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 Rush at home, and on a roll
mjansen
Posted: Aug 18 2011, 10:50 PM


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August 13, 2011

ENTER the clown. Enter the madman. Enter the Chameleon-like Geoffrey Rush. Australia's leading actor talks with SIMON PLANT about his life's work.

MAGIC never happens by accident. Geoffrey Rush was reminded of this when he saw "this fantastic Italian guy" performing on London's West End in 2009.

"He was a quick-change artiste," Rush recalls, "and he was doing costume changes that would happen in the swinging of a door. He would exit in one outfit and be in a completely different one as the door swung back."

Rush paints the picture vividly in a Fitzroy hotel room - arms flapping like a marionette, thumbs sticking up. But to this day he cannot work out how the trickery was achieved.

"There were hidden wires and hooks and whatever ... lots of magic going on," he says. "I find that sort of stuff pretty thrilling 'cause you're not expecting it."

The same could be said of Rush. In a stellar 40-year stage and screen career, this chameleon-like actor has presented us with a bewildering array of faces. A demented monarch on stage for Exit The King; for film an eccentric musical genius (Shine), a bewhiskered buccaneer (Pirates of the Caribbean) and a Catholic priest (Bran Nue Dae). In The Life and Death of Peter Sellers he played no fewer than 38 different characters, but Rush, who turned 60 last month, has also lent his rich, chocolatey voice to a claymation puppet (Harvie Krumpet), a screech owl (Legend of the Guardians) and a pelican called Nigel (Finding Nemo).

The past 18 months have been especially fruitful. In rapid succession, Rush has headlined a stage musical (The Drowsy Chaperone), played speech therapist to a stuttering royal on film (The King's Speech), voiced a digital character (The Green Lantern) and starred in Sydney and New York seasons of Gogol's Diary of a Madman - the acclaimed Belvoir St production that earned him a Best Actor gong at last month's Helpmann Awards. The coveted Helpmann can now sit alongside Rush's Oscar for Shine, plus his Tony, Emmy, BAFTA and AFI awards.

Next month , Rush is back in the frame again. This time as a struggling but famous actor in The Eye of the Storm, Fred Schepisi's film of Patrick White's classic novel. What is it, I ask two people who are familiar with Rush's body of work, that connects all these characters, all this work?

"Absolute dedication," Schepisi says. The celebrated Australian director (The Devil's Playground, Evil Angels) reckons "Geoffrey dives right in and always goes as deep as he can to engage the character".

Film historian and critic David Stratton agrees: "I'm sure I've seen all of Geoffrey's films, going right back to Hoodwink in 1981, where I think he played the role of 'second cop', and he's brought tremendous authority and intelligence and a lovely, subversive humour to everything he's done."

Rush contemplates the question and decides: "My fundamental rule now is: serve what's happening in the story. More often than not, that means trying to actively engage an audience's imagination with unpredictability, surprises, a redefinition of what everyone assumes should be the case. Trip yourself up and trip others up and interesting things can happen."

Reviewing his high-voltage performance in Diary of a Madman, where he plays a put-upon clerk called Poprishchin who has delusions of grandeur, puzzled US critics wondered if Rush was inhabiting two different worlds - a naturalistic one on screen, where he was droll and lugubrious, and an exaggerated one on stage, where he let his "inner clown" run riot. Rush thinks "there's something in that".

"Up until Shine (which landed him the Best Actor Oscar in 1997), most of my work in the theatre had been predominantly a comic, classical repertoire," he says. "Shine sort of embodied some of those principles but when I got offered things on an international level, I fell into a territory that was not my normal turf and plunged into the audacity of playing very stern characters."

Javert in Les Miserables, Walsingham in Elizabeth, the Marquis de Sade in Quills ... Rush does devious particularly well. "Later, when I started to get offerings from Broadway, they would suggest things such as A Man For All Seasons, which was not my theatrical territory," he says. That's when he and leading Australian stage director Neil Armfield thought, "Why don't we take something which we've created, like Exit The King, to New York?"

For his role as the clerk Poprishchin in Diary of a Madman, Rush adopted green eye-shadow and flame-red hair and gadded about in a ratty coat. The man before me now looks very different. His lean, gangly frame is folded into a lambskin jacket with denim lapels and a fine pelt of hair covers what was recently a bald dome. Round tortoiseshell glasses lend the actor a rather scholarly look, and the basset-hound eyes behind those specs tend to settle on the middle distance as if he's gazing at a movie screen, only snapping back when he's finished answering a question. Which can take some time.

For example, asked if he might have prospered in the silent era given his gift for clowning, Rush takes the idea for a long walk through Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and French cinema from the turn of the last century.

"Geoffrey is a very sophisticated, well-informed cinephile with acute judgment," Melbourne Film Festival chairwoman Claire Dobbin says. Margaret Pomeranz, co-host of ABC1's At The Movies with Stratton, says: "Geoffrey really loves film and brings such intelligence and knowledge to it." Even Schepisi admits that when it comes to film history, "Geoffrey puts me to shame".

WHERE does this knowledge come from? Midday movies, Rush confesses with a laugh. "That's where you got to know a repertoire beyond your own era. You'd suddenly see an old black-and-white film on TV and think, 'Gee, that's pretty good'."

Born in Toowoomba, the son of an accountant, young Geoffrey was raised in Brisbane. An arthouse cinema in the city's northern suburbs opened his eyes to European cinema. Film society screenings at the University of Queensland, where he studied arts, also left an impression, but Rush's love affair with film was sealed at the Cinemateque in Paris.

"There was nothing like this in Australia," he says. "It was like a public library, really, where you could see 10 films a day. I spent some days there seeing three or four."

Having joined Queensland Theatre Company straight out of uni, Rush studied mime and movement at the prestigious Lecoq School. England's acting tradition had a strong pull on him too, but it was not just Alec Guinness or Paul Scofield who informed his early repertory work. "New Hollywood" actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman and Robert De Niro were equally influential in movies such as The French Connection and Taxi Driver.

"The nature of their performance was so different," Rush recalls. "You'd see Hackman playing Popeye Doyle (in The French Connection) and go, 'There's a completely oblique anti-hero at the centre of this film which is perfectly capturing the anxiety of the time'. I saw Taxi Driver again the other day, actually. The refurbished digitised print. What a film!"

The stage was Rush's domain - half a dozen plays a year was not unusual, even more in the late '80s - and directors sought him out for full-blooded character roles. "I made a very definite goal to try to play as many of the Shakepearean clowns or rogues or idiots as I could," he says. Absurdist drama was another speciality. In a fabled 1979 production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Rush was cast opposite a rising star named Mel Gibson. But for warts-and-all courage, nothing surpassed his first Diary of a Madman in Sydney in 1989.

Pomeranz remembers: "I saw Geoffrey on stage way before he was on film and he was an electric stage performer. Just amazing."

Rush married actor Jane Menelaus in 1988 (they "honeymooned" in a touring production of The Importance of Being Earnest), but overwork took its toll. Approaching 40, and worried about where his career was headed, he had what he has called "some crazy panic attacks".

"The term 'stage fright' didn't quite cover it," he told a London newspaper recently, "because the fear was happening away from the stage as well. I was in a permanent state of panic."

Shine changed everything. In Scott Hicks' film about Australian concert pianist David Helfgott, Rush gave a bravura performance and dedicated his Academy Award "to all those people who were happy to bankroll the film as long as I wasn't in it".

Fourteen years on, Rush commutes between Australia and the US - swapping the Camberwell home he shares with Jane (and children Angelica and James) for hotel rooms in LA. And this global citizen gets to cherry-pick his screen roles. An indie movie here (Candy), a blockbuster there (the Pirates franchise) and lots of work in between (Swimming Upstream; Munich; Elizabeth: The Golden Age).

"You just have to go by what appeals," he says.

The Banger Sisters (with Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon) appealed because it smacked of a Billy Wilder farce. House on Haunted Hill was a chance to do Hollywood horror. And The Life and Death of Peter Sellers was simply irresistible.

"Never in a million years did I think I would ever get to play the president of the United States, but I did in that film, playing within Sellers' screen persona."

It was Schepisi who persuaded Rush to be in The Eye of the Storm. White's novel - published in 1973, the year he won a Nobel Prize for Literature - unites two expatriate siblings at the deathbed of their mother, an aristocratic Sydneysider who still exerts a powerful force on those who surround her. Rush appeared in some of the writer's later plays in Adelaide, but "I didn't know this book". So after learning Schepisi was keen to film it, he read The Eye of The Storm "in forensic detail" and discovered the character of Basil Hunter "was a part of great interest and depth. An emotional fish out of water".

Rush was especially drawn to the idea of an Australian actor making his way in the world in the early 1970s: "It was the tail end of that generation which had always gone to England to work. I was very intrigued by that group - you know, people such as Robert Helpmann, Coral Browne and Keith Michell - and Basil sort of fitted into that historical context."

Rush signed on for Schepisi's movie along with Charlotte Rampling (playing the dying mother, Elizabeth Hunter) and Judy Davis (Dorothy).

"I'm sure Basil and Dorothy and the mother are all aspects of Patrick in some way," he says. "What he was really writing about was the discovery of self. One of the great quests of everyone's life."

Filming had its challenges. One scene called for Rush's character to "make love" to Mrs Hunter's nurse - played by Schepisi's daughter, Alexandra. But Schepisi recalls the shoot with affection and calls Rush "a real ally in the process. Not just in his own role as an actor but in helping you in any way he can".

Rush relishes collaboration, especially on Australian movie sets: "It's always interesting for me to work on a film here. When you're not trying to appropriate your being into some other person's culture, it's like a great weight is lifted off your shoulders."

This actor has dodged the pitfalls that have snared other Aussie screen stars in Hollywood. No telephone tantrums, no drunken rants. Schepisi thinks he knows why. "It's taken a while for Geoffrey to get where he is and he's got the great sense to not let go of where he's come from," he says. "Because that's what's made him. He's still got his feet on the ground too ... comes home to a lovely place in Camberwell and wants to make sure the community there doesn't get destroyed."

The public-spirited Rush has supported a continuing campaign to protect Camberwell railway station from overdevelopment. At different times, he has also been an ambassador of sorts for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Dobbin, who invited him to be patron of the festival, says: "Geoffrey brings a Melbourne-ness to the festival as well as a global sensibility. He travels the world and he understands that MIFF is a festival which punches well above its weight."

Rush is still on stage as well and assuming new identities. Later this year, for the MTC, he revisits The Importance of Being Earnest - only this time he is stepping up to play imperious Lady Bracknell, complete with parasol, furs and a feathered hat.

After that, there's a chance he'll reunite with Schepisi for a film version of The Drowsy Chaperone, playing a die-hard musical theatre fan.

Perhaps Rush will direct a film of his own one day. Does Schepisi think the actor would make a good director? "Absolutely. Whether he's mad enough to do it, I dunno."

At the end of our interview, photographer Tim Carrafa asks Rush to imagine he's looking into a mirror and adjusting his face for the day. Rush obliges with a rapid-fire run of smiles, scowls, smirks and sneers that flashes fragments of pianist David Helfgott, speech therapist Lionel Logue and pirate chief Hector Barbossa.

"Got enough?" he asks cheerily. Yes, we answer. Magic.


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