Meet Guy Pearce, Action Hero: The Lockout Star Talks Cameo Roles, Prometheus, and Lawless

Guy Pearce

He's played cops, a count, Houdini, a time traveler, a king, and even a drag queen, but in this week's Lockout, Guy Pearce treads new ground as an all-out action hero -- not that he necessarily sees things that way. "People used to say that about L.A. Confidential," he recalled to Movieline recently in Los Angeles. "They’d go, ‘Wow, so you’re an action hero!’ I’d be like, action hero? It’s a ‘50s film noir!" Even still, after 20+ years of acting, most recently in a string of acclaimed supporting turns (see: The King's Speech, The Hurt Locker, Animal Kingdom, Mildred Pierce), it's only now that Pearce is laying claim to the title, guns blazing.

Lockout, unlike even the grittiest and bloodiest of Pearce's films to date, falls confidently into a cinematic lineage peppered with some of the greatest wisecracking action antiheroes in movies. Like Snake Plisskin, Pearce's government agent Snow is forced, against his will, into a dangerous solo mission in the sci-fi-tinged near-future: Save the President's daughter (Maggie Grace, who appeared in producer/writer Luc Besson's Taken) from inmates running loose in a maximum security space prison, or face sentencing for a crime he didn't commit. In the spirit of Han Solo, he winds up falling for his capable charge, with whom he exchanges no shortage of barbed banter.

Pearce chatted with Movieline about the Luc Besson-produced Lockout, how his cameo and supporting turns in films like The Hurt Locker are actually more difficult than starring roles, why he's embarrassed to be congratulated on the success of the Oscar-winning The King's Speech, the extent of his work in Ridley Scott's Prometheus, and the "odd" character he created for John Hillcoat's Lawless (formerly known as The Wettest County).

One of the refreshing surprised about Lockout is how funny it is. Was that humor element always there from the start?
I think that’s what [co-directors Stephen St. Leger and James Mather], but particularly Stephen – that’s what he wanted from the outset. He said that particularly to me: ‘I want a character that’s funny, I want a film that looks like an action movie, and feels like an action movie, and a character that looks like an action hero, but ultimately I just want him to not care and be funny.’ And I said okay, sure.

Snow seems to be borne of a grand tradition of ‘80s and ‘90s action heroes - the wisecracking tough guy antihero.
That’s right, and he was a big fan of those films. I think that’s what I found appealing about it because really, as a piece of entertainment, I personally don’t enjoy watching action movies just for the sake of action movies. I’d rather it be either really clever, or at the least amusing. So it’s kind of an interesting story, obviously, but I think the fact that he is amusing and he is irreverent and he doesn’t really care about the President’s daughter was quite funny in itself. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest it’s comedy – but I don’t know how you would categorize this movie. How do you categorize it, do you suppose?

It’s definitely got a sarcastic comedic bent to it – or at least, the character does.
Well I’m glad that works, if it works. Because you never know, and I never usually do comedies, so you never quite know how much is too much, you know?

A fair amount of the set-up evokes Snake Plisskin and Escape from New York – how much of a conscious influence was that film and that character for you?
Not at all. You sometimes want to go back and look at all the films that are like the one that you’re making, but in a way I think it’s better not to. You’ve got to be careful you don’t plagiarize something without realizing you’ve done it. I think sometimes by taking those things on so presently and consciously you can also inadvertently copy them more than you want to as well. I know that when we did Mildred Pierce, for example, Kate [Winslet] I think started watching the old movie and after ten minutes said, “I just don’t want to see any more!” Because it can just get in your way. So really it was just about concentrating on the script and talking with Steven a lot – and I’m sure that he was far more conscious of those films than I was. So if I have plagiarized anything, I can blame him. [Laughs]

That works, because then it filters down the creative chain…
That’s right, and you’re sort of creating your own version of what it is that they’re writing.

How would you describe Snow’s attitude toward women? Things even out later in the film but when we first meet him – and when he first meets Maggie Grace’s character – he’s quite rough and rude. He even punches her in the face! So how does Snow feel about women – and how does this movie feel about women?
I think he probably exhibits some misogynistic qualities, and some fairly typically clichéd male qualities – but in order, I think, to be put back in his place by a woman. So for the purpose of the film, yes, I don’t particularly admire him. And there was a moment in the film that I really wanted to stay in; they’re in the middle of this crisis and they’re trying to figure out how he’s going to get on the ship, and he’s trying to chat up some girl who works at the space station. So he clearly is very attracted to women, he just doesn’t hear them. But you want him to be able to sort of wake up a little bit, through the film, which is one of Maggie’s abilities in the film – to kind of go, ‘Oy, dumb guy, wake up!’

Would you consider Snow in Lockout to be your first true blue action hero role?
I guess so. People used to say that about L.A. Confidential, though. They’d go, ‘Wow, so you’re an action hero!’ I’d be like, action hero? It’s a ‘50s film noir! Is that action? I don’t understand the delineation of genre. I don’t know when something moves from being a horror movie to being an action movie to… so I do not understand the categorization of movies. I know the extreme versions, obviously, but I don’t know how to categorize this film. I don’t know where you would draw the line.

I would call this your most action-oriented film.
Sure! You’re probably right. It’s funny though, because in every movie you seem to be running around shooting people, getting into fights. So to me, I’ve done it many times before – Count of Monte Cristo, it’s not really an action movie, it’s an adventure movie – but it also has fighting in it… it’s hard to say.

Take me back to the decision to take the role and the appeal of working with Luc Besson, doing this kind of film…
I was trying to remember what I’d been doing when I met Luc. I met Luc here [in Los Angeles], so I’d just done Hungry Rabbit Jumps, which is now called Seeking Justice. Whoever came up with that title needs to not continue in their job. I’d just done that in New Orleans and I was here having a break, waiting to go to New York to start on Mildred Pierce, and during that break I met with Luc. Often I’ll take something on as a real change from what I’ve just been doing or what I’m about to do, and I think to go from Mildred Pierce, this beautiful ‘30s period drama/TV miniseries with Todd Haynes and Kate Winslet, to go to a futuristic sci-fi, green-screen action-oriented type of thing seemed like a fun kind of change.

In Serbia!
In Serbia, that’s right! So I sat down with Luc, and I’d not met Luc before, and he gave me an outline of the story. It sounded appealing, I read the script and found it quite funny, and while I was in New York I met Stephen and James and found their attitude about the whole thing to be exactly like what Luc had talked about. Things just seemed to sort of fit. It’s not usually the kind of thing that I pursue, I suppose – you know, action-oriented kinds of films – but I liked the character and where he sat in the middle of all that, just as a variation from things that I had done.

How conscious are you now or were you ever of what each project might mean for your career?
Well, even if I am conscious at all you still don’t necessarily know if it’s going to work out that way -- you still don’t know if a film is made well or not seen, or seen or not made well. You kind of go, well, I have no say over that anyway. So to me I have to just respond to what my internal interests are, I suppose. Like, I wouldn’t have chosen Memento to gain a whole lot of attention and yet Memento has probably gotten me more attention than any other film I’ve ever done. So you never really know what the outcome’s going to be. So I tend not to think about it too much, to be honest. I’ve had discussions; my agent has said, ‘Well, you might want to do this, this is something that might be kind of big, it’s going to be seen by a lot of people,’ and I kind of don’t really hear it, necessarily. I need to understand the character and understand the director. So I’m aware of that stuff but I just don’t know what to do with it.

You’ve become well known in recent years for a number of great supporting turns, so to see you step into the spotlight is a welcome change of late.
And look, it might have been from my point of view as well, because I had done a lot of cameos and supporting roles and stuff. So to actually be offered something that is carrying a film… but having said that, it can’t just be anything that’s carrying a film, it would have to work for me. It would have to feel real or have some credibility to it, etc. So it’s not just that but I think I probably was interested in doing something that carried the story through. Because it’s kind of frustrating doing cameos and supporting roles, because you never really bond with everybody. And a big part of what you feel of making a movie is the time that you have making the movie. There is the movie itself, but then there is the time you have making the movie, and to just sort of waltz into something and do two weeks and kind of not really learn anybody’s names and then leave – then a year later you go and do the promotion for the movie and you don’t really feel like you were connected to that movie… I mean, people come up to me and go, ‘Oh my God, The Hurt Locker! Congratulations, incredible! The Hurt Locker, you, fantastic, The Hurt Locker!’ I’m like, I was there for like three days. It’s sort of embarrassing to accept the congratulations. I’m like, Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty were slogging their guts out for months on end – you shouldn’t even be talking to me! So you get something great out of really living the experience with people when you make a film.

When you just pop in and out… I had a couple of years there where I just did cameos and supporting roles, and at the end of the year I went, well, I don’t really feel like I did anything this year. You sort of feel like you maybe did a commercial or did an appearance on a talk show, you just did these little one-off quick things that haven’t really absorbed. So it’s fantastic – it’s fantastic – when you get in the trenches with people for three or four months, personally. It’s hard work as well, but then it’s a memorable experience. And that says a lot, I think , about my need to bond with people and my nostalgia. And it also takes me a while to formulate a character, and most of the time you don’t get rehearsals on film so you need a couple of weeks to really get up and running and really feel like you know who this character is. And if you only have two weeks on a movie, you’re sitting on the plane home to Australia going, ‘Still not quite sure that I got King Edward…’

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