Geoffrey Rush: A Man For All Seasons
Sunday May 20, 2007
As the murderous Captain Barbossa, Geoffrey Rush thrills the blockbuster crowd as effortlessly as his ageing kings seduce serious theatre fans. Here, the Oscar-winner talks about pirates, painting and seeing in colourGeoffrey Rush sits cooped on the couch, a pair of half-moon specs atop that patrician nose. His comb-proof hair, in fact, is still kinked from the traces of a crown. In April, Rush finished a one-month reign as Berenger in Exit The King, a Eugene Ionesco play, at Melbourne's Malthouse. The Age described his performance as a tour de force, saying that "Rush evokes laughter and disgust, pity and fear in equal measure." In his latest big-screen role, he returns to the skin of Captain Barbossa in the hugely anticipated Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End, the third in the series. The man is a multitude. Across a 36-year career, that protean body has held a Spanish mutineer, a French marquis, a Mossad agent and a gay junkie in Candy. But counting his roles is a folly - as Peter Sellers alone, the Brissie boy hijacked 38 characters in a single biopic. More than a resume, his career is a jaw-dropping rollcall, from Snoopy on stage to a cop in Les Miserables, from David Helfgott in Shine to a Godot tramp. He's swung from a cut-snake Russian in Diary Of A Madman to an orphaned koala in The Magic Pudding. To the time line add a dozen arch Elizabethans and enough awards - BAFTAs, Golden Globes, an Oscar and an Emmy - to smelt into a crown.Actor Gillian Jones, who played queen to his King Berenger, says, "I've known him for 27 years and in that time, he's become more and more Geoffrey. He's meticulous. He works away on things. He invents things but he's got this wonderful capacity to be."But Rush, 55, admits that it's not as easy as it used to be. "Eight shows a week is getting tougher," he confesses in his familiar tenor. "You don't bounce back as quickly." In fairness, the king's role is massive - two hours a night, four with a matinee - tumbling and ranting till death claims him at curtain. Who wouldn't be knackered? By comparison, he describes his role alongside Johnny Depp as "dressing up to play pirates". The captain himself looms above us. The promo poster for At World's End adorns the walls of the Buena Vista film offices in Melbourne. "They had us in harnesses for these photos," he recalls. "You had to lean right out to get an action shot." He studies himself - a suburban dad of two thrilling at the buccaneer he sees staring back. "I love the smoky tones they've done."Rush confesses to a kind of synesthesia, where two senses cross wires. In his case, days of the week are linked to discrete colours: "Friday is dark maroon, a type of sienna, and Saturday is definitely white. Monday is a cool blue." He links the attribute to his Brisbane childhood. "Since I was seven, when I first learnt counting, numbers had specific colours. My kids [Angelica, 14, and James, 11] say, 'Dad you're not abnormal, you're not different - you're just crazy.'" Rush's own history is colourful and deeply Australian. His dad, Roy, an accountant, left home when Geoffrey was five. His mother, Merle, a sales assistant, moved from Toowoomba to Brisbane, where a shearer stepdad joined the picture. "Out of the sandiest, rockiest soil, stuff blooms," says the actor. He recalls his mum as "the jiver, a truly spirited woman, generous towards whatever direction I was going in". That direction was thespian. "I toured Queensland a number of times [with the Queensland Theatre Company] in the early '70s. I remember sitting out on the balcony of some big, sprawling pub in Barcaldine. We were a bit hippie-ish - we had long hair and probably floral shirts. And you hear these guys saying, 'It's those horses' hooves from Brisbane.'" He pauses, chuckles. "We must have been pooves, I guess."The boy fled the colony for Paris in 1975 to study mime. "Not this," he clarifies, pulling aside an invisible drape to peek out, purse-lipped, "but what I call top-to-toe acting, learning to use your body in transcendent ways." The key to performance is not to illustrate, Rush elaborates, but "to fill the silhouette". Mime artists call it identification. The role of Peter Sellers, say, was never an identikit exercise but the challenge of being Sellers, living his life from within and letting all parts reflect that life. Grasping any role takes "quiet study" and a PhD in empathy - or "embedding the emotional memory". "Acting is very much like painting," adds Rush. "You play around with tones. A role may need more cool, more warmth. There is no real end point. You never stop defining." Paint is foremost in Geoffrey's mind, thanks to the passion of his actor and artist wife, Jane Menelaus, 47. "In the past few years, she's been doing more and more stuff. Her style is Lucian Freud - bold, not photographic, more a feel of what she's looking at, with this radical use of colour for skin tones." The two tied the knot in 1988, on the eve of co-starring in a stage production of The Importance Of Being Earnest. With Geoffrey as bachelor John Worthing and Jane as the comely Gwendolen Fairfax, the newlyweds had the chance to propose with Wildean abandon every night - twice including matinees. So has the painting bug bitten, I ask. "I own quite a big palette and a reasonable range of expression when it comes to objectifying [with my body]. But on paper it's only stick figures." Rush himself is something of the stick figure. Frequently described as "rumpled", "windswept", "gangly", "coiled", his 183-centimetre appearance has also attracted the words "playdough" and "lived-in". Rush sniggers. "You forgot 'lanky'. I'm always called lanky." He drains his sugared latte. "Most of those words crop up because I do interviews for the next project the day after I've finished the last one, drinking all night with my mates..." After all the accolades, is he still hounded by ambition? "I think I have it but I keep those demons low. I've been around long enough to know that my strength is my more thoughtful, reflective side. I chew things over before making a decision."He keeps a notebook, he says, at home in Camberwell in the steepled east of Melbourne. "I write down all the roles I've turned down [or missed out on]. Occasionally, I'll look back at the list and kick myself but there's very little by way of regret in there."Well, OK, maybe there was one, he admits. "Roman Polanski was going to do Oliver Twist and I just wanted to play Fagin. It was one of those films I'd seen as a kid. I love the Alec Guinness performance. Then I thought, 'There have been 28 other people who have done that: what else? I'm just entering into a sausage thing, in a way.'" Rush reached a short list of three before the gig went to Ben Kingsley. No matter, say the fingers. An actor can't dwell too long. Existing in two continents - half the year making movies offshore and half rejuvenating in Melbourne - is a regular menace to family life. But love and sanity have shaped the schedule. "Most projects are a three-month package," he says. "We've been lucky with Pirates - a lot of that fell over our summer holidays. So for December and January, Jane and the kids could come over to LA [or the Caribbean] and hang out. The Pirates set is a breeze for kids - you've got the sword master and the special-effects guys. I say, 'Go watch what they do.' They watch polystyrene planks, crusted in barnacles, getting packed with mortar and then blown out for the shot." Any aspiring dolly-grippers in the family? "Too early," smiles Rush, "though James likes getting on the cans [headphones] ... and listening to all the chatter from the artistic director."Does it bother him, with theatre locked in the moment, that film might be his only legacy? The monkey on your back, I tease, could be being known simply as the man with a monkey on his shoulder. "I suppose that may happen," he grins, not troubled. Then he adds a lament: "Theatre doesn't rate in mainstream press unless it's gossip driven. We're in the dying phases of celebrity culture."So what big role is waiting in the wings? In spirit, Rush seems destined to revive Don Quixote and he can't disagree. "Have you read the book? It's brutally funny. People think the story romantic but there's this klutz with big dreams who has the bejesus knocked out of him one night in a tavern and he has to deal with that. It's so compelling and alarmingly modern. The character appeals. He belongs to that non-heroic outsider lineage."As does Rush, in a funny way - a Hollywood star without a single dab of product. Limelight barely rates on his radar. "Geoffrey is gracious," says Claire Dobbin, a longtime friend and chair of the Melbourne International Film Festival, of which Rush is patron. "He will seek out people he doesn't know and talk to them. He's very thoughtful, deeply intellectual and an irresistible clown. He understands the ephemeral nature of celebrity and that there are bigger things underpinning everything. I've never heard him start a story with, 'When I was with Johnny Depp...'" ?Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End opens on Thursday; Exit The King will play at Sydney's Belvoir St Theatre from June 9 to July 29.THE CHARACTERS THAT RUSH BUILTPoprischin (Diary Of A Madman, Belvoir St Theatre, 1989): Rush's delusional clerk was part Leunig's Mr Curly and part "[comic] Tony Hancock as a ham radio operator".David Helfgott (Shine, 1996): four months of piano tuition and study of Helfgott's speech and mannerisms.Clint, age 5 (The Small Poppies, Belvoir St Theatre, 1999): "My kids were five and seven and Jane [Rush's wife] said, 'You spliced both children into that.'"Marquis de Sade (Quills, 2000): blend a mountain goat and a peacock with a fallen glam rocker and voila. Peter Sellers (The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers, 2004): Rush channelled a remark from director Stephen Hopkins: "Men are really sad sometimes and stupid, vain and pathetic - and fantastic."