BE: You realize, of course, that I’m going to have to go find the app and test this before the interview runs.

GP: (Laughs) Of course! But, you know, you sort of can’t miss anything in “Memento,” otherwise you’re completely lost. I always found that with “Seinfeld” as well. If ever I came in halfway, if I didn’t see the beginning of that show, I could never truly follow it! And I know there’s something a lot simpler about the structure of “Seinfeld,” but there was something so clever in the way they would set off a little idea at the beginning and then be meandering around that idea. But if you missed what the idea was at the beginning…? I just couldn’t enjoy the show! (Laughs) And it’s pretty much my favorite TV show of all time!

BE: Well, I’ve got a few questions about a few of your other films…

Guy PearceGP: Okay!

BE: You mentioned your show reel a moment ago. Please tell me that a clip from “Ravenous” made the cut.

GP: (Very long pause) No, it didn’t, actually.

BE: Oh, man!

GP: (Laughs)

BE: I have to tell you that, when I mentioned on Facebook that I was going to be talking to you, several people immediately said, “Oh, well, you must ask him about ‘Ravenous.’”

GP: Well, look, funnily enough, it’s been one of those films that I have people come up to me and say, “That’s my favorite film of all time!” It has a real sort of cult following. But with the show reel, I think we were trying… (Searches for a diplomatic choice of phrase) You know, I’ve done so much work, I suppose, where I’m kind of a bit unrecognizable, so we were trying to sort of put together some things that… (Hesitates again) I mean, we did look at “Ravenous.” We definitely looked at “Ravenous,” but I didn’t necessarily find anything in there that really took me somewhere else, you know, other than to a bit of blood and gore. And there’s certainly enough of that in “The Proposition” and things. And, you know, it’s tricky when you’ve only got five minutes to fill. It’s hard to know what to put in there, really. And I don’t think I did much great acting in “Ravenous,” so… (Laughs) …it wasn’t really a showcase piece!

BE: When you were doing “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” I’m just curious if you successfully kept a straight face the first time you saw Terence Stamp in all his glory as Bernadette.

GP: Well, the first time… (Starts to laugh) Good question, actually. The first time I saw that, we had camera tests – it was our last day of rehearsals – and makeup tests, so we spent all day trying on different makeup and different outfits and costumes, and getting in front of the camera. And then that night, it had been planned that we were going to go out in Sydney in drag. Myself, Hugo (Weaving), and Terence in drag. So any laughing at each other that we did, we certainly got to get out of our systems before we even got on set.

BE: And how did that evening go?

GP: Um…drunkenly. (Laughs) Hugo Weaving ended up under a table somewhere in some gay nightclub, completely hammered and on the floor. It was hilarious. But it was a really fascinating experience, actually, because, you know, Hugo’s obviously a recognizable actor in Sydney, and people know who I am, so in a way, just the thing of being in disguise, first of all, was fascinating. But also, to go to the drag queen clubs that we went to and have other drag queens kind of go, “Who are these girls? We don’t know who they are. Are they from out of town? Who are they?” So it was a really interesting experience, actually.

Guy Pearce

BE: Two “L.A. Confidential” questions: first, was it a challenge for you to tackle the American accent, and, second, am I hearing things, or were you doing a Kevin Spacey impression when you’re being interrogated at the end of the film?

GP: Uh…I don’t think I’m intentionally doing it. That’s the first I’ve heard of that. (Laughs) But taking on an accent is a really tricky thing, I find. You know, I’ve got quite a decent ear, so I want it to be good, but, yeah, it is a challenge, definitely. But, no, I certainly didn’t intend to do a Kevin Spacey impression. Maybe I’d spent too much time with him by the end of the movie!

BE: I was able to see “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” at the Virginia Film Festival, and it was an absolute blast. Talk about a positive audience reaction...

GP: Oh, great! You know, that was an unusual one for me, ‘cause it’s not normally the kind of film that I… (Hesitates) Well, obviously, I did “Ravenous,” which certainly had some horror elements to it, but I generally don’t go down that road. But there was something I enjoyed about the awkward relationship between the father and the daughter that sort of drew me into it. But I saw the film…Katie (Holmes) and I saw the film, actually, ourselves a few weeks back, and we both were kind of hanging onto the edge of our seats. It was, like, “Jesus, this is scarier than we realized it was going to be!” We knew it would be scary, particularly with Guillermo del Toro attached, but it feels very effective. So it’s good to know that people are reacting to it!

BE: Last question: what’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

GP: Well, that’s kind of two questions, really. I mean, out of the ones that didn’t get the love that they deserved, I think that “A Slipping-Down Life” is right up there. It was hampered by sort of a bureaucratic scenario where we made the film in ’98, we went to Sundance in ’99, but then “Happy, Texas” got sold for $12 million, and our producers suddenly saw dollar signs and weren’t accepting anything less than that for our little movie. And the only people who were showing any interest in spending anywhere near that kind of money were people who were saying, “Well, we want to re-cut the movie, and you have to do this, and you have to do that…” So the producers took the film away and totally re-cut it! And so when we said, “Well, we’re not going to support it now, because it’s not the movie anymore…” I mean, they really screwed with it. So it sort of stood in a bit of a stalemate for eight years, and, eventually, through a legal mess, the director and the bank managed to get the original movie back and out and released, but by that point, it had such a stigma that people kind of didn’t even want to be bothered with it, and it just sort of fizzled out. And, yet, I think it’s a really lovely film, the poor little thing! (Laughs) And unfortunately for Toni Kalem, the director, and for Lili (Taylor) and I, it didn’t get the attention that it perhaps could have. And people loved it at Sundance when we screened it in ’99. We got a great response to it! But then it just sort of faded away.

And I think probably… (Hesitates) Well, I was going to mention “Factory Girl,” but that’s a different thing altogether. I don’t think “Factory Girl” is as good a film as it could have been, but I feel very proud and pleased with the work that I managed to do, and speaking for Sienna (Miller) as well, she felt very good about the work she managed to do. But the film just didn’t sort of work the way it should.

Lastly, to sort of add to the question, I’ll add to the answer: my favorite film of all time that I’ve done is definitely “The Proposition.” I don’t think that probably got the attention that it could have, although it’s a dark movie, so I didn’t expect that it would. But I think it’s an extraordinary film.

BE: Yeah, but anyone who went into that film knowing anything at all about Nick Cave (who wrote the screenplay) can’t have been surprised that it was dark.

GP: Well, no. (Laughs) No, they can’t, really.

BE: Well, I know you’ve got your next interview coming up, but it’s been a real pleasure talking to you, Guy.

GP: Yeah, cheers, man! Take care!

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