When Geoffrey Rush landed the lead roles in a flurry of standout films, his superlative acting talent shone the world over. Here, the Australia- based Oscar winner, and Mandarin Oriental fan, talks to Alex Gorton about Shakespeare, artistic Melbourne and coping with jet lag
Geoffrey Rush with his Emmy Award in 2005
One of Australia's best-loved sons, Geoffrey Rush has carved out a well-deserved reputation as a leading acting talent. As comfortable in Hollywood blockbusters as he is treading the boards or starring in quirky, independent films, he is also one of a select few to have won an Oscar (for Shine), an Emmy (for The Life and Death of Peter Sellers) and a Tony Award (for Exit the King). Having started his working life in repertory theatre, his career took an unexpected turn when, aged 45, he achieved international recognition and critical acclaim for Shine, paving the way for films as diverse as Pirates of the Caribbean, Quills, The King's Speech and Shakespeare in Love. With the fifth Pirates film out next year, a main role in Stanley Tucci's upcoming Giacometti biopic, Final Portrait, and a recent stage turn as King Lear under his belt, he is as busy and as versatile as ever, taking time out of his schedule to talk to MO about his career to date, the merits of Melbourne, and his favourite experiences staying at Mandarin Oriental.
You spend much of your working life on location – where are you in the world at the moment?
I'm at home in Melbourne. Originally, I was a Queensland boy until in my mid-20s I went to Paris to study before spending a little bit of time in London. I came back and worked for a theatre company, travelling all over the country. When I met my wife, who was an actress, we decided that by the nature of our lifestyles a base would be very important, and we chose Melbourne. I started living here from about 1988 – what I call the olden days! I've just reached the tipping point, where I've spent longer in Melbourne than I did in Queensland.
Is there a big acting community in Melbourne?
Melbourne prides itself on being the Arts Capital of Australia. Sydney is a little more spread out across the harbour, but for some reason in Melbourne there's a strong array of artistic activity centred around one area. We're very lucky here. It's a city that came of age in the 1880s with the grand Gold Rush architecture, and it has very wide streets – apparently, when the Founding Fathers mapped the city out, they wanted each street to be big enough to turn around a bullock dray!
What do you have in the works, acting-wise? I see you are starring in a biopic of the Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti.
Ah, yes. It's a very small film that was made on a vapour of the smell of an oily rag, with a great deal of passion from its writer and director, Stanley Tucci. It was a project I was immediately attracted to, as I'd read the novella that James Lord had written. Lord diarised the sittings he did for a particular portrait. Giacometti was an impulsive and wayward artist, and Lord was an an East Coast American art analyst, so there was a beautiful yin and yang between the two. People are excited about the movie – they think it's charming and whimsical, and funny and moving. And, of course, these are the words that everyone likes to hear!
Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue in The King's Speech (2010)
Are these small 'projects of passion' exciting to work on?
They are. I always bounce around between small films and more boisterous works like Pirates of the Caribbean. I like the smaller-scale films, whether it's Brand New Day or even something like The King's Speech, which was an independent-ish film. When I started as an actor I was in companies as an ensemble member, and I'd plunge from being in a musical like You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown one week into Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and then Lock Up Your Daughters. You just bounced around the repertoire and that still seems to dominate my thinking. I like to choose things that give me a variety of experiences. Recently I played – just for the audacity of having it on my CV – Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest and then I went on to do A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and after that I was in Berlin to shoot The Book Thief.
Is there a particular film that you're most proud of?
It's a bit like trying to choose which of your children you like best: you can't really say. Quills was such an intensely literate and subversive screenplay that I thought no one would want to see it, but it received critical acclaim and that was rewarding. The Tom Stoppard screenplay, Shakespeare in Love, was one of the most impeccably written things I've ever encountered and to do that was good. To be involved in The Book Thief was great, too, as was playing Lionel Logue in The King's Speech. They were all strong experiences.
I like to choose things that give me a variety of experiences
In the role of Hector Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
You've played a lot of Shakespearean roles on stage as well as starring in Shakespeare in Love. How important have those works been to you?
Going to see Macbeth or Twelfth Night when I was at school was as important an influence on me as listening to the Beatles' Revolver or Sgt Pepper albums – they were on an equal footing when it came to the level of colour and intensity they were unleashing on the imaginative world. For 20 or so years, Shakespeare had his imagination wrapped around the vibrancy of Elizabethan London and that's probably longer than most bands survive. That's a Bowie-length career.
You mention David Bowie and the Beatles... Is music another of your great passions?
Around the age of nine, I was taken to see Queensland Symphony Orchestra performing a suite from Carmen, which just blew me away. My uncle had a fabulous vinyl EP of Spike Jones and His City Slickers doing a parody of Carmen, which I adored, and then to hear it through an orchestra absolutely hooked me and I've pursued that kind of symphonic discovery ever since. At high school I was in a band and I played rhythm guitar. I can still pick up a guitar, not that I play any more, but my knowledge of keys and bar structures is still there from 50 years ago. I know when I was learning to fake mime the accordion in The Book Thief, or play the piano in Shine, a lot of that came into being terribly useful.
Filming must have taken you to some incredible destinations on location around the world. Which were the most memorable?
I'm not a natural traveller, I have to admit. After I went to Paris to study, spending four years there, I returned home and pretty much stayed Australia-bound for 13 to 14 years. When Shine happened mid-career, it was do or die – I just had to jump on a plane. I was a terrible, nervous flier, but that kind of evaporated quite quickly, because someone threw me an absolute curveball in my working life at a point when I thought it might never happen. So, in subsequent years, I got to travel to Prague and Panama, and Budapest and the Caribbean. To go to those places under the auspices of a film project has been slightly better for me because I'm not an adventurous wayfarer in that sense. But I have had the opportunity and it's been fantastic.
Geoffrey Rush as Pseudolus in the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (2012)
How do you deal with jet lag?
Well, it doesn't get any better. Flying to New York or London from Melbourne is the hard one, as you basically turn your day in a 180-degree circle, although I know now that it has to be planned very carefully. It will always take me a week or 10 days to really swing myself into an appropriate professional functionality, so I arrive early and I'm happy to go through costume fittings and make-up tests during that crazy spaced-out period when you feel like a zombie. It's just a question of preparation and being sensible.
Do you have a favourite memory of a stay at a Mandarin Oriental hotel?
When I first stayed at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London, my family were travelling with me. In Australia, we're not that used to butler service and three-bedroom hotel suites – so it was glorious. I was also fortunate enough to spend some time there when I was shooting the Giacometti film. It was a great antidote to the rather brilliantly executed Montparnasse studio that they'd built in Twickenham, which was dusty and full of plaster of Paris and statues and turpentine. It was wonderful to stay there.
If Mandarin Oriental were to open a hotel in Australia, where do you think it should be?
With discretion, out near Uluru [Ayers Rock]. It's an astonishing place to go, to get away from the kind of urban lives that a lot of us lead. It's a place where there's no white noise. It's just deeply spiritual, with a special link to that ancient 40 to 70,000-year-old culture that this country should be very proud of. That would be good. And I think Mandarin Oriental would sit very nicely in Melbourne.