April 2007


Peter Craven

As you like it

An interview with Geoffrey Rush

It's a long time now since theatre-goers in this country first became aware that Geoffrey Rush was a major actor. There was the spidery intensity of his role in Diary of a Madman and his very different Astrov in Uncle Vanya. This was an Australian actor who could leap from a play by Stephen Sewell to The Importance of Being Earnest, as if each revealed unfathomable aspects of his nature.

He isn't a pretty actor. He doesn't have eyes that stare at sunsets and make you think of bush heroes, or Shakespearean ones, like Mel Gibson or Heath Ledger. He would be a character actor, except that his plainness or snakiness gleams like a revelation and he makes his characters glitter more mesmerisingly than a pack of stars. That was what happened when he caught everyone's attention, at the most starry forum in the world, with that stammering knockout of a performance in Shine. And when Gibson gave Rush the Oscar, he said, "I always knew you had it in you." If sheer histrionic authority is what gets called greatness in an actor, no one doubted that Geoffrey Rush had it in him.

Geoffrey Rush's last appearance on an Australian stage was in 2002, with Life x 3, in which he and his wife, Jane Menelaus, transfigured the production and made it dance through a great whirligig of typologies. Well, he is back on stage again with a new production, by his friend Neil Armfield, of that classic work of high absurdism, Ionesco's Exit the King, written in the early 1960s, the Doctor Strangelove period when the stage could be crazy because the world knew all about missile crises and endgames.

Rush has been rehearsing and he has the air of a man who is striking but who is oblivious to anything striking about himself. In the dozen years since he won the Academy Award, he has always looked like the most unassuming workaday actor. It was the all-but-invisible Alec Guinness who influenced Rush in his decision to make this play the occasion for his return to the stage. Guinness, who looked ordinary but could play a whole tribe in Kind Hearts and Coronets, Fagin in Oliver Twist or the mad colonel in Bridge on the River Kwai. Guinness, who wasn't renowned for his Hamlet but for his Osric, not his Lear but his Fool.

"I got to know the play because of his involvement and I always thought he was a rather good picker of parts. And I was intrigued that when you look at all those knights, at various stages they all grubbied up a bit. You know, Olivier finally went and did The Entertainer at the Royal Court in 1957 and I'm sure by that stage Guinness was a Hollywood fixture in lots of ways, with Bridge on the River Kwai and all of that. And this play was his turn to do some weird avant-garde thing."

Rush can see why the great actors of the mid-century British theatre initially backed away from the Theatre of the Absurd: "When I studied Godot at university in 1971, we still thought it was a weird, wonderful, unusual context." He went on to do the play in what now seems like a legendary coupling with old Braveheart himself, Mel Gibson. "It was a very funny production. I suppose the ideal version is with old, old, old actors. But then, if you get really good old, old, old actors they'll never remember the double act, because it's two-and-a-half hours long ... I think Beckett ideally wanted Keaton and Chaplin to do it, because of his love of music hall. It was like Beckett went more to the Spiegeltent than he did to the Comédie Française. And that's where his theatrical, his mad Irish soul - his French soul - existed."

Geoffrey Rush is fascinated by the dramatist's sensibility, by Patrick White with his "kind of bizarre, distorted sense of little theatre. Amateur theatre in the '40s." In Exit the King, he thinks the Frenchness varnishes Ionesco's deeper instincts, that Ionesco reconfigured the anxieties of the era in an archetypal way. "You can feel the Romanian energy in there, the Eastern European darkness and depth. It's not purely the French existential bent. We've spoken a lot about trying to mentally locate and map a place for where this play happens. Ionesco distorts all the unities of time and place in it. You do want the audience to feel as though he's the king from the storybooks you read when you were a child. You know, ‘Once upon a time there was a king who was mad or was crazy or was silly' ... Then, at the same time, there's still a dictatorial, despotic, Eastern European madman that for us might have shades of the latter-day African states or the Istans now."

He is aware, too, of how deeply rooted Exit the King is in the traditions of the theatre. "There's a bit of Molière as godparent, waving a wand over it somewhere. You get a taste of the theatricality of the characters that wouldn't be out of place in Don Juan or The Imaginary Invalid. Without ever being directly quoted, there are all these strange little linguistic and thematic threads where you go, That's a bit like Lear or That's a bit like Caliban or That's a bit like another bit of Shakespeare. And all these kinds of whispers and echoes from the Shakespearean plays keep wafting through the scenario. But it is its own thing, there's no sense of a self-conscious postmodernist stance being taken by the author."

You can sense the intentness in Rush as he excavates the Ionesco play. It's as if he's travelling in the dark and falling through the floorboards of what might be a ruined house, but enjoying the illumination that ensues. "It's an unusual piece to rehearse," he says. "We're halfway through, so we're in a crude, wonky place in terms of lines and business half-remembered. You know, struggling to achieve certain sequences and then occasionally a certain bit will just gallop away with itself. And these moments just keep being detonated and you think, How the fuck did he achieve that without there being any obvious gag lines on the page or any of the rhythmical conventions?"

The conversation shifts to Shakespeare's speed of composition. I ask him how he felt about Shakespeare in Love, in which he played the Elizabethan producer Henslowe. "It was very interesting to do, because it was about the creation of Romeo and Juliet. And the scholarship of it was whimsical. But you got a real sense of the playmaking rather than the literature that Shakespeare in some ways has become."

Geoffrey Rush is a player who has always been wary of being too much of a prince. In the mid '90s, not long before Shine, he was in a famous production of Hamlet directed by Armfield for Belvoir, with Gillian Jones, Richard Roxburgh and, ultimately, Cate Blanchett. Yet weirdly, when Rush was heading for the crest of the wave, he didn't play Hamlet; he played Horatio.

Why on earth did he play second fiddle to Roxburgh's Hamlet? What actor ever played Horatio when his career was at such a height? Rush laughs, as if his self-doubt is an old story never separate from his true dramatic instincts. "There were a number of workmanlike, fateful decisions that contributed to that. Neil had suggested to me some time earlier, ‘What do you think about doing a production of Hamlet?' But Diary of a Madman was my more favoured turf; it was my strongest suit in some ways. And people in Russia had said - people whose opinion I really respected, like Ramaz Chikvadzhe - they all said, ‘Now you must play Don Quixote.'"

It's not hard to get a glimmer of the method behind the madness, though Rush is not sounding at all histrionically triumphalist about his sense of his own dramatic bent. I try to spell it out: So, he had the feeling that he should be playing tragic clowns rather than clowning tragic princes? "Maybe, sort of. That, also mixed in with the fact that I went through a period of fairly acute anxiety attacks." Was this like Olivier's stage fright at the height of his powers, when he couldn't look his fellow actors in the eye on stage? "It wasn't so much on stage. I couldn't do it on the street! It was panic syndrome. So the idea of Hamlet at that particular stage was not the most ideal therapy." He succeeds in making this sound very funny, even though we seem close to the crux, the crossroads of self-doubt and self-assurance that make Geoffrey Rush tick. He then adds, "And the bridesmaid's part of Horatio seemed a better compromise, because I wanted to be involved in the company."

The period of panic lasted between 1991 and 1995, with what Rush describes as "varying degrees of intensity"; it was the cross he carried during the period that preceded Shine. "And it just became a sort of awkward cumbersome dead weight or lump of fright that you had to also negotiate while you were negotiating all the other things that are thrilling and scary for you as an actor, in terms of creating a role."

David Helfgott was Rush's god-given film role: it gave him his Oscar and his international career. Did he know that it was going to break the mould for him and that the performance would become so celebrated? "No, I knew it was what we call in the business a ‘lovely role'." He laughs at the wonder of it. "It was extremely well written - highly unusual, because here was a character in a film that just leapt out from the page at me. I had very incidental glances at film possibilities from, let's say, the late '70s until the mid '90s." He says that he once appeared in a crime film called Hoodwink, in which he looked like "a prematurely born embryonic stoat. I look at it now and think, How could I have gone in front of a camera looking like that?"

He had always been a stage actor, not much interested in films, or of huge interest to people making them. The international career that followed in the wake of Shine transformed Rush's life both financially and in terms of recognition. He emphasises the shift in routine. "Because of films, suddenly my work patterns changed radically; normally I'd be interstate, sleeping on a friend's floor. At least when you're doing a film, they put you up in a hotel. So being away from home suddenly meant being in a hotel in LA or London. So that was different and the finances were different because no one earns anything to survive on here in the non-commercial - you can't say subsidised, because there is no subsidy - theatre. I look at my contemporaries and I don't know how they survive." (Two of Geoffrey Rush's very distinguished contemporaries, Gillian Jones and Bille Brown, are joining him in Exit the King.)

Should Australian theatre be much more heavily subsidised, then? "I suppose that's the corollary," he replies. "There hasn't evolved a commercial theatre - on any level - in Australia that's not musical." It's one of the odd things about Geoffrey Rush, who is the opposite of an Australian actor in the Bryan Brown mode, that he has - by necessity, I suspect, not affinity - a fierce cultural nationalism. At the same time, even as he's talking about the imported actors of yore, he deplores the fact that he was too prejudiced to go and see Rex Harrison, "one of the great all-time light comedians", when he toured Australia.

When Harrison won the 1964 Oscar for his Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, he had been world famous for many years, with masterpieces like Blithe Spirit and Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours behind him. When Geoffrey Rush won the 1996 Oscar, not that many people outside of Australia had heard of him. He won it from scratch, as it were. "I wasn't part of that club," he says, conscious of the fact that his peers had honoured him for nothing but the power of his performance. "At the time I was quite rightly, genuinely humble and self-deprecating, because I think I had it all pretty clearly in perspective. I probably should have been more boastful and said, We did this with an Australian film. I'm an Australian actor in a very small, independently produced film that happens to be a complete shift in what we've ever made in this country.

"It was one of the first really key dramas that had a very unusual subject matter - very left-of-centre, in terms of it being about a musician. It wasn't about a sports hero or a famous historic figure or any of the kind of clichéd icons of Australiana." That's the old Rush defiance, the pride in Australian achievement (national before personal) in the face of any potential disdain for cultural patriotic claptrap.

You can tell how little sympathy he has for the glitz of Hollywood. "Shine rarely makes retrospective lists, I find. It doesn't fit in with the shrill clamour of the glamour obsession." You can tell, too, how uneasily it's all viewed by an actor's actor like Rush, who is as separate from Hollywood's capers as a Paul Scofield or a Judi Dench. Like them, he is a stage actor and he says ruefully about the years he has been away from the theatre, "I should have a T-shirt made saying, ‘Oh, I forgot to go back on the stage.' It's one of those things where the last ten years seem like a real blur ... I might have stymied some of the experimental options I had, by keeping myself available for films."

In practice, he would keep himself free to do something like his cameo in the Coen brothers' Intolerable Cruelty. That gig and its ilk were "the perks of being able to move in and around what I call the meat - the scary, challenging roles like Peter Sellers or De Sade in Quills which kept my career buoyant and active". David Helfgott, the Marquis de Sade, Peter Sellers: yes, they are all disturbed creative types, Rush admits, but then, think of all the gangsters and cops De Niro and Pacino, the heroes of his youth, played. And, of course, fractured portraits of the artist are a mainstream tradition. "Those films - they're all edgy. Whereas in the theatrical repertoire, it's pretty standard that most of the great classical roles are a bit crazy: Hamlet, loopy, questioning his identity, going a bit mad, or pretending or both; Richard III, criminally insane; King Lear, bonkers; Don Quixote, a nutter. That's what drama does: it explores the range and edges of heroic central figures in our collective psyche."

Mind you, he adds, he's also proud of his Trotsky (in Frida), his Pelican (in Finding Nemo) and - he laughs - his Pirate. Pirates of the Caribbean is the big-budget crowd-pleaser that upped the ante immeasurably for Rush. You can hear the warmth of the natural-born entertainer as he talks about the sequence. "By Pirates 3, they're juggling 12 or 15 strands of plot, bringing it all to a climax ... With Johnny Depp at the centre of it, they weren't just casting a matinee idol, they were casting probably the best - as well as the prettiest - character actor Hollywood's ever known." Pirates is a dream come true that takes him back to the Technicolor mists of childhood. "That was a great experience for a contemporary middle-aged actor. I had a taste of the absolute populist end of the spectrum. You know, I was 30 miles out at sea on a beautiful replica galleon. My prop. With 80 pirates, lights, hovering helicopters, explosions and a hundred guys sword-fighting. Blokes providing smoke, wind machines, the lot. That was kind of good. I felt I'd dipped my toe into the sort of things that, when I was a kid, would have been of the greatest importance to me."

You can hear Geoffrey Rush the stage actor and Geoffrey Rush the man who became a movie actor in middle age rubbing against each other. He keeps coming back to the culture/commerce problem like it's a sore tooth. Why can Jack O'Brien in New York jump from directing Hairspray to Shakespeare's Henry IV at the Lincoln Center with Kevin Kline? Neil Armfield can do Keating! and Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, but what about Billy Elliot? Sure, back in the '60s and the early '70s, Jim Sharman could do Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar and then a radical As You Like It, but that was then, when popular culture was producing Marlon Brando in The Godfather, as well as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro - and De Niro in The Deer Hunter and 1900.

Rush is at the edge of reverie as he remembers the young De Niro, an actor you never read an interview with. "You just went and watched what he did and it was constantly expansive, always a revelation. And he seemed to be defying commerciality." And just as there is the Hollywood of Brando and De Niro and Pacino at their finest, just as there were the brief moments of Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams, so Geoffrey Rush is willing to sign up to an ideal Hollywood. "I had an extraordinary encounter with - not the Hollywood Richard Wilkins thinks he's promoting - but an alternate Hollywood." He says that as a result of his big film roles (not least Pirates), he now gets offered the dream list of major roles on Broadway. The trouble is, they offer him ones he's chary of: George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the Spencer Tracy / Jack Lemmon part in Inherit the Wind. "They think, He does theatah and he's polished and he's done classics, so this'll be classy."

For Geoffrey Rush, it would be a lot more attractive to export Australian theatre. "My thinking is, having taken Diary to Russia and seeing other theatre there, I'm really keen to say, ‘Look, we've just done a production of Exit the King. If it scrubs up and if it's got legs, do you want to pop this into your theatre?' Because we don't cross the pond enough yet, and we should. They've taken Cloudstreet to the National in England and the Brooklyn Academy in New York. But I'd like to make it not so much a matter of short-term guesting. And not us just taking an exclusively Australian piece. I mean, it would be great if Belvoir could take The Gates of Egypt by Stephen Sewell and Exit the King and Hamlet. Or Ubu, or whatever. These things we have done as a company. I'd like to be part of that movement a bit."

He wonders about the parts he might do in the theatre. "There's a sort of strange wish list and I'm one of those people who can always think of really good reasons for not doing a role." Cyrano? What about Depardieu? There are other parts he was born to play. Not Hamm in Beckett's Endgame, but Clov. And in the commercial theatre, think of the Fagin he would make in Oliver! He wonders if he won't do more theatre. "I've probably reached a point where I've got film out of my system a bit. I've had a very enjoyable exploratory time." Besides, he says, he's getting older and less fashionable and isn't yet a veteran. Though no one ever stopped Alec Guinness, born again as Obi-Wan Kenobi. I suspect the melancholy rumination in Geoffrey Rush will always be giving him doubts.

Towards the end of our time the conversation shifts back to one of his first great roles, as the Fool to Warren Mitchell's King Lear. Mitchell, the loud-mouthed bigot Alf Garnett on British TV's Till Death Do Us Part, decided to remake himself. Rush remembers this with great fondness. "He was a real mentor. Warren had been studying with a kind of Stella Adler school in England, so he was very much into text analysis and sort of latter-day Method objectives and super-objectives, trace memory and all that sort of stuff. And I was coming at the Fool with physical identification and clowning and whatever. And it was a really healthy mix, because he was really intrigued with what I was up to and I was really intrigued by his methodology. Because, you know, I hadn't studied that in that way and he was really open and available to me."

Warren Mitchell decided to become an Australian citizen, like that other notable Jewish Londoner, Miriam Margolyes, with whom Geoffrey Rush worked in the movie about Peter Sellers - she played his mother - for which he won an Emmy and a Golden Globe. In The Life and Death of Peter Sellers Rush has to impersonate various characters in Sellers' life, including his mum. "Miriam was great ... when I played her, she was the only one of the actors who hung around and she directed me. You know, really kind of in there. She's a real thesp. A real good old thesp." "Old thesp" is clearly a badge of honour to Geoffrey Rush, actor and Oscar-winner.

He radiates his love of the theatre with a seriousness that he knows sometimes scares him witless and is not separate from his crazy humour. You can feel the hilarity and the pensiveness in this man, as well as an iron in the soul not separate from his frailty. He says mildly that they'll want him back at rehearsal for Exit the King: "It's a mind-fuck at the moment, because we're trying to mentally get the riffs of existential burlesque farce. And it's not easy."

May Stephen Sewell write masterpieces for this man and may he get his chance at the windmills of Don Quixote, as the wise heads of the Russian theatre said he should. And may Hollywood keep him comfortable and Broadway, in due course, give him his due. He is a great tragic clown, and drama - theatre and film - has no higher breed. If you happen to stumble on Swimming Upstream, the film in which he played the fanatical father of a potentially great swimmer, you'll see Geoffrey Rush, alongside Judy Davis, presenting everyday Australian life in all its pity and terror. It's a performance that would have impressed Eugene O'Neill. It's a performance that would have scared the Greeks.

Peter Craven

Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

Cover: April 2007
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