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Excited by working on The Proposition, a film where character was king, all films should be this satisfying to make, Guy Pearce tells Andrew L. Urban.

The relief of having worked on a film that’s turned out so well (and one about which he is happy to talk to the media) is one of the pleasures that Guy Pearce holds very dear and enjoys enormously. “It was one of those experiences which all films should be, where the heart of it all is character. It’s an exposé of human nature, and plonked in the middle of it is this really horrendous proposition, that none of us would experience in life,” he says, settling into an armchair in the hotel room where we have our interview.

A small, half-drunk bottle of water swings from his right hand, and his familiar face is animated as we talk about his role as the Irish born outlaw bushranger Charlie Burns in The Proposition, set in the outback of 1880s Australia. Writer Nick Cave shares poster credits with director John Hillcoat in this UK/Australian co-production that not only revisits and revitalises the Western genre, it also refreshes the Australian outback period drama.

After yet another gunfight between the police and a gang of outlaws leaves carnage in its wake, Charlie and his younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) are captured by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). Their psychopathic older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), is hiding somewhere in the bush; all three are wanted for a brutal crime. Stanley makes Charlie a devastating proposition in an attempt to bring an end to the cycle of bloody violence: if Charlie kills Arthur, Stanley will let Mikey escape hanging.

"Blood, sweat and tears"

Blood, sweat and tears … and a singular screenplay, make The Proposition a standout second feature from John Hillcoat, who directed the equally gut wrenching, slightly futuristic (and prophetic) prison drama, Ghosts … Of The Civil Dead, back in 1988.

“To make a film where the character and the development of character is there and is allowed to breathe,” says Pearce, “is so inspirational for everybody, not just for the actors, but wardrobe, make up and so on. I had a make up artist on this, a wonderfully creative girl, and I just knew that having her involved it was going to be not just a case of me playing the character and she’s the person slapping on the stuff. It was really much more involved; it was like holding up a mirror and saying, what’s in me that’s going to add to this.”

But even now, with filming well and truly behind him, Pearce finds it difficult to intellectually explain or analyse Charlie. He tried that approach in preparation for shooting and found himself tied up in knots. “I eventually realised that it was all there in the script and found myself more like an observer, just easing back and observing the character, instead of doing all those actory things and building up a back story. It’s difficult to rationalise because it feels purely emotional …”

But some things were very tangible, like the hand made, authentic wardrobe (even the buttons were hand made for the film, for example), and including the strong sense of family that Charlie carried with him. That bond between the three brothers is as complex as it is strong; and the proposition that Charlie has to weigh up, connects with not only his own discomfort at Arthur’s ruthlessness, but with Arthur’s own insight into his unstoppable behaviour. These moral conflicts add edge and depth to the screenplay as it plays out in action on the screen.

Another bonus for Pearce was what he regards as the perfect casting of Ray Winstone as Captain Stanley, an outwardly tough, macho policeman, who is remarkably sensitive deep down. He shows this at home, where his wife (Emily Watson) is the ruling queen. “I had worked with Ray on the Isle of Man about a decade ago,” Pearce recalls, “on Woundings, a film that nobody has seen, but we became very close. I found stepping back into working with him wonderful because of that bond. It vwas a bit like when I worked with James Ellroy, and people would say, ‘my god, was he scary, was he overbearing and intimidating guy?’ And I found him to have an honesty with his brashness. And it’s the same with Ray. He’s very honest, very brash and also a loving, caring, sensitive guy who’ll cry at the drop of a hat.”

"such a brute force, yet so sensitive"

By the same token, Pearce is well aware of how powerful he is, “as is he himself…. It felt perfect to me because he’s such a brute force, yet so sensitive.”

Honesty seems to have runs in the film family on set: “John Hillcoat, too, I found an incredibly honest guy; that’s what I respond to. He’s open enough to allow you to stand beside him to go on the journey to figure this out. He’s really trusting and lets you try this and that, but also a great barometer if it doesn’t work.”

Nick Cave, who attended rehearsals for a week, was much the same. “Between the pair of them, we really got a sense of what’s right. Nick’s a brutally honest guy; he doesn’t have time for sugar coating anything. In fact he has a disdain for that way of doing things. As intimidating as that might be - ‘what you’re doing is crap’ – you also feel respect from both of them.”

The experience of the film has taught Guy Pearce that he can portray a complex character and “can be interesting doing less”. The less-is-more lesson has beefed up his trust in his own instincts and his confidence, and underpins his preference for films with less dialogue. “I got to enjoy just going with it,” he says smiling gently.

Published October 6, 2005

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Guy Pearce


JOHN HILLCOAT & NICK CAVE - interview by Andrew L. Urban

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