Having been named Australian of the Year last year, Geoffrey Rush is a national treasure on many levels. A rare actor who has won acting awards of all kinds—an Oscar for Shine in 1996, an Emmy for The Life and Death of Peter Sellers in 2004 and a Tony for Exit the King on Broadway in 2009—he's also a genuinely good bloke, a caring individual who came back from the set of The King's Speech to care for his then ailing wife, actress Jane Menelaus, and he's a loyal friend to his mates.
Unaffected by all the hype, Rush remains a true blue Aussie at heart. During press rounds for The King's Speech, he was quick to point out that the film was an Australian co-production—he was officially an executive producer on the film. His most recent job has been co-starring with Emily Watson in The Book Thief, based on the 2006 bestseller by Australian writer Markus Zusak and directed by Downton Abbey's Brian Percival.
“Markus is a 35-year-old German descendant and has been a big young adult literature phenomenon,” Rush explains. “It's about the Second World War and is set in a small German village. It's great.”
In many ways, Rush was reminded of his student days at the Lecoq School in Paris for his latest film, The Best Offer, directed by Giuseppe Tornatore and scored by Ennio Morricone. In the film, Rush plays Virgil, a famous auctioneer, fraudster and probable virgin, who becomes involved with a young reclusive heiress Claire (Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks).
As with so many of your characters, Virgil is verging on madness. How do you play that?
I'm the kind of performer for whom getting into a character means putting yourself into an imaginative state of play. This means you don't have to take on the disabilities or conditions or worries or whatever the character might have. You identify imaginatively and interpret it and create that to the best of your ability. Then I hang it up in the dressing room trailer or wardrobe at the end of the day. During the filming of Shine I was always letting the character's energy and rhythm bubble away underneath, but I wasn't demanding that people be silent around me because I needed to go to a special place. The special place I need to go to is my imagination.
Does this technique come from years in the theatre, performing in the likes of Gogol's Diary of a Madman?
Someone told me that theatre actors on opening night use up the same amount of adrenaline as people in an automobile accident. I can imagine that to be true. You've spent a very intense time being totally focused in rehearsals and previews and you're run down; you're on overdrive. A similar thing happens when you stop doing 14-hour days on a film like The Best Offer. Your immune system is depleted and you always get a cold or the flu or something.
What is the importance of an Oscar and how did it affect your life and career?
Well, the effect was huge. Shine was the second feature film that I'd been involved in. (Pauses) That's not totally true. Back in 1990 I did very small parts in two films, collectors items they are now. One was Gillian Armstrong's Starstruck and the other was Hoodwink. Shine was my second big film role (after Dad and Dave: On Our Selection). I had spent all that time in the theatre and then suddenly this film went beyond anyone's expectations and found an international audience and became part of the awards season. So yeah, that just changed everything.
Did you ever think you would ever achieve such success?
No. It was amazing because when I was in late high school, but mostly as a university student in the late '60s, early '70s, my two very close friends and I—we were all at the University in Brisbane and we've remained very close all through life—travelled to Europe together and so forth and we acted together and as young stage actors we all made our professional debuts together.
Who are the two guys?
Trevor Stuart and Bille Brown, who died recently. Trevor went off to London and joined Lumiere & Son, which is a very avant-garde counter-cultural group, and Bille went to the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) and I went to the Lecoq School.
The Lecoq school has had an influence on you as a physical performer.
There is always a physical language in there I suppose. Back then we were slavishly watching the work of the great directors from the golden age of Italian cinema, Visconti, De Sica, Bertolucci. Still, I never in a million years dreamed I would end up working with a kind of descendant protégé of that school [Tornatore].
Do you collect art like Virgil?
No, I don't buy a lot, but I actually bought a painting recently when Bille died. He was my oldest friend and this wonderful Australian artist Ben Quilty, the guy who did the 2011 Archibald Prize-winning portrait of Margaret Olley, had done a portrait of him as a commission for the Sydney Theatre Company. It had been used as the poster for the German play, The Histrionic, which was about an actor. It ultimately ended up being Bille's last performance so when I heard about the portrait I thought I'd buy that because a studio theatre had already been named in his honour at the Queensland Theatre Company. I thought this would be a great memory for me to know that this fabulous painting is going to sit in the place named after him. So it wasn't, “Oh, I hope this painting is worth ten times as much in three years.”
What would be your great movie moment?
My great movie moment is the very final moment of City Lights, Charlie Chaplin's 1931 movie, where the blind girl in the first part of the film is selling flowers on the street and through her blindness she thinks Chaplin is very wealthy because he is. By the end, he has helped her get the money to have an operation and she is in the flower shop now seeing everything. Charlie is back on the street and he see her and she sees him and it's in that moment there is about one title where she goes, “You!” And he is left looking at her through the plate glass and it's just extraordinary. A man looking at a woman.
The Best Offer
Wednesday 10 June, 7:30pm on SBS World Movies (repeats Thursday 11th, 3:35am & Friday 12th, 1:10am)
Now streaming at SBS On Demand
Genre: Drama, Romance
Language: English, Italian
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Donald Sutherland, Jim Sturgess, Sylvia Hoeks
What's it about?
Virgil Oldman (Rush) is a misogynist auctioneer and art collector who puts his friend Billy (Sutherland) in charge of purchasing works of art undisturbed. One day he receives a call from Claire (Hoeks), heiress to a sprawling villa full of paintings and antiques. She convinces him to evaluate her late parents’ property. From here begins a story full of passion and intrigue. From Giuseppe Tornatore, director of Cinema Paradiso.