Geoffrey Rush: Gold Rush

Geoffrey Rush's career took off when he won an Oscar for Shine, and now he's involved in more awards buzz for his performance as the Marquis de Sade in Quills. Here he discusses how being Oscar's golden boy has changed his career but not his life, why he was eager to sink his tongue into playing the Marquis and what's with his title role opposite Pierce Brosnan in The Tailor of Panama.

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For the third time in five years, the name Geoffrey Rush and the word Oscar have been mentioned in the same sentence. Which is why this gangly, tousle-haired, 49-year-old Australian actor is, once again, sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel room, chain-smoking, sipping coffee and talking about playing the role of a tortured artistic genius. The last time Rush struck this pose, the tortured genius was the piano-playing David Helfgott, and the movie was Shine. At the Oscar ceremony, Susan Sarandon opened the Best Actor envelope and Rush (unknown outside Australia and tottering on the brink of middle age) walked off with the statuette, leaving Ralph Fiennes and Tom Cruise in his wake.

"How did you spend that night?"

"In an alcoholic haze. I remember running into Elton John and Muhammad Ali. I also remember not letting go of that little gold man."

When Rush and his little gold man returned Down Under, he was offered every Australian film that was going into production. Not bad for a guy who, even in his native country, was considered primarily a stage actor and, until Shine, had never been offered a major film role. Bigger international players also rang him up, which resulted in Rush appearing in three high-profile films in 1998. He heard from director Bille August, who offered him the role of Inspector Javert in Columbia's big-budget version of Les Miserables. Shekhar Kapur invited him to play the quiet, controlled adviser who helps a vulnerable queen sidestep her way through scoundrels and backstabbers in Gramercy's Elizabeth. John Madden cast him as the miserly theater owner in Miramax's Shakespeare in Love, which led to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

After a couple of poor choices, like the horrorfest House on Haunted Hill, Rush was given another lip-smacking offer, the role of the Marquis de Sade in Quills, which tells the tale of the final two years of Sade's incarceration for writing about sodomy, necrophilia, unusual things you can do with church wafers and other blasphemous topics that reddened the neck veins of Napoleon. Quills is a rollicking mixture of horror, humor, piety, carnality, repression and liberation. Rush's performance as the aged, irrepressible and oft-times nude Marquis in Philip Kaufman's film is so wicked and so thrillingly theatrical that it puts the lie to the notion that movies about writers are dull.

"How did you and Kaufman hook up on this? Did you know him?" I ask.

"No. In fact, when my agent called and said that Phil wanted to meet with me, I said, 'What's he done?'"

"The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Right Stuff..."

"'Oh, that Phil Kaufman,' I said. Well, that raised my interest. If you're doing the Marquis de Sade, you don't want to be in the hands of a hack." Rush takes a drag on his cigarette and adds, "Well, maybe you do. A little Russ Meyer, a little John Waters playfulness, but I think Phil's done that as well."

"Were you familiar with the Marquis?"

"Yeah. I had done Marat/Sade onstage, and when I was at university in the late '60s, Sade was a counterculture icon. When I read Doug Wright's script, I said, 'Wow.' The dialogue was so lurid and funny. Still, I thought I was wrong for the part, because in the script Sade is in his 70s and weighs over 300 pounds. The age and weight differential didn't seem to bother Kaufman."

Rush got on well with Kaufman, but the thing that pushed him to commit was hearing that Kate Winslet was interested in playing the literate laundress who trades kisses for pages, which she then smuggles out of the prison. "Kate's one of those rare creatures who is not afraid of making daring choices," says Rush. "She's created some of the most memorable, classically sculpted performances of her generation. And she's also a movie star. I heard that she'd do it if I did it, and I was honored and flattered by that notion. I responded by saying I'd do it if she did it, and four months later Kate and I and Joaquin Phoenix were shooting in England."

Rush was also aware of Phoenix's abilities, having first picked up on him in the black comedy To Die For, and supported Kaufman's choice to cast him as the priest who tries to redeem the Marquis. "Joaquin has that magical film quality where deep in his eyes, he tells what's not being said," says Rush. "That quality becomes mesmerizing on-screen. Working with him reminded me of working with Noah Taylor on Shine. At such young ages, both seem to know, instinctively, how the camera reads them. They make me feel like a terrible old piece of 19th century industrial machinery."

"What's it like being nude on a set?"

"Within the aesthetic of telling a story, it's no problem. It's intrinsic to the process of humiliation and repression that the Marquis undergoes. And he proves that he's just as angry and resilient in his birthday suit as he is when masked by the trappings of his aristocracy. The reality, however, is slightly more amusing. I became quite intimate with the makeup person, and because it was cold [in that concrete prison cell], in between takes they'd blast me with hot air and wrap me in little towels. It's like stunt work in a funny way. People are very concerned about you."

Any actor who spends the last half of a film naked as a jaybird would undoubtedly be concerned about his physique, but not Rush. "I sat next to Buck Henry at a screening in New York, and he said that the sight of the Marquis naked on the floor was like a Francis Bacon painting--it's man as a side of veal. And in that context, you don't want people suddenly gasping with delight because you have fabulous pecs."

While Rush did not prepare his body, he did give his mental muscles a workout so he could better understand the Marquis's psyche. One psychological advisor gave Rush a Freudian explanation of why Sade craved attention. As Rush relates it, "Sade was ignored as a boy and essentially abandoned by his mother who had other, social-climbing interests. He was sent off to live with a variety of relatives, including a priest with a fondness for whores and a wonderful library full of the latest pornography." Then, speaking like a man who has learned his lessons well, Rush says, "When a person is unlovable to the mother, there's a break in normal psychosexual development and what results is resentment, and fear of intimacy that frequently gets masked by charm, wit and brilliance. And it's only that carapace of defenses that keeps you from the abyss of despair."

As it turns out, Rush himself looked into that abyss of despair when, in 1992, he suffered a breakdown. "Part of it was exhaustion since I'd done nine plays that year. The other part was turning 40 and saying, 'Oh, my God, my life's so itinerant.' [The acting business] is a scary, self-confronting path to go down." Rush managed to pull himself out of it with a combination of therapy, meditation and yoga. Becoming a dad helped, too. (His daughter, Angelica, is now eight; his son, James, is five.)

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