At the start of this century, Guy Pearce was sitting pretty. He had shaken off the frothy soap bubbles of Neighbours, where he was one of the show’s original batch of pin-ups, along with Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan, and was proving himself a versatile film actor – first as a sharp-clawed drag artist in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, then as a clench-jawed cop in LA Confidential.
Awaiting release was the existential thriller Memento, directed by a promising up-and-comer named Christopher Nolan. First, though, he heard whispers that Kenneth Turan, the film critic of the LA Times, had been singing his praises in a review of the military courtroom drama Rules of Engagement.
“A few people said: ‘Wow, look what he’s written about you!’” recalls the trim, bespectacled 53-year-old when we speak over Zoom. Turan called Pearce “far better” than his more esteemed co-stars Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L Jackson, as well as “a master at reinventing himself for each new role”.
“I felt myself starting to get a bit big-headed,” he grins. “Paramount asked if I wanted them to send me the other reviews they had. ‘Yes! Send them all!’” He says this with a grand flourish. “So these big fat binders arrive, containing millions of reviews, and basically every one of them says: ‘Who does Guy Pearce think he is, trying to impersonate Al Pacino?’ It was a really interesting, really horrible experience.” And it taught him a lesson. “The perspective on the final result shouldn’t be what I’m looking for. Sure, I’d love to win a ton of Oscars, but it should be enough that I can say: ‘I know that’s good’.”
He will sometimes scan press coverage these days, to get a general sense of how a movie of his is being received. Should he take a cursory look at reviews of his futuristic new film, Zone 414, he will see two words popping up repeatedly: Blade Runner. This is a similar tale of a brooding loner venturing into a world of androids, with Pearce as an ex-cop hired to find a missing woman in a city populated by AIs. It all resembles a cut-price version of Ridley Scott’s film, right down to the rain-drenched streets lined with noodle shops and neon, but Pearce himself is hypnotic. Then again, he always is. He has a knack for soliciting the audience’s empathy while keeping his cards close to his chest.
His character in Zone 414 has issues. “I wanted to play him as a guy who would love to sit down with a police psychologist and bawl his eyes out,” he says. “But there’s something too typically masculine about him, which just meant the easier option for him was to shut that stuff down. I love it when a character is repressing something. We’re such a complex mix of drives. We want to be hugged yet at the same time there’s always someone we wanna punch the shit out of. The more people I talk to, the more I realise how complex we are. There’s this endless pit of great characters out there to play.”
It is this genuine curiosity that makes him one of the most straightforward, down-to-earth actors in the business: he wants to talk, because that’s where the material is. In his company, there is none of the pussyfooting sometimes required in interviews. That was true when we met just over a decade ago, prior to the release of The King’s Speech, in which he played the abdicating Edward VIII. Back then, Pearce admitted to having an addictive personality, and told me that in his wilder days he had never been able to restrict himself to merely “a little bit of drugs”. This was all before I had asked a single question: he was simply explaining why he hadn’t ordered coffee.
He seems not to have changed a bit since then, though his life has. As well as winning an Emmy in 2011 (for playing Kate Winslet’s caddish lover in the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce), he has released two albums of his own songs, starred in movies big (Iron Man 3, Prometheus) and small (The Rover, a kind of post-apocalyptic Dude, Where’s My Car?, where he teamed up with Robert Pattinson). He won’t take the credit for any of them, not even masterpieces such as Memento.
“It’s really meaningful to be involved with something like that, which has become embedded in the culture,” he says. “I feel honoured and proud. But on another level, I’ve got nothing to do with it. I was just the actor in it.”
He feels a fraud when people praise him for his minor involvement in successes such as The King’s Speech and the Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker, both of which won the Oscar for best picture, or the recent HBO crime series Mare of Easttown, which found him back in Winslet’s arms. “People have been congratulating me on Mare. I’m like, ‘C’mon! I’m only in one scene per episode!’”
Unusually among actors of his status and calibre, Pearce tends not to come with an abundance of associations, or a distinct persona. Any baggage present from one role to the next is strictly of the carry-on variety. Does he know why people cast him? “I quite often get letters from directors,” he says. “They tell me: ‘You always bring a real intensity to a role. There’s an intelligence behind the eyes, and you never have to do very much for us to know what’s going on.’”
Where does that come from? “I think from losing my dad when I was young. It means I have this whirring sort of emotional story that I’m keeping contained all the time. I’m trying my utmost in my personal life to be relaxed, but the reality is I’m sort of tempering an intensity, and I think that’s probably something which translates on screen.”
He talks as matter-of-factly about the death of his father, a New Zealand test pilot whose plane crashed when Pearce was eight, as he does about more recent developments in his private life. In 2015, his wife, the psychologist Kate Mestitz, left him after 18 years of marriage. Soon after, he met the Game of Thrones star Carice van Houten on the set of the grisly western Brimstone; the couple now have a five-year-old son. Pearce then wove together his divorce and his childhood bereavement in the title track of his 2018 album, The Nomad.
“It just sort of blurted out in that rather difficult year of 2015,” he says. “It was the whole thing about my dad’s plane being called the Nomad, and me feeling nomadic after Kate left. I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere. I connected that back to my dad dying.”
On the album, he sings: “A widowed wife’s been heard to say / ‘It’s not like he walked away / Not like he left me out of choice’ / Words that haunt me to this day / As I come to terms / With my own wife’s fearful voice.” Did his mother really say that? “Yeah. Mum’s not one for sympathy.” She’s from County Durham, he explains, and a tough cookie. “After Dad died, people would often say with big puppy-dog eyes: ‘Oh, I’m so sorry …’ Mum found it unbearable. She needed a way to shut them up so she would say ‘It’s not like he left me!’ That always stuck in my head. As if to say: ‘He’s only dead – it’s not that bad. So fuck off with your sympathy!’”
He thought about that during his break-up and divorce. “Even though by this point Mum was slipping into Alzheimer’s and I couldn’t really talk to her about this, I was very aware what her judgment would be about having my partner leave me.” The mention of his mother produces in him a twinge of guilt. “I haven’t called her for three months,” he says. “She can’t talk any more but I just call her and fill her in on my life and tell her how much I love her.”
Since becoming an adult, he has made it his mission to find out who his father really was by quizzing anyone who knew him. He had only ever heard from his mother about this infallible, heroic figure, but he wanted to learn about the other side. “What pissed him off? What were his flaws and insecurities?” Only when Pearce discovered he was about to have a son did his therapist point out that becoming a parent would bring him closer to understanding his father than any amount of detective work.
“It’s like I was looking for the answer about my dad in this one place whereas it was somewhere else all along,” he says. “It almost makes me want to tear up. The idea that I am now carrying feelings that I believe he felt connects me to him more than any amount of intellectual thoughts.
“I feel I owe it to him to carry on the fatherly job, the parental task – because he couldn’t.”
Zone 414 is available on digital download from 4 October.