Guy Pearce is struggling with the whole Hollywood thing.
First noticed as a transvestite in the 1994 “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” then cast in the Oscar-winning “L.A. Confidential” and the critically lauded “Memento,” Pearce is reeling from his experiences in string of commercial studio movies.
Here’s what he’s learned: Directors get replaced midstream. Scripts get changed, radically, between takes. An actor may break a rib and still be expected to carry on with action scenes. And the movie you act in may not be the movie you finally see on-screen, a week before opening.
So it went with “The Time Machine,” the $85-million science fiction movie, which opened last week and is based on the novel by H.G. Wells. Pearce plays Alexander Hartdegen, the scientist who travels from the early 20th century to the year 802,701 and ends up battling a mutant species that munches on Homo sapiens for their survival.
A monster-fighting action hero played by the same guy lauded in Time magazine for giving “the best performance last year not to be nominated for an Oscar”? (In “Memento.” And more on that later.)
“I had this dualistic approach,” Pearce, 34, says of the “Time Machine” script. “I thought, ‘Oh, wow, that would be fun.’ The other side was saying, ‘No, you don’t make children’s movies. Do important things.’ But I’m trying to loosen up, to broaden the spectrum.” But Pearce quickly learned some tough lessons, among them that, in the pecking order of things, the lead actor doesn’t necessarily come first.
“‘The machine is the star of the movie.’ That’s what I was told,” he says, laughing. “I said, ‘Why doesn’t the machine do all the interviews?’ I can laugh at it now.”
The experience was a bruising one, literally and figuratively. Director Simon Wells was overwhelmed and unable to finish the film. Key scenes hit the cutting-room floor; other sequences were added. But mostly, he says, his difficulty with “The Time Machine” is “not so much about what happened but about my not being satisfied with what I offered up as a performance.”
The studio behind the film, DreamWorks, disagrees. “He’s a very self-critical, exacting actor. He takes his craft extremely seriously,” says Walter Parkes, a producer of “The Time Machine” and head of the motion picture division of DreamWorks. It’s no secret that “The Time Machine” was plagued with difficulty. Wells, great-grandson of H.G. Wells, was given the project as his first live-action film; he previously directed the animated epic “Prince of Egypt.”
Time Machine” proved overwhelming, according to Parkes and Pearce, and the novice filmmaker had to be removed for exhaustion a few weeks before the end of the shoot and replaced with Gore Verbinski (“Mouse Hunt”).
There were some real surprises when Pearce saw the finished film two weeks ago. The opening sequence--in which the dean of Columbia University finds Hartdegen conducting experiments with his students outdoors--was removed. At the end of the film, Pearce was surprised to see his character holding hands with the female lead, Samantha Mumba.
“It’s not my hand; it’s not her hand,” says Pearce, resigned. “It wasn’t how I saw the character.”
After three weeks on “Time Machine,” Bird was replaced with the director of “Home Alone 3,” Raja Gosnell. Says Pearce, “I couldn’t quite understand the experience.”
After “The Time Machine,” he withdrew for a while, hiding in a bark hut on a beach in northwest Australia for a month. Crazy? “Not as crazy as working in Hollywood,” he says.
Pearce gave one of last year’s most arresting performances in “Memento,” a daring noir film with a tiny budget and no proper distributor.
The film, about a man who has lost his short-term memory and is trying to solve the murder of his wife, is darkly comic and dramatic, and both it and Pearce received rave notices. Many film lovers were disappointed when he failed to win a best actor nomination last month, especially given the mixed reviews for other nominees.
“I’m coming to terms with the fact that if I want to do a particular kind of film--expressing myself, indulging in a story that’s self-indulgent--there’s every possibility no one will want to see it,” he says.
Increasingly, Pearce feels he must find a way to keep his balance in the precarious movie world of commerce and art.
“If I choose a studio-based film, there’s a lot of money at stake,” he reflects. “The film will have a certain flavor. Either I accept that or I don’t.” Pause. “‘Rob Roy,’ ‘Braveheart,’ movies that have a sort of wink-wink at the camera, I’m able more and more to accept that as valid entertainment. As long as I can balance the two, I’ll keep it interesting in my life.”