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He's Inspired by Letting Go

Guy Pearce works by losing himself in his characters. 'It just kind of takes over and I move with it,' he says.

March 15, 2001|HUGH HART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It seems pretty obvious where Guy Pearce is: He's sitting in a cafe on Santa Monica Boulevard at a table with a bowl of fruit in front of him. The thing is, Pearce isn't entirely there. For about three seconds on a recent weekend, Pearce, surrounded by the clatter of a late-morning brunch crowd, stares into space, eyes clouded over, absolutely still, silent, focused. He's channeling a moment from "Memento," an ingenious psychological thriller that opens Friday in Los Angeles and New York.

Pearce plays former insurance adjuster Leonard Shelby, who's suffered chronic short-term memory loss ever since his wife was brutally murdered. To remember faces, facts and names while he tries to solve the crime, Leonard takes Polaroids and tattoos his body with key clues.

Snapping out of his "Memento" moment, Pearce explains the peculiar sensation of reading a script that begins at the end and proceeds backward in time to the chronological beginning of the story, when the truth at the root of Leonard's trauma is revealed.

"I felt the same kind of confusion or complexity that the audience feels when they watch the film," Pearce says. He convinced writer-director Christopher Nolan that he needed to get a grip on the chronology and literally tore the script apart. "I did literally cut out sections of the page, and laid them out in one little short film. It was kind of a messy process, but it worked for me."

Nolan recalls relling him, " 'Maybe you shouldn't do that. The character's confused, maybe you should be.' And Guy said, 'No, no, I'm an actor, this is what I do: I learn it and then I forget it."

Once he'd absorbed the story's real-time narrative thread, Pearce says, "I latched onto the little tiny emotional world that Leonard was whizzing around in and really kind of found myself letting go of all this other stuff."

That stuff is the very thing most actors rely on--motivation, back story, subtext. By contrast, the "Memento" man who literally can't remember anything for more than a minute needs to be a blank slate.

"People think to be an actor, you have to study your back story and remember all these elements. I don't operate like that at all," Pearce says. "I read something and feel completely inspired by it and for some reason or other, it just kind of takes over and I move with it. . . . Doing 'Memento,' I could let go of everything; it was a really freeing experience because Leonard was the one doing all the acting, it wasn't me."

Come again? "Leonard, the character that I played, is the guy doing all the acting; it's not me at all," Pearce says. "I was really just kind of the body that Leonard. . . ." Pearce trails off, then tries again: "I find it a really difficult thing to explain, but it was a really pure experience making that movie. When they'd call 'cut' I'd kind of come out the other side and go, 'What happened?' "

*

"If Guy could disappear completely into each part he plays, he'd be a happy man," says Curtis Hanson, the director who introduced Pearce to American audiences in his 1997 film "L.A. Confidential." By that measure, Pearce should be pretty content. Scarcely recognizable from role to role, Pearce donned a turquoise beehive wig as a sharp-tongued drag queen in "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert."

Next came his bespectacled, puritanical detective Ed Exley in "L.A. Confidential," followed by the bearded, cannibalistic army officer in "Ravenous" and now "Memento's" buff, blond, buzz-cut loner.

Remarkable range, given that Pearce has never taken an acting class.

"To me acting has always been something I've done as a form of survival," Pearce says.

Pearce grew up in Melbourne, Australia. His father, a pilot, died when he was 8. Pearce grew up fast, helping his mom raise his younger sister and learning how to act by simply putting a happy face on things.

"It was a fairly extreme thing for me as a kid," he recounts, "with people judging me for looking a bit surly or angry. But when someone asks how you are, I'd be acting like I was fine, like I was OK. So consequently, you get good at it."

By age 11 Pearce was singing in musicals such as "The King and I." A few years later he got into competitive bodybuilding. Fresh out of high school, Pearce joined the cast of an Australian prime-time soap opera called "Neighbors," which became a national phenomenon when it debuted in 1985. To his dismay, Pearce became a teen idol.

"I don't care what anyone says. People shouting at you, screaming at you, pulling at your sweatshirt when you're walking through a shopping center and wanting an autograph, the expectations. . . . It can't get any worse than that. I really don't want to go through that again."

After "Priscilla" was released to critical acclaim in 1994, Pearce began taking meetings in Los Angeles, where he was repeatedly told to "lose the Australian accent." Hanson cast Pearce in "Confidential" on the basis of a 15-minute audition. The director chose not to watch "Priscilla."

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