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ANDREW L. URBAN meets Geoffrey Rush at the Cannes Film Festival to talk about the Oscar winning actor’s life after Shine.

May, 1997: Since winning the Best Actor Oscar, the Best Actor BAFTA (and an armful of other awards) for his portrayal of David Helfgott in Shine, Geoffrey Rush has been "trying to make sensible choices, trying to keep on top of it, because when a lot of people keep telling you that you're wonderful, you do feel changes starting to happen in your personality. You can easily start responding, 'Oh, do you think so,'" he says with just the right touch of false modesty, which not only illustrates his point humourously, it also demonstrates his consummate acting skills. "I'm being careful not to clutter my life with career administration so I can keep the focus on the acting,"

He is here in Cannes with his actress wife Jane, to promote A Little Bit Of Soul, the comedy he has just made with writer/director Peter Duncan, and we are seated at a breakfast table in the Majestic Hotel. The day before, we were having a champagne around the pool of the Martinez Hotel, down the Croisette. The day before that, Rush was in Prague, filming Les Miserables, which he hastens to add is a drama taken from the book, not a musical. He is playing the role of Inspector Javert, with Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean. "Liam and I are not about to inflict our singing on you," he says quietly. Rush is enjoying the four day break from the exacting work on Les Miserables, but is relaxed and seems to have succeeded in "keeping on top of it" as he puts it.

"I had to pinch myself to prove I was really on set and working with Bille August,"

He even says things like "I had to pinch myself to prove I was really on set and working with Bille August," the director of Les Miserables, who met Rush and convinced him to take the part because he, August, trusted his instincts about actors. He told Rush he was right for the role, "which has given me confidence. He's made me fearless." Signed prior to his Oscar win, but on the crest of his wave of global praise, Rush says he felt he was genuinley hired for his abilities.

"So I feel very fortunate that in the wake of Shine, I have the opportunity to play such a challenging role."

When discussing Javert with August, Rush was impressed by the director's approach: "He said we had to be intrigued by Javert otherwise you'd hate him. So I feel very fortunate that in the wake of Shine, I have the opportunity to play such a challenging role. And we have a wonderful working relationship. He's very simple and very focused. And I think I'm giving a very still performance."

Immediately after the Oscars, Rush flew to Prague to begin filming. Perhaps it was the fact that he was less easily reached in Prague, but he says that while he has plenty of work on hand, he has not been absolutely inundated by phone calls to offer him work in Hollywood.

"Perhaps I'm in the too hard basket for Hollywood. In the old days I'd be called a character actor."

"Perhaps I'm in the too hard basket for Hollywood. In the old days I'd be called a character actor. And I prefer that," he says in his even, thoughtful way. "If you say movie star, it's more about the roar of the crowd and what you're wearing."

Peter Duncan regards Rush as an actor who could take any role. "Look at his last four films - it's such a haphazard collection of characters, a diversity that says he's not constrained to play virtuoso madmen."

Rush agrees and adds that it was a consciously haphazard selection. He likes to work in a team, a hangover from his 25 years in theatre, where he was usually on long contracts and worked with the same group of people. He likes that above all else, which is why Duncan wrote the role of Godfrey Usher for him in A Little Bit of Soul, after finishing Children of the Revolution. The film is still in post production, and like Children of the Revolution, it will be sold internationally by Beyond Films, another entity in the team framework, in that it has nurtured its relationship with both Duncan and producer Tristram Miall, with whom they first collaborated on the globally successful sale of Strictly Ballroom. Rush says he is fascinated by "the heritage of Peter Duncan's imagination. It's unique. There's no Australian cinema that seemingly informs it."

In A Little Bit of Soul, says Rush, Duncan is toying with Faustian elements ... how much you change if given everything you want."

We grin at each other as he stubs out a cigarette, as it sinks in how close that idea is to Rush's own reality.

With 25 years of peaks and troughs in theatre, Rush says that now at 45 he is "BEGINNING to understand my life, but this (his enormous and sudden rise to international fame) does make you look closely at your priorities. As an actor, you never know what's coming next. If a year ago you'd told me that we would be sitting here at Cannes talking about making A Little Bit of Soul before I fly back to Prague to work with Bille August on Les Miserables. . . I'd have said gedoudahere."

He could add that he is playing the role Robert de Niro was mooted to have been slotted for. Peter Duncan freely admits that he would not be here in Cannes either, promoting his low budget comedy that is not even finsihed, if it were not for Rush.

"I gravitated, physically, to the roles of clowns and fools."

Of course, Rush is not an overnight sensation. His talent has been recognised for some time. It is the size of his audience that has grown. Duncan, for example, refers to Rush's work in The Government Inspector for the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Neil Armfield's in 1991, as one of the most important performances in Australian theatre. Writing in this paper, Rosemary Neill said "Rush brings to the pivotal role of Khlestakov an extravagant, imaginative excess that no other cast member can match. Indeed, as he raids a roomy bag of performers' tricks he makes normally talented actors look like they are gasping for inspiration." Rush loves the process of transformation into another character, and was always attracted to characters with a big K, as it were. "I gravitated, physically, to the roles of clowns and fools. In shakespeare you get everybody on stage, from kings to clowns and fools and my strong suit is playing marginalised characters - but that doesn't mean psychos or weirdos," his role in The Diary of a Madman notwithstanding. From Horatio in Hamlet to Dave in On Our Selection, Rush has an extraordinarily diverse list of credits and characters behind him, the latest on film being only the most recent and most easily accessible.

It has also put him in a higher fee bracket and given him time to consider his options.

As we wrap up our interview before Rush flies back to Prague, through the symbolic clouds of the cinematic heaven on the Riviera, he stresses the one constant in his life: his Australian roots. "I live in Melbourne with my wife and children and that is the ground, the base I need to keep. That's home."

This interview first appeared in The Australian, May 15 1997.

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Geoffrey Rush in Shine

Shine director Scott Hicks with Geoffrey Rush

Rush in A Little Bit of Soul

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