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You Don’t Know Guy Pearce, Career Shapeshifter

We spoke to Pearce about his new role in ‘The Innocents’ and why he tries so hard to suppress his ego.

In the middle of my talk with the polite-as-hell Guy Pearce, I make the mistake of mixing the word “ego” with his name. “Hmm, well I’m not sure what you’re referring to when you say that I had an ego early on?” he says gently. “I’d say I was always aware of my ego.”

And he’s right.

During my talk with Pearce, I couldn’t tell you what compelled me make this assumption about an A-list actor who once graded himself a C. Maybe it was that gentlemanly refined British accent that did it, or that incredible resume under his belt, but Pearce being the nice guy that he is, checked me as nicely as someone without an ego likely would.


History has shown he's an actor who isn’t all that invested in the heat of the limelight but rather the glimmer around it. At one extreme, he’s been the A-list actor with footprints on absolute classics such as LA Confidential and the back-to-front thriller Memento. And at another, he’s barely recognizable in the apocalyptic movie The Road and the aged and uncredited scientist (Peter Weyland) in Alien Covenant.

At this stage in his career, his choice in character roles are plucked from inspiration—not from a desire for spotlight. The YA drama The Innocents (August 24) is the latest stint in that niche space conceptually and figuratively. Plotwise, it’s about shapeshifters who shift uncontrollably when in states of panic, so much so that a cure is needed as if treated like a disease. Our man Guy Pearce plays a Dr. Halvorson with an ego all his own—the cure mattering as much as the proof that he’s capable of one.

In light of all that, I reached out to Guy Pearce, partly because I wanted to know why a man with 70-plus acting credits settled on this strange concept, and why I might have been so right (dead wrong) about my assumptions of Pearce.

VICE: When I think of the idea of shape shifting just as a concept, I’m already into it. But I’m just a simple guy with simple tastes, and you’re someone with over 70 acting credits. What would still attract an actor like yourself to a series like The Innocents ?
Guy Pearce: (laughs) Honestly, it was the idea that shapeshifting could seem feasible and real. I actually remember having a discussion with the director and having it made pretty clear to me that he wanted it all to feel like a believable medical condition. Even though something that far out would be rare and unusual, it would still somehow feel possible rather than being stuck in a fantastical place of science fiction. Either way, I loved the script, so it wasn’t liked I needed to be convinced beyond that.


I remember you saying once after you took a hiatus from acting that you wanted to only take on roles that inspired. What is it about this Dr. Halvorson that inspires?
Well there’s a complex couple of reasons why I’m attracted by what he’s been driven to do. I mean this Halvorson fellow obviously wants to help these women who have this rare condition for shapeshifting and he’s also fascinated by it all at the same time. But on a completely different spectrum, he’s got an ego. He’s driven by this desire to get to the bottom of it all and that’s something that I find interesting in any character that I play. It’s not that I’m no longer into characters that are genuinely good hearted. Instead, it’s just about a character with certain complexities like in the case of Halvorson who can can seem like he’s out of his depth because his drive isn’t so black and white.

Dr. Halvorson in The Innocents, courtesy of Netflix.

What do you mean?
Well it’s that idea of power which is fascinating. We see that side of ego in all of us at times which can get in our own way. We become carried away with ourselves and at one moment we’ll feel really insecure about something and the next moment, we’ll feel way too proud about another thing and lose our footing. All of that relates to how we identify with who we are and how we also identify ourselves. In a sense, that whole dynamic relates to this story, but in a really extreme version of that, where you have these people who can’t seem to hang onto their own identities. In these particular crisis situations, these shapeshifters can’t maintain themselves and instead morph into other people as a strange survival technique. I found that relatable notion to just be fascinating.


Correct me if I’m wrong, but as an actor, you have have had an ego early on, something you had to grow from. Much of that seems identifiable from this character Halvorson, in his drive to accomplish his goals.
Hmm, well I’m not sure what you’re referring to when you say that I had an ego early on. I’d say I was always aware of my ego.

You know, you’re right. I think what I meant to say is that you seemed like you’ve always felt you had to live up to a certain standard in the past, and you began to enjoy the work a bit more.
Ah, yeah that assessment doesn’t feel completely right to me. To be honest, I’ve always been compelled to play other characters so in a sense, that joy was always there. On some level, I’ve always been fighting against my ego. Everything in this industry when you start to become known is there to amplify your ego constantly. We as actors are put on a pedestal and are given the nicest bedrooms in all the hotels and we’re made to be like royalty on some level. A part of me always used to scream “no, this doesn’t feel fair.” In saying all that, it really feels out of whack you know. Like it’s not balanced, fair, or even. I would certainly say that I’ve always been aware of the times when I might have enjoyed all those perks while at other times, I would have thought it was a conflict. But in the end, I’ve always felt actively nauseated by actors who I thought were being egotistical.


As you know, I took a break in 2002-2003 to step away from it all and come back to it with a more mature point of view. (laughs)

Guy Pearce in Memento (2000). | Courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Yeah, that was my bad attempt at trying to read you.
No, no. It’s just funny (laughs). I remember someone else saying to me, “so you were big headed when you first started your career and sort of changed, how did you manage all that?” And I went, “what? What do you mean?” I always felt the opposite of that (laughs).

Well talks of ego aside, what’s now influencing your roles with this newfound outlook? I remember that in the past you took on a role in Adam Sandler’s comedy Bedtime Stories, because it seemed that at the time you were in a happy place. Is that how you’re choosing things?
Well on some level, I always took on characters that primarily inspired me. But of course over the years I’ve felt the need to experiment in choosing roles for different reasons. Funnily enough, when I chose to do the Adam Sandler’s Bedtime Stories in 2007, I’d done four really heavy movies with one being about a shooting at a cafe [ Winged Creatures], one about a bomb unit in the Middle East [ The Hurt Locker], and I’d done Traitor along with another story about a girl being murdered by another girl [ In Her Skin]. So, at the beginning of 2008, when I’m asked to do an Adam Sandler film, I’m yelling “YES!” (laughs). Like finally, I just wanted to have some fun for a change. It was a particular example where I just wanted to shake things up a bit because every time you read something, it should have some sense of originality and some sense of a character you believe in at the time.

Going back to The Innocents a bit, the whole theme around shapeshifting shares some obvious similarities with acting. The way you have to shift yourself to become a different character. Fans have their own ideas around their favourites with you, but what’s your top five or something as far as the many roles you’ve played?
Honestly, I don’t go around thinking about my top five or anything like that, but you know, if you’re going to go ahead and force me, then whoopie for me (laughs). But honestly, when I’ve done work in the past, it was almost just as important for me to let it all go, as it was for me to delve into a role in the first place. I do have a thought about playing Andy Warhol though in Factory Girl which was pretty special. But overall, what’s truly special to me isn’t just the role but the overall experience I’ve had with the people and the setting. My time with Kate Winslet in the Mildred Pierce TV series is an example of that. Sure, it was a great role, but it really became about the experience because Todd Haynes was inspiring and Kate was just amazing. It’s usually just a combination of things that I remember that extends beyond myself. Oh and of course, Memento was just obviously amazing.

One role I was hoping you would mention was Lockout, because someone in my office who shall remain nameless expressed a love for this one. Any memories from that?
(Laughs) Well that one was just fascinating because we filmed it all in Serbia, and this was a country I’d never been to before. That alone served as a very interesting backdrop to be in for four months. And there was this guy who felt just as much of a character to play as any other character with complexities unique to me. You’ve got other actors who can play these macho men naturally because as a default, touchness comes naturally for them. I’m nothing close to any of that (laughs). Though, I must have done a good job because even after we did that film, I had a lot of people come up to me and say, “well alright, now you can play action heroes,” and I’m just like no way…no in the same way that I’m not going to go around continually playing drag queens and LA cops.

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