It seems pretty obvious where Guy Pearce is: He's sitting in a cafe on Santa Monica Boulevard at a table with a bowl of fruit in front of him. The thing is, Pearce isn't entirely there. For about three seconds on a recent weekend, Pearce, surrounded by the clatter of a late-morning brunch crowd, stares into space, eyes clouded over, absolutely still, silent, focused. He's channeling a moment from "Memento," an ingenious psychological thriller that opens Friday in Los Angeles and New York.
Pearce plays former insurance adjuster Leonard Shelby, who's suffered chronic short-term memory loss ever since his wife was brutally murdered. To remember faces, facts and names while he tries to solve the crime, Leonard takes Polaroids and tattoos his body with key clues.
Snapping out of his "Memento" moment, Pearce explains the peculiar sensation of reading a script that begins at the end and proceeds backward in time to the chronological beginning of the story, when the truth at the root of Leonard's trauma is revealed.
"I felt the same kind of confusion or complexity that the audience feels when they watch the film," Pearce says. He convinced writer-director Christopher Nolan that he needed to get a grip on the chronology and literally tore the script apart. "I did literally cut out sections of the page, and laid them out in one little short film. It was kind of a messy process, but it worked for me."
Nolan recalls relling him, " 'Maybe you shouldn't do that. The character's confused, maybe you should be.' And Guy said, 'No, no, I'm an actor, this is what I do: I learn it and then I forget it."
Once he'd absorbed the story's real-time narrative thread, Pearce says, "I latched onto the little tiny emotional world that Leonard was whizzing around in and really kind of found myself letting go of all this other stuff."
That stuff is the very thing most actors rely on--motivation, back story, subtext. By contrast, the "Memento" man who literally can't remember anything for more than a minute needs to be a blank slate.
"People think to be an actor, you have to study your back story and remember all these elements. I don't operate like that at all," Pearce says. "I read something and feel completely inspired by it and for some reason or other, it just kind of takes over and I move with it. . . . Doing 'Memento,' I could let go of everything; it was a really freeing experience because Leonard was the one doing all the acting, it wasn't me."
Come again? "Leonard, the character that I played, is the guy doing all the acting; it's not me at all," Pearce says. "I was really just kind of the body that Leonard. . . ." Pearce trails off, then tries again: "I find it a really difficult thing to explain, but it was a really pure experience making that movie. When they'd call 'cut' I'd kind of come out the other side and go, 'What happened?' "
"If Guy could disappear completely into each part he plays, he'd be a happy man," says Curtis Hanson, the director who introduced Pearce to American audiences in his 1997 film "L.A. Confidential." By that measure, Pearce should be pretty content. Scarcely recognizable from role to role, Pearce donned a turquoise beehive wig as a sharp-tongued drag queen in "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert."
Next came his bespectacled, puritanical detective Ed Exley in "L.A. Confidential," followed by the bearded, cannibalistic army officer in "Ravenous" and now "Memento's" buff, blond, buzz-cut loner.
Remarkable range, given that Pearce has never taken an acting class.
"To me acting has always been something I've done as a form of survival," Pearce says.
Pearce grew up in Melbourne, Australia. His father, a pilot, died when he was 8. Pearce grew up fast, helping his mom raise his younger sister and learning how to act by simply putting a happy face on things.
"It was a fairly extreme thing for me as a kid," he recounts, "with people judging me for looking a bit surly or angry. But when someone asks how you are, I'd be acting like I was fine, like I was OK. So consequently, you get good at it."
By age 11 Pearce was singing in musicals such as "The King and I." A few years later he got into competitive bodybuilding. Fresh out of high school, Pearce joined the cast of an Australian prime-time soap opera called "Neighbors," which became a national phenomenon when it debuted in 1985. To his dismay, Pearce became a teen idol.
"I don't care what anyone says. People shouting at you, screaming at you, pulling at your sweatshirt when you're walking through a shopping center and wanting an autograph, the expectations. . . . It can't get any worse than that. I really don't want to go through that again."
After "Priscilla" was released to critical acclaim in 1994, Pearce began taking meetings in Los Angeles, where he was repeatedly told to "lose the Australian accent." Hanson cast Pearce in "Confidential" on the basis of a 15-minute audition. The director chose not to watch "Priscilla."
"I'd cast Russell Crowe, and it was already a sufficient gamble trying to convince my producing partners to use another Australian actor. I didn't want to have my confidence rattled by watching Guy run around in a dress for two hours," says Hanson, who admired Pearce's willingness to portray an uptight, hypocritical snitch.
"Actors often have a basic desire to be liked, to have their character looked on as sympathetic," he says. "What needed to happen with Exley was the opposite of that. He was a political animal, opportunistic, cold. And Guy had the boldness to embrace that." Pearce's "incredible ear" also impressed Hanson, who says the actor learned to speak like an American without benefit of a dialect coach, at times modeling Exley's speech directly on Hanson's.
"L.A. Confidential's" critical cachet and nine Oscar nominations boosted Pearce up another notch on the Hollywood totem pole. "It made me feel a lot more secure about myself as an actor and definitely opened the doors to be able to go meet with people. But I also got a lot of people saying, 'Now you're this A-list actor, now you can go do whatever you want,' which I found to be a ridiculous notion. I read a lot of scripts that were definitely studio-oriented films. I was being offered big schlocky stupid stuff." Pearce opted for more offbeat projects. "Ravenous," his first post-"Confidential" American feature, was hardly a crowd-pleasing premise: army officers develop a taste for human flesh and begin eating other officers. "I thought, this is going to be a really bleak picture, which is what I was really looking forward to doing. I didn't realize the making of it was going to be bleak."
The original director was fired. Pearce and co-star Robert Carlyle rebelled when the studio's second choice came on board. The third and final director, Antonia Bird, salvaged some visually arresting moments, but the gruesome subject matter and uneven tone made "Ravenous" an artistic and commercial disappointment.
"Memento" proved far more rewarding. Pearce first met with Nolan in Los Angeles while filming "Rules of Engagement." After their initial get-together, Pearce overcame his reserve, phoned Nolan and spit out his feelings in a rush of sentiment. "I said to Chris, 'Look, I feel really awkward doing this, this is not something I would ever normally do, but I hear that people do this kind of thing, so I'm gonna do it: I love your script, I think it's extraordinary, and I really really want to do it, so I'm just letting you know how enthusiastic I am about wanting to do it because I hear that that sometimes helps, so pardon me for doing this because it's not what I normally do.' "
Nolan didn't need much convincing. "After we got the script to Guy, I took a look at 'L.A. Confidential' and 'Priscilla,' and the overriding impression I came away with was, any actor who could do such two completely different roles could probably do anything they set their mind to."
Nolan, whose sole credit prior to "Memento" was directing a low-budget film noir titled "Following," says, "Guy's working method was ideal for the material because he was able to come into a scene with no background knowledge and present a very reactive set of behaviors."
Midway through "Memento," for example, Leonard and another character are running through a trailer park. Leonard says to himself: "What am I doing?" Pause. "I'm chasing him." Pause. "Nope, he's chasing me."
Nolan's brother Jonathan learned about short-term memory loss, technically known as anterograde amnesia, while taking a psychology course in college. The brothers brainstormed during a road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles. Jonathan wrote a short story while Chris seized on the themes of victimization, guilt, identity and trust and began crafting the "Memento" screenplay.
After rehearsals and improv sessions at cast member Joe Pantoliano's house, the "Memento" team embarked on an intense 25-day shoot in Burbank during the fall of 1999. Pearce appears in virtually every frame of the picture, surrounded by an ethically challenged cast of characters who can't resist playing mind games once they learn of Leonard's condition. The clerk (Mark Boone Jr.) at his seedy motel switches Leonard's room for a laugh. A femme who may or may not be fatale (Carrie-Anne Moss) has a fight with Leonard, races out the door to wait in her car a minute, then comes back in and blames her black eye on a man she needs Leonard to get rid of. A squirrelly vice detective (Pantoliano) claims to be Leonard's only true friend but may in fact be trying to destroy him.
The sun shines brightly, but make no mistake--it's a noir world seething with paranoia and insecurity, inhabited by people who aren't what they appear to be. Pearce can relate.
"That's what I feel I experience sometimes with people I'd meet who sort of come into your circle. My wife Kate and I used to go, 'Aren't they fantastic? Wow, what a great person they are,' and then you'd start to see the kinks in the armor. Now, I reserve judgment."
Pearce doesn't exempt himself, or his characters, from that kind of scrutiny. "I'm quite paranoid about, you know, being a hypocrite or not being true to what I say. My wife and I point it out in each other all the time."
"Memento" allowed Pearce a chance to explore some juicy contradictions. "Chris beautifully puts up the possibility: Here's the bad guy, here's the good guy; let's go with that and then turn it on its head. I find it funny, particularly, in this country, when I start a film, people will ask, 'Are you the good guy or the bad guy?' What, are those my only two choices?"
"The brilliance about Guy," Pantoliano says, "is that he doesn't have a star mentality. ... Guy's about the truth of the character; he does not necessarily have to wear the white hat."
Pearce won't be wearing a white hat in "The Count of Monte Cristo," filmed last year in Ireland under Kevin Reynolds' direction. He plays the title character's traitorous friend. Pearce has a career strategy that, like his approach to acting, relies more on intuition than on calculation.
"Sure," he says, "I'll do bigger, more studio-oriented things, as long as I can make films that consist of a 35-member crew, that only takes five weeks to make, that are low-budget and where my opinion counts," he says.
Whatever the project, count on Pearce to illuminate his character's darker hues. Discussing Leonard's tightly bound set of routines, he muses, "We all hang on to things that are really quite negative and end up doing us no good, whereas, if we were to do a positive sort of ritual--just 10 minutes of meditation in the morning or something like that--it would be good for us."
Then again, it's precisely those unhealthy elements--guilt, denial, obsession--that make "Memento" so compelling.
"Hanging on to something like Leonard does, it's just tragic," Pearce says. "Some people would see it as a positive step, 'This is what he needs to do to survive'--but Leonard's surviving in such a non-surviving way, he's slowly going down this hole--it's just tragic. And I like things that are tragic."