In films as wide-ranging and diverse as Memento, L.A. Confidential, The Hurt Locker, Animal Kingdom, The King’s Speech, and most recently, Mildred Pierce, Guy Pearce has brought many complex characters to life in compelling roles. In his latest movie, the futuristic action thriller Lockout, he turns in another riveting performance as Agent Snow, a cynical, sarcastic guy with a scathing sense of humor who is tasked with the dangerous assignment of rescuing the daughter of the U.S. President when her humanitarian mission is derailed by an intergalactic prison break.
We sat down with Pearce at a roundtable interview to talk about what inspired him to play a serious, badass action hero that’s so completely different from his usual roles. He told us what attracted him to the character of Snow, how he got in shape for the physically demanding role, and why he enjoyed shooting on location in Belgrade, Serbia. He also talked about his lifelong passion for music and songwriting, the possibility of a Lockout sequel, and his upcoming projects including Prometheus, John Hillcoat’s Lawless (formerly known as The Wettest County) and an untitled Drake Doremus project.
Question: Let me say on behalf of all the women who have already seen this film, you have never looked hotter or better.
PEARCE: It was a lot of serious working out in a Belgrade gym.
What kind of training did you do to get yourself into shape for this film and handle all the tricky wirework?
PEARCE: It is tricky, yes. I just went back to the gym. I used to work out in the gym a lot when I was younger. I was a competition body builder when I was 16 or something crazy like that for a short period of time. So, the gym is quite familiar and I know what I’m doing there. It was really about taking lots of protein and buffing up as much as I could, which stopped the day we finished shooting. For a number of reasons, and obviously for the look of the character, I think it was important that he looked like a serious action hero, even though he has this slightly irreverent sense of humor about the whole thing and feels a bit old and a bit afraid of heights. But it was good for me because it was a physical role. It was good to feel strong and feel like I was in shape, even though I kept injuring myself every week as well. It became a bit of a joke between me and the crew. “Oh, what’s he done this time?”
How high did the medical insurance go up?
PEARCE: I think through the roof. But the wirework is fun. It’s just awkward. It’s awful to be suspended by your groin for hours on end and try to remember what you’re supposed to be doing at the same time.
We’re more used to you doing roles like The King’s Speech or Mildred Pierce. Have you always wanted to play a badass character like this?
PEARCE: Well, it’s not that I’ve always wanted that. I never really think about roles that I want to do. I just wait to read things, I suppose. I met with Luc Besson here just before I was going off to do Mildred Pierce and had a discussion about it. I liked the sound of the character. And then, I met with the directors when I was in New York doing Mildred and they both said “Well he’s a bit skinny, isn’t he? We might have to set up…” “I’ll be fine. I’ll buff up.” So it wasn’t that I necessarily wanted to do something like that, but I just enjoyed where the character was coming from and I thought it was a nice change from things that I had been doing at the time like The King’s Speech and various things like that.
Was chewing gum your personal choice for Snow?
PEARCE: I can’t remember now, but it might have been written in there, I think.
Do you see it as sort of an homage to Burt Reynolds?
PEARCE: Not specifically. I didn’t go back and look at any other films. Stephen (St. Leger), one of the directors, was talking about how he enjoyed these kinds of action heroes who do have a sense of humor and who don’t take themselves too seriously, I suppose. But we didn’t go back and talk about any specific characters as such from films.
Is there a certain trick to delivering the one liners just right?
PEARCE: There probably is. I don’t know whether I’m able to do it because I haven’t seen it.
Did you work on the funny one liners to make sure they came out right?
PEARCE: They’re all written in there. Some I needed to adjust a little bit to make them work for me, which I do on any film anyway, I find. If something doesn’t come out of your mouth right, you’ve got to acknowledge the fact that you’re trying to deliver an honest performance. If it doesn’t’ come out of your mouth correctly, then it’s not going to work. So no, not anymore than any other film really. I didn’t want it to be just a device or an aspect of the film. I needed it to be honest within the character. I needed to find somebody who was naturally like that, had reached a point in his life. I think that’s how I viewed it, that it was a guy who had done all this kind of stuff many times before. He’s sick of being beaten up. He’s sick of leading this kind of life and probably sick of being misogynistic. It was nice to work with Maggie (Grace), for example, who has such a mature level about her and was able to put him in his place when she could. He’s a bit of a smart aleck and hard to put in his place. I wanted it to feel like an honest character. I didn’t want to go “Oh, okay. It’s one of those movies. This is what they do. They deliver the sassy one line.”
Your character and Maggie’s character reminded me of the Hans Solo/Princess Leia dynamic. Do you see that at all?
PEARCE: I guess so when you say it, but I certainly didn’t … When I’m in the middle of doing something, I never really think of any other film. I think that’s healthy as well because I don’t want to feel like I’m plagiarizing something. You don’t want to discover later that you’ve plagiarized something either. But no, I’m just so involved in what [I’m doing] and I feel like on some level most characters that you play are a reflection of others that have been on the screen before. But I guess it is a fairly common theme in action films. I think a lot of action characters are a little bit too serious as well. They take themselves a bit too seriously, which I don’t find particularly interesting, whereas I like the fact that there was at least some humor in this because really it’s a piece of entertainment. If it can be entertaining for us as well, then I think it helps.
Do you ever watch a movie that you’re in and see it in a completely different way compared to what it felt like when you were the actor on set?
PEARCE: I’ve done films before and gone “Oh, it doesn’t quite land the way that it could have or should have.” Not necessarily seeing it differently but maybe just the rhythm of it isn’t as I’d hoped or whatever.
Is your sense of humor similar to that of your character? Are you that sarcastic in real life?
PEARCE: No. I mean, I can be, but I think I care more about the people around me than this guy does.
That’s sexy, too.
PEARCE: Really? Maybe I should take that. (laughs)
With all the great banter and sexual tension between you and Maggie, it seems like a good set-up for more stories. Do you think there’ll be a Lockout sequel?
PEARCE: I don’t know. I guess it depends on how successful it is. Then I may have to go back to the gym, wouldn’t I? I think it’s left open for that, but it’s obviously based on whether the film makes enough money, I suppose.
Were you worried that the part where you hit Maggie could come off wrong and be perceived as misogynistic?
PEARCE: Not anymore than anything else in the film. As a singular action, I think it needs to fall within the realm of him as an entire character. So, if that comes off as misogynistic, then everything else should or probably would anyway. I think he’s generally kind of misogynistic. He loves women but he’s quite immature, so he doesn’t really know how the best way is to handle them. But, at the same time, there are also hints at how good he is at what he does. They’re in a life and death situation, so no matter how smart alecky he is with her, they’re on a prison with 500 other prisoners. And, as much as he probably took a liberty there by doing what he did, I think ultimately he comes from a particular world where things have to be done in a particular way and it’s brutal. That’s all there is to it. Otherwise, you’re going to get yourself killed. I can justify it in that way as well. And that, probably also, is connected to being a misogynist on some level, but that’s just the world that he lives in.
Maggie said that one of the hardest scenes was when you guys were trying to run in your spacesuits. Was that the hardest scene for you, too?
PEARCE: That was terrible. I’m not sure. It was terrible trying to get those bloody things on. It took half an hour to get them on and half an hour to get them off. We sort of drilled into them and drilled out of them. It was uncomfortable. It was really uncomfortable. People are always asking what the most difficult thing was to do. Ultimately, the most difficult thing to do is be convincing and sometimes that’s harder in some scenes than in other scenes. That’s my overriding feeling throughout any film is just to make sure that everything you do is as convincing as it can be. Things like putting on an uncomfortable spacesuit or hanging in wires by your groin or whatever just add to the difficulty of it. But we couldn’t hear anything. We couldn’t hear each other. We had to hold hands at one point and all you could feel was like clack, clack. “Was that your hand? Do we look like we’re holding hands? Okay. Action!”
When you saw the final scene in the film, what was your reaction?
PEARCE: Good! It looks like it works. That’s where you trust your directors and you look at the monitor and go “Okay, this works.” But it was difficult wearing those horrible yellow suits.
What was it like for you working in Serbia? Had you been there before? What did you do in your off time?
PEARCE: I didn’t really have much off time. I was in a lot of the stuff. Obviously, there are a few scenes that Maggie does that I’m not in. But I was at the gym. Pretty much I was at the gym. I did have a driver who was insistent on taking me around and showing me Belgrade which was great to do. Even if I wanted to do something else, he was still insistent on doing it. But it’s a fascinating place. Obviously, it’s got quite a tumultuous history. I thought the people were fantastic there because they’re obviously out for a good time. I guess when you live in a war torn country, you want to have as much fun as you can in between bombs going off. I generally love Eastern Europe anyway. There’s an artistic, intellectual and psychological view of the world that I find really alive and engaging. It’s different in different countries obviously, but it was fascinating being there, I have to say. I think Maggie had bigger chunks of time where she wasn’t working than I did. I would probably have half a day or a day somewhere, whereas Maggie had periods of six or seven days when she wasn’t working. I think that becomes difficult. I never experienced that. I was busy. And funnily enough, I was more isolated than they were because they all stayed in the one hotel in the new part of town over the river, and I stayed in the old town in an apartment. I had this fantastic apartment. I had a guitar with me, so if I had any free time, I could play the guitar. If I wasn’t too bruised, I had something to play. I had a nice time there.
You’ve chosen some very eclectic roles throughout your career. We’ve just seen you in Seeking Justice which is totally different…
PEARCE: Which is so not the movie it was called when I did it. They say “You did this movie called Seeking Justice.” No, I did a movie called The Hungry Rabbit Jumps, but now it’s called Seeking Justice.
With the diversity of characters going all the way back to The Count of Monte Cristo, what is it that speaks to you about a role and what spoke to you about Snow?
PEARCE: I do like a variety of things so I’m always interested in finding something that I haven’t done before, if possible, to whatever degree that sometimes changes, and how much is something now that I wouldn’t have a year ago but sort of based on what I’ve done recently as well. Obviously, it has to feel honest. But it’s a difficult thing to explain because sometimes you might read a book, for example, and then the book stays with you for days afterwards, and that’s what I need from a script as well. I need to feel that it’s got this life that kind of bubbles away, whereas some scripts you read and you go “Well I can see what you’re going for. It’s sort of an interesting idea, but it just kind of dies as soon as you finish the last page.” There’s no life that’s left in me when reading it. It’s about a feeling, I think. I don’t specifically look for certain characters. I don’t have one idea of a character out there that I want to play, and it does change at times as well. I was talking about having done Bedtime Stories the other day, and somebody said “Why did you do Bedtime Stories?” I said “Well, in 2007, I’d done a film about a massacre at a café. I’d done this film about this girl being murdered in Australia. I did Hurt Locker about the Iraq War. And then, I did a movie about terrorism. So, when Adam Shankman rang me and said, ‘We’re gonna do this crazy comedy with Adam Sandler. Would you be interested?,’ I said ‘Yes! Fantastic!’” You work, I suppose, based on your emotional responses to things.
I’m excited about your next space movie, Prometheus.
PEARCE: Yes. Everyone is very excited about that.
Do you feel any extra weight playing a character named Wayland?
PEARCE: I do on some kind of level. I’m trying not to take that on. There’s an extra weight added to that movie because everybody has such an expectation. And, it’s an interesting time at the moment because there’s a lot of discussion going on about what we can say and what we can’t say that keeps changing. I’m reluctant to talk about it really because none of that is established yet. But it’s an interesting thing to be part of, obviously because of Ridley and because of Ridley’s history with other films. I’m just going “Whoa, this is a big beast to be attached to,” and I’m very curious to see it. I haven’t seen it myself, but the little bits that I have do look quite amazing, so we’ll see.
Which did you shoot first: Prometheus or Lockout?
PEARCE: Lockout. We did Lockout leading up to Christmas of 2010 and then Prometheus I did in the middle of 2011.
Was it still called Alien Prequel when you signed on?
PEARCE: It was never called Alien Prequel. It’s not an Alien prequel. It’s a stand alone movie. I mean, there are some characters that run through from that, but it’s not an Alien prequel as such.
You’re also in the next Drake Doremus movie. Are you working without a script in that?
PEARCE: We work with a 70-page treatment, so a story, and there are scenes and there are scene numbers and there is very specific direction in each scene, but there’s no dialogue. So we work with Drake to understand who these people are, to understand the situation they’re in, and to understand each kind of moment to moment, but the dialogue is up to us really. That, again, was an interesting experience. Improvising with an American accent is tricky.
Do you have a favorite Luc Besson movie and did his involvement attract you to do this movie?
PEARCE: No, not necessarily. I’ve been a fan of a number of Luc’s films. I mean, The Fifth Element is a pretty interesting film. I think there’s something amazing about that. But no, not specifically. Just knowing that he was involved in this was interesting, I think.
Between Prometheus and Lockout, this is sort of the year of you being in space. Besides action movies, are you interested in science fiction or other genre roles?
PEARCE: No, not necessarily. If you look at the films that I’ve done generally, you would probably get an idea of what I’m most interested in, and if ever I do something unusual like a science fiction film or an action film or a comedy or something, then that to me feels like a step to the side to do something different. But, in a way, I don’t know what you would say is the typical film that I’ve done necessarily. I suppose psychological dramas might be it, if you look at L.A. Confidential and Memento or whatever, but I’m not really sure myself. I don’t feel like I want to take on a new path or anything like that. As I say, [I’m looking for] a real variety of films. I’ve also just done John Hillcoat’s film, too, which I think is now called Lawless. It was The Wettest County. But that’s a very different film again. It’s Prohibition times. It’s a really harrowing story about these three young brothers trying to make money out of selling illegal alcohol and the various people that come into their lives and try to stop them, and I’m one of them.
When do you ever get home?
PEARCE: I’m home at the moment. Well I’m not really, I’m here. But I’m taking six months off at the moment so I’m trying to just enjoy Melbourne.
What did you enjoy most about being a part of this project?
PEARCE: I think the character because normally the kinds of people that play these kinds of characters are like that in real life and they play those kinds of characters a lot because that’s the kind of people that they are. So, for me to step into a character like that and take it on as a character rather than just a sort of another go of being myself, like other characters I play, is the point of it. Even though he has a difficult time with what he’s experiencing, he also takes the mickey out of what’s going on around him. I enjoyed that. But, being in Serbia too is fascinating, I have to say.
You mentioned you were playing a bit in your off time. Do you plan to do a recording?
PEARCE: Well I do record but I just don’t do anything with it. One day I’ll release six million albums just before I die.
Today it’s so much easier because you don’t have to go out and get a label. You could go to YouTube or iTunes.
PEARCE: That’s right. Just put it online. I think I’ll just do that.
But you don’t really want to pursue that?
PEARCE: I don’t want to turn it into that but I’d like to because, as a creative outlet, it’s great to finish things off and then solidify that you’ve finished it off, and I think putting it out there publicly is a way to do that, because otherwise I keep going back to all the songs and keep tinkering and keep doing things with them, and on some level that’s not healthy creatively. So I think I do need to set up a website and go alright and just dump all of the music on there, and if anyone wants to give any money for it, it can go to a charity, and if they don’t, then great.
What sense do you have of the legacy that Memento still has?
PEARCE: It’s a film that people respond to still in the same way that they did [when it was first released]. A lot of people come up to me and say “We’re studying Memento in film school and it’s really incredible to watch it and dissect it again. Oh my God!” I’m constantly being made aware of – I hate to say this – but the importance of a film like that, and in saying that, I’ll add Chris Nolan’s name to that because he is a highly innovative filmmaker who I think always reaches a new height every time he makes a film. When Memento came out, it was quite cutting edge and affected people in a particular kind of way and it stands out. I mean, we had a 10-year reunion screening of it at the New York Film Festival a couple of years ago because it was released in 2000. So, even then, we screened it and we had a Q&A afterwards, and the audience was just as enthusiastic about asking us questions about it then as they were ten years before. Some poor people still hadn’t got the answers for ten years. (laughs) “I’ve been waiting for ten years to find out what really happened. Is Joey Pants a bad guy or not?” It was fascinating really.
Are people still putting the scenes back in chronological order?
PEARCE: That’s right. It’s really interesting making films and actually seeing the life that they have in the subsequent years and seeing which ones stand up over time and which ones sort of fade away. Things like L.A. Confidential and Memento and Priscilla (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) obviously hold up, I think.
I loved L.A. Confidential more after I moved to L.A. and I knew all the places. I’d go “Oh wow!”
PEARCE: I know. I’ll come across places when I’m here and go “Oh yeah, that’s right.”
Lockout opens in theaters on April 13th.