Ten years after winning his coveted Oscar, Geoffrey Rush returns to where his international movie career took off, returning to the Machiavellian world of Elizabethan politics in The Golden Age.
Much has clearly changed for this Aussie actor who can drift from a Pirates blockbuster to an Ionesco play in his native Australia, while dabbling in an international movie career that shows no signs of slowing down.
In this exclusive interview in a Los Angeles hotel room, the busy actor reflected on his 10-year circle of life in the spotlight, and his revisiting of a character that established him as a major player.
Question: Why was it so important for you to revisit Francis Walsingham and do you think you approached him as an actor, given your experience between the first movie and this one, differently than you did the first time around?
Rush: I was in the middle of Pirates. We shot the first Pirates in 2002/2003 and then somewhere around there is when Cate, Shekhar and I dovetailed, for like two and a half hours in some hotel in the Hollywood Hills and said ‘This is our window of opportunity’ because Shekhar lives in Bombay, I live in Melbourne and I think Cate was in Brighton at the time or she was filming all over the shop. Shekhar was there to pitch the idea of saying it really is going to centre around the continuation of the development of their professional relationship and the impact of the discovery of the new world with Walter Raleigh coming back and the betrayal internally with Bess, the Babington Plot, the Spanish Armada and all the big guns of what we regard as probably the well known aspects of Elizabeth’s life. I always refused to call it a sequel at first, but another chapter in the life of Elizabeth’ because sequel is something that people frown on as if it’s people creating a licence to print money or whatever. This year turned into a bumper year for threepeats I think is the new word in the language. Shakespeare would have invented a word like that had he been around and would have said ‘We need a word for this’. People, the trades, often come up with words that stick, you know what I mean? And it just felt like it was a notch up in the terms of the kind of quality of ideas, the potential of performance is going to be much stronger in a film like this than what goes out in the peak of summer.
Question: Are you aware of your own evolution as an actor in ten years since the first film?
Rush: I did an interview the other day with an Australian magazine, Who Weekly or maybe it was New Idea, one of them, who said ‘Oh we’re doing a profile on 1997, the key identities of Australia from that year’ from sport and whatever and that’s the year you won your Oscar, so we’d like to talk to you about it’ and I thought ‘Oh I really want to move on from that’. Then I thought ‘Well no actually at the time, I used to say to the question of ‘What impact will this have on your life?’ I’d say ‘Ask me in ten years’. So I thought well that’s a fair enough point and this might be the time to actually go ‘Well that was back then and I feel like almost a completely different person’. And in talking out loud I thought you do get a chance to reflect on what actually happened. It did lead very directly to being cast in Elizabeth because I think Working Title were looking at trying to revitalise the historical drama, since it had been a twenty-five period really since that kind of film was made on a regular basis, going back to Man for All Seasons. And because Working Title were being adventurous and they found this guy who’d done Bandit Queen, they gave it to another colonial and he happened to see Cate in Oscar and Lucinda. So there was something about the adventurousness of it all and the audacity of what I called at the time ‘Revenge of the Colonials’. And then what some punters thought might be career suicide I went on to do yet another Elizabethan film, Shakespeare in Love and I thought I’ve got really nothing to lose. These are roles, it’s a period of history that appeals to me enormously. There was a nice repertoire of counterpoint between playing Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love and Walsingham in Elizabeth. Then from that point, I decided I’ve got to get out of tights, so I decided to do Mystery Men, House on Haunted Hill and jump around a few genres because they were being offered and I thought ‘Great. It’ll stop one day. I don’t know when’. I still think that. When I look back now, you start to see certain challenging high points, and certain troughs. When certain big roles were not on offer I managed to stitch together Frida, The Banger Sisters and Intolerable Cruelty all of which I got to work with Julie Taymor and the Coen Brother and never in a million years did I think I’d get to be in one of their movies. So yes it’s kept going. I’ve been working and somewhere in there I’ve also set some challenges, like being very frightened about doing something like Peter Sellers but having an absolutely amazing time. By being prepared to fall flat on a face, you have to do that.
Question: And you also remained true to your background as a stage actor because it’s still important to you.
Rush: I’ve gone back and done a bit of theatre and in fact I spent most of this year doing that.
Question: Like the Ionesco play you did in Sydney?
Rush: Well there’s talk of a Broadway season.
Question: What is it that keeps you focussed on your life outside of this business?
Rush: By living in Melbourne. On the professional side that makes it tougher because I’m aware in ten years that my body doesn’t respond as well to jet lag as it did when I was in my mid forties. But I’ve always been prepared to plan very, very carefully and that doesn’t just mean start dates and stop dates on films. It means when can I get Jane and the kids to come over for a three week block in the middle of it on holidays. Is this an ideal geographical place to be? No, St Vincent is not, it’s a thirty-five hour in transit flight. My son didn’t want to have all the necessary injections you’ve got to have to go to certain places. But making the choice that in between the work I would be doing things like doing regular Saturday visits to my kids’, both kids’, basketball matches, watching them go through to finals some years, or not attending their school concerts, hanging out with their friends and their friends’ parents being a part of a school community etc, etc. Finding things that can keep me Melbourne based like, I’m going to host the AFI Awards again. It’s all a bit of diversity and surprisingly, you know, I never really keep a close calendar on it but it works out, I don’t know, 5-6 months away, 5-6 months at home.
Question: I was doing an interview in Toronto with Kate Bosworth and she mentioned some project that she will be doing with you. What is that?
Rush: It’s called Afterlife and it’s just at the moment one of many balls that are in the air that don’t seem to be landing effortlessly, because there are other projects that have still got moveable dates. It’s the first time that I can recall that things haven’t kind of magically fallen into place. And that’s going to require a lot of constant chat with both my agents in LA and in Sydney to coordinate what is the best thing. for personal reasons I want to spend the summer break at home in Australia.
Question: Would you do an Australian project?
Rush: There is an Australian project that’s one of the balls in the air but it doesn’t know when it’s going …
Question: Is it a film or a play?
Rush: A film. The production of Exit the King in America was always pencilled in to be the Spring of ’09 but now they’re talking about the Spring of ’08, so that now automatically involves a lot of other people, various producers, is the director available to make it the best thing that we – give it its best shot, you know what I mean.
Question: Do you know what you’re doing next?
Rush: No, I don’t.
Question: And would you do another Pirates movie or do you think that enough is enough?
Rush: I know that Johnny wouldn’t be remotely interested unless there was a highly original concept and Ted and Terry are the kind of writers who would want to do that. I think they are looking at developing a story line that sits well outside that existing trilogy, because in a way Jack Sparrow has almost become more famous to one generation now than Mickey Mouse, as an emblem of Disney. When you think back, how many Thin Man series were made back in the thirties and forties with William Powell? They just kept bringing them out. How many road movies were there? There’s a time where you go ‘Let’s haul Jack out and put him into a complete different scenario’.
Question: So after doing the press for this you will return back to Australia?
Rush: I’m in serious preparations for the AFI night.
Question: When are they?
Rush: That’s 7th of December. There are two nights. There’s a kind of creative technical night and then there’s the ….
Question: So you’re going to be very funny?
Rush: We did some funny stuff. Actually last year we did a hilarious sketch which survived on You Tube for quite some time but then I think Universal, Working Title might have taken it off. I took a scene from the first Elizabeth where Walsingham is prowling over the Queen who’s looking through these parchment papers and it’s near the end of the film where I’m basically instructed her who the traitors are, who has to be culled, and she lashes out at Mary in that scene. And we kept all of Cate’s dialogue as is, which is minimal, and revoiced Walsingham, where I’m saying – and I introduced it by saying ‘I’ve just been working with Cate on a sequel to Elizabeth and apparently one of the extras on a cell phone caught this conversation of me trying to convince Cate to come out and present one of the key awards for tonight’s ceremony’. And so she’s there. And I’m going ‘Here’s your travel arrangements, airline tickets and it’s the AFIs. You have to fly coach. You won’t be getting the free cognac, you won’t be getting the nice pyjamas and everything’. It got funnier. And the sound guys had relayed all the background music and all the footsteps and everything. And then I’m there leaning over her saying, ‘And Cate if you don’t do it, Helen Mirren will’. It brought the house down. And then she turns and says as Elizabeth, ‘That demonic, heretical whore’.
Question: I do hope that since Cate is going to be the co artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company that she will invite you to be in one of her productions?
Rush: I’m sure. I’ll probably be talking to her about that in a short while because I think they have like a three year tenure.