Pearce takes a bad turn

A little more than a decade ago, Guy Pearce had broken through in Hollywood but was struggling to deal with a relentless workload and his new celebrity.

He was known around the world for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, L.A. Confidential and Memento but after shooting four movies in quick succession, including a couple of troubled productions, the Australian actor needed time out.

So Pearce retired to a remote spot north of Broome for a month of self-reflection, reading about Tibetan Buddhism, thinking about fame and making some life-changing decisions, including stopping dope-smoking.

”It was not so much about doing big movies, it was doing too much work back-to-back,” Pearce says. ”In that 2000, 2001, 2002 period, it was non-stop.

”When you’re an actor starting out, you don’t see the value of those big breaks you’re having between jobs because all you want is another job.”

Clearly, the changes that Pearce made have paid off.

Of all the Australian actors who are successful in Hollywood, he has just about the richest career, mixing high-quality films (including The Road, Lawless and the back-to-back best picture Oscar winners The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech) with big commercial movies (Bedtime Stories, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Prometheus) and smaller-scale Australian films (Animal Kingdom, The Proposition, and recently, the futuristic outback drama The Rover).

He has also shone in television (Mildred Pierce, which won him an Emmy, and the Jack Irish telemovies) and on stage (Poor Boy).

Now comes a different stage in Pearce’s Hollywood career – his first comic-book superhero movie.

In Iron Man 3, he plays suave villain Aldrich Killian, whose company has developed a way of biologically enhancing humans. And having formerly employed Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), he emerges as a romantic rival to Tony Stark (Robert Downey jnr), who has to fight back when his home is destroyed.

It’s a movie with high expectations: the original Iron Man grossed a strong US$585 million worldwide, the sequel took US$624 million, and its wise-cracking superhero featured in The Avengers, which took more than both combined.

While Pearce understands why audiences enjoy the genre – they’re stories with heroes – he is honest enough to admit he is no fan of comic books.

”It’s sort of a fantasy world that just doesn’t appeal to me, that doesn’t mean anything to me in a way,” he says. ”Science fiction does to a certain degree because I’m really aware of technology and I’m really aware of people out there at the cutting edge trying to advance things and how easily that can go badly versus going well.

”That aspect of the storyline I found really appealing. But it wasn’t like I had to put on a cape and fly around.”

Pearce took on the movie, he says, partly because he likes to chop and change in his work.

”I think the first two were great, their chemistry is great and it was a good script with a fun sort of role in it,” he says.

Pearce found Downey jnr to be surprisingly sensitive to everyone on set.

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”I was a bit nervous that he might have been a bit of a firecracker and he was never going to listen to anything anyone said. I thought, ‘Wow, this guy’s a genius, he’s not even going to notice I’m there.’ But it was the complete opposite.

”And it’s not like he’s sold out and he’s playing some schlocky superhero and he’s doing it badly. He’s brought this incredible skill to a role that somebody else might be bland with.”

At 45, Pearce barely looks older than when he joined a troupe of drag queens touring the outback in Priscilla.

”Once I got to 37, 38, I could feel I had to work just a little bit harder in the gym, just had to go for a slightly longer run in the morning. I know I look younger than I am [but] I’ve never really struggled putting weight on. It’s a bit more of an effort the other way: I’ve got to make sure I eat because otherwise I tend to fade away.”

Having described himself as ”a really nervy person”, Pearce says that two years of engaging with Buddhism was one of the greatest experiences of his life.

”I’m not really religious at all but it was almost like going, ‘What can I use from this that’s going to help me’

”This is what helps me: the meditation and looking at things that are ritualistic in your life and having real respect for them – even if it’s just doing the dishes.”

Iron Man 3 opens today

– Sydney Morning Herald