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Hardly rushing in where angels fear to tread, it was a year after he first said no to playing Peter Sellers in a biopic of the conflicted comic actor, that Geoffrey Rush eventually said yes, and embarked on what he knew was going to be a challenge: big shoes to fill, as he tells Andrew L. Urban over a beer. 

Having a beer with Geoffrey Rush – albeit in the English club ambiance of the bar at Sydney’s Park Hyatt Hotel which is temporarily closed to the public – is much like having a beer with anyone else. Perhaps the only noticeable difference is that he drinks his beer at a slower pace than I do. The beer comes at the tail end of our ‘official’ interview, at his suggestion, and the gesture is a natural one. It’s also symbolic of what makes Geoffrey Rush OWA, (Oscar Winning Actor) at once ‘normal’ and ‘special’. 

He talks fluently and seamless (and unhurriedly) after every question, expanding and filling his answers with material that provides context. He loves to talk about acting, not in any navel gazing or pretentious way, but about the craft of it. For instance, he recounts in great detail and with evident relish how he trained for months with his favourite dialect coach Barbara Berkery, with whom he first worked on Shakespeare in Love. He calls her “Queen of the Larynx” and has come to regard her as a crucial part of his set of tools when portraying a character, especially when the character is based on a real person and sounds nothing like Geoffrey Rush, of whom there have been several.

In the case of Peter Sellers, Rush had to work on getting his voice a few notes higher into the tenor range, up from how own baritone. 

There was also a lengthy evolution of the make up he wears in the film, “and we worked out in the end that less is more. We also wanted to see me, the actor, in there. It wasn’t just me hiding inside Peter Sellers. I evolved towards that.”

There was much playing with digital make up effects, as well as reality: his hairline was shaved back to more approximate Sellers’ egg-shape face, dark contact lenses were used, the ears were gently pushed forward …. But then Rush turns sharp left and says “actually it’s not about getting the look 100% right. That would be too sterile an approach. In fact I started to think of him less as Peter Sellers the film star and more as a gifted actor I could study with the pause button on my DVD remote!”

"I really connected with that"

Later in our conversation, as I am half way through my Cascade, Rush puts all the preparation in context, when he explains how he finally delivered Sellers on the set. “I heard Ian Thorpe say something the other day after winning the 400 metres at the Athens Olympics: he was saying he does extensive training to be ready and when the time comes he lets his body do the job it was trained for. And I really connected with that.”

At the very beginning of our interview, I noted that he had played the Marquis de Sade and nobody knows what he was really like, and he had played David Helfgott, and only very few people knew what he was really like, but with Peter Sellers, a great many people know what he was really like, both physically and mentally. 

“It occurred to me that I have now played – I couldn’t say the number, but several, characters in film that have been portrayals of historically famous or obscure people, ranging from Leon Trotsky (in Frida)* to Helfgott to Sellers…you do think about that because it is a path you have to go down to find out, OK, should my portrayal of a more obscure David Helfgott be more invented than Sellers, who’s highly acclaimed and well known and people ‘do’ him. But you’ve got to treat them the same, even though I didn’t get to meet Harold Fingleton (the character he plays in Swimming Upstream based on the real person) I’m just assuming that the portrait drawn by Tony, his son, writing about his father, and getting feedback from him as to what kind of man his dad might have been ….now I don’t look anything like Harold Fingleton, judging by photos, but I tried to take on board things that helped, like the fact that despite his Spring Hill, Brisbane, poverty, he was a rather snappy dresser. That tells you a lot about a character…”

* He was looking at a Frida web chat room one day “and obviously some 14 year old boy was saying how hot Salma Hayek was …and then added, ‘who’s Trotsky?’” he says with a laugh. “I thought, yeah, that film probably had a split audience of people who saw it as a Latin hottie film and others who saw it as a good film about art and history.”

"Sellers is big shoes to fill"

It’s well documented now that Rush originally turned down the Peter Sellers role. For all his experience - 25 odd years in theatre before he became an overnight success with an Oscar on his mantelpiece after Shine (1996), and all the films since – he still never knows how to do a role in advance. “Once I commit to a project yes, but I must admit, I take quite a bit of time to weigh up what can I expect the working relationship to be like between the director and myself or the other actors, and who’s involved. Sometimes that can affect the decision you make: you may think the script is great but the director’s going to be a bit workmanlike…And this one, Sellers is big shoes to fill.”

A year passed after, regretfully, he said no; “I just didn’t feel I was appropriate casting for that role.” But who could play Peter Sellers if not him? That’s what he wondered himself, even thinking it may be an English actor who remarkably resembles Sellers physically. “But then it becomes ‘about’ absolute photographic verisimilitude …” When the producers came back a year later asking him once more, Rush agreed, big shoes to fill or not.

And to his delight, director Stephen Hopkins turned out to be “a gem.” Hopkins, who made his feature debut in Australia with a decent sort of thriller, Dangerous Game (1987), is in the Russell Mulcahy mould, says Rush, who worked with Mulcahy on Swimming Upstream. “He wouldn’t mind me saying he’s sort of a Mulcahy protege, a surrogate Aussie (Hopkins was born in Jamaica to English parents) and somebody I just clicked with. In fact the running joke on set was that we were having a sycophantic relationship [laughs]. I wondered ‘why am I getting on so well with this guy?’ Because he didn’t come to the set as a famous auteur. When you’re working with John Boorman you know this guy’s a fucking maestro. John Boorman can structure scenes with great dynamic and economic rationale. He never shoots a master shot, because as a producer, he reckons why would I want all that celluloid that I’m not going to use, going on the floor? So he would orchestrate shots that incorporate the feeling of a master that would end up in very telling close up.”


Hopkins worked on music clips with Mulcahy in the 80s and also made his own for several years. “Stephen’s one of those guys who instinctively thinks with a very creative, fresh eye. When you’re on a biopic you could easily fall into some cliches … he used to dazzle me every day, with where he’d put the camera. And thankfully, he didn’t try and talk in psychological or actorial jargon, which was great. But very insightful.” 

Insight, of course, is also what makes Rush’s interpretation of the Peter Sellers persona so dynamic. 

Published August 26, 2004

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Geoffrey Rush


... as Peter Sellers

...in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

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