Guy Pearce: Finding Balance and Creativity in the Spotlight

Guy Pearce: The Australian actor has found peace in his personal and professional life. So convincing is Guy Pearce at his best that you might imagine the Australian actor himself to be as tightly wound...

Guy Pearce Guy Pearce: The Australian actor has found peace in his personal and professional life.

So convincing is Guy Pearce at his best that you might imagine the Australian actor himself to be as tightly wound as his most indelible characters: the emotionally constipated straight arrow cop he played in LA Confidential; the clenched amnesiac of Memento; his introverted, taciturn bandit in The Proposition; even Neighbours’ Mike Young had an angry introspection unusual for a daytime soap. Yet while the younger Pearce sounded like an intense, self-serious prospect, the 53-year-old version on Zoom in London (where he is starting rehearsals for a new, unnamed project) is easy company indeed: relaxed, quick to laugh, seemingly at peace with his life and work, the latest of which is sci-fi noir Zone 414.

The Zone of Enigma and Emotional Response

Lean and effective, the film plays to the actor’s strengths of enigma and understatement. His PI David Carmichael is a reticent, damaged man, hired by an eccentric tech mogul (Travis Fimmel, hamming for his life) to find his daughter in the zone of the title, a lawless district where humans can enact their most lurid fantasies with androids. Among the latter is Jane (an eerie Matilda Lutz), who seems to be demonstrating both sentience and emotional response. Gumshoes and androids, rainswept dystopian noir… Zone 414 takes plenty of cues from Blade Runner, although Pearce gamely pleads ignorance.

“I haven’t seen it for years so it’s not something I really gave a lot of thought to - perhaps to my detriment,” he says, “I’ve done films before where I’ve then been accused of absolute plagiarism, so it’s probably wiser to be more aware of things that you might be tapping into…”

Zone 414 A scene from Zone 414

Embracing Emotions

Unlike Carmichael, Pearce has no problem connecting with his emotions - he was married to a psychologist (his childhood sweetheart Kate Mestitz) for 18 years, after all - but the birth of his son with his partner, Game of Thrones actor Carice van Houten, has opened the floodgates.

“After Monte was born, someone said to me, ‘You realise you’re now living with your heart on the outside?’ And it really is true, isn’t it? When I started acting, I knew if I needed to cry that it could come out easily. Then after 15 years of therapy, I became a far calmer and more satisfied human being, but trying to cry in a scene became impossible. Since having my boy though, I cry at the drop of a hat again…”

Guy's Family Guy Pearce with his partner Carice van Houten and their son Monte

From Tragedy to Triumph

Pearce’s own childhood was profoundly affected by the death of his father, a test pilot, in an air accident. Aged just eight and with an older sister with a rare developmental disorder, he was forced to grow up quickly and had always been reluctant to have children of his own. The reality of fatherhood, though, has surprised and delighted him: he notes that Monte shares his fundamental impatience and urge to perform.

For Pearce, the latter was there from around the time of his father’s death; a shy and anxious child, he found escape and release on stage. Music, though, seemed a more likely destination. “I played saxophone and piano, and I could see people from my school were in bands locally, whereas nobody went and became an actor other than in amateur theatre.”

In his last year of school, his drama teacher suggested Pearce should go for some auditions; two days after his final exam, he landed the role of Mike on Ramsay Street, where he would see out the four years of the soap’s imperial era of Kylie and Jason’s Scott and Charlene, Plain Jane Superbrain, Mrs Mangel et al.

Battling with Fame

If Pearce is able to laugh about the phenomenon now (he and Jason Donovan still call each other Mike and Scott), then it’s probably thanks to his enduringly successful career beyond Erinsborough. But the experience also fostered an insecurity that took him years to shake, grateful for the profile but resentful of the associated assumptions made about him.

“I hated the fame thing, really struggled with it,” he says. “I knew Neighbours wasn’t Shakespeare, but I was doing my best while knowing that I wasn’t doing a great job - and yet, screaming girls chased us down the street. Trying to make sense of that was quite a test. For years, I would audition and people would go, ‘We don’t really want the guy from Neighbours.’ As wonderful as it was to be in Priscilla […Queen of the Desert, the 1994 smash], I did feel like I was cast because it’s funny to put Mike from Neighbours in a dress. I was battling with incredible popularity from that show, yet I couldn’t get a job.”

Guy in Priscilla Guy Pearce in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Finding Balance and Renewal

With Priscilla as his Hollywood calling card, the work began to flow, some of it (notably LA Confidential and Memento) genuinely extraordinary. Even so, a reckoning loomed and, around the turn of the century, he had “a little bit of a breakdown”.

“I went to America still carrying this baggage of not believing in myself or the value of my work, so I was extremely picky,” he recalls. “I had people around me saying I should do a superhero film, but I was only interested in films that felt heavy and psychological. I’d done five films back-to-back and was pretty spent, turning up to work every morning and growling at people. I was battling with myself all the time over whether it’s just ridiculous and childish, faking stuff for a living.”

He sighs. “I was about ready to kill somebody, to be honest, so I took 18 months off, had a big old think about it and a bit of a lie-down and came back thinking actually, this is something that will keep me young. It’s a wonderful, youthful perspective on life. It was the decision of a thirty-something man, not an eight-year-old boy.”

Guy in A Christmas Carol Guy Pearce in A Christmas Carol

Embracing the Unique

While age has brought a serenity offscreen, onscreen the leading parts have remained agreeably gnarly; witness his swaggering, tormented Scrooge in Stephen Knight’s A Christmas Carol. His character turns, meanwhile, have subtly embellished everything from The Road and Mary Queen of Scots to Oscar winners The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech. He has even consented to do the odd blockbuster.

“That was definitely me having a change of heart,” he grins. “For Iron Man 3, the timing was right, it was a good script and I wasn’t asked to play the hero. I saw the value in doing a big film and I realised you’ve got to get with the programme in LA, or you’ll get lost in the wash. And Prometheus felt different anyway - to be part of the Alien universe and work with Ridley Scott was an incredible honour.”

Stepping Back and Supporting

Both films offered roles at once peripheral and pivotal; Pearce’s willingness to bob below the radar in chewy supporting roles and low-key leads extended to his appearance in the multi-Emmy-winning hit drama Mare of Easttown, widely praised as a game-changer in its willingness to put a defiantly unglossy portrait of a powerful woman on screen. Pearce assumed his subtle turn would go largely unremarked upon, given Kate Winslet’s towering central performance as a careworn cop. Instead, many people wrongly reckoned Pearce’s charming novelist, who woos her, had a dark secret.

“That was a bit uncomfortable,” he admits. “All my friends started contacting me going, ‘Oh, my God, you’re obviously the murderer, right?’ When it became apparent I wasn’t, people started saying, ‘Why is he even in it?’ I only filmed for seven days, but I started to worry it was drawing some sort of focus unnecessarily or detracting from the integrity of the show. But honestly, like when The Hurt Locker won the Oscar, I feel like I had nothing to do with its success.”

Pursuing Passions

Next up are a reclusive writer hounded by a fan in psychological thriller The Infernal Machine (I don’t have the heart to ask if he’s seen Misery), and Liam Neeson action thriller Memory. And then there’s music, which Pearce has been writing and recording since his days on Ramsay Street, when Stock Aitken and Waterman masterminded a production line of hits for his castmates. Did they ever come knocking? He laughs. “No, and I wouldn’t have answered the door anyway because I was heavily into the Cocteau Twins, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush…”

Instead, he waited another 25 years before releasing his first album. “I assumed anything musical would only ever be associated with Neighbours, so I just made music for myself. Then a musician I was doing a play with told me it wasn’t healthy to hang on to a narrative I created back in 1986. If I wasn’t prepared to commit to it, it would never progress. He was right.”

Guy Pearce Music Guy Pearce performing his music

A Journey of Self-Expression

The result was 2014’s Broken Bones, a thoughtful, vaguely alt-country-tinged collection that belied both its lengthy genesis (“out of three decades of music, which 10 songs am I gonna choose?”) and suspicions of a vanity project. The Nomad followed in 2018, a response to the break-up of his 18-year marriage to Mestitz that he describes as “extremely cathartic”.

“It came really quickly, purely as a result of how I was feeling after Kate left. I had to be careful that it didn’t become a break-up album where I was just crying in tune, but it was the driver of that album. I’m desperate to get going on a third now. “

Work and life commitments may make that difficult, with Pearce living between Amsterdam, Australia, and Los Angeles. But he won’t lose much sleep over it. “I feel more confident in myself now, with more of a handle on any sense of ambition. I can just calm down and be more patient, take a break if I need to, and everything will just sort of fall into place.”

‘Zone 414’ is available on digital download from 4 October