GUY PEARCE maintains such a low profile that sometimes even directors who intend to cast him in their upcoming movies don't recognize him.
When writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff first met the 40-year-old actor to talk to him about the role of FBI agent Roy Clayton in the spy thriller "Traitor," which opens in theaters today, he walked right by the star of 1997's "L.A. Confidential" and 2000's "Memento" without a second glance.
"We met for lunch, and I looked around the restaurant," recalls Nachmanoff. "There was only one other person there, and I didn't know it was Guy. And he said to me, 'Jeffrey?' I'm like, 'Guy!' I don't know why, because he doesn't change that much, but there's something about him, and I think a lot of great actors have this. He wants to disappear into his parts."
In "Traitor," the English-born, Australian-raised Pearce slips out of recognition courtesy of a clipped goatee, a heavy Tennessee accent and full-immersion into a complex character -- a federal agent whose Baptist upbringing and respect for other faiths provide him with the keys to unlocking the secrets of former U.S. Special Operations officer and devout Muslim Samir Horn (Don Cheadle), who has been linked to terrorist activities in Yemen, Nice and London.
"Roy Clayton is more understanding of Samir's position than anybody else in the FBI actually is," says Pearce. "What they have in common is that Roy's father was a Baptist minister, and Samir's father was a religious man as well."
This heady exploration of faith and terrorism has its origins in a "what if" scenario that comedian-actor Steve Martin posed to producer David Hoberman during the filming of the 2003 blockbuster comedy "Bringing Down the House." Hoberman and partner Todd Lieberman then recruited Nachmanoff, who wrote 2004's climate-change thriller "The Day After Tomorrow," to develop the idea into a screenplay.
"When [Guy and I] first sat down to look at the script, he was enthusiastic about it," says Nachmanoff. "He said, 'Look, Jeffrey, I normally have a lot of notes. I have to say, I don't have many notes on this script. But let's literally go through it page by page and look at every line.' And we did. And he would analyze sometimes down to a contraction, saying 'I do not' versus 'I don't.' That type of thing, for Guy, could be important."
Pearce's careful dissection of the screenplay is an essential part of his process. "I'll generally write out every scene that's in the film on a couple of pieces of paper, just with a little one-line" summary of each scene, says Pearce. "And then I can scan it a bit and go, 'This first third of the film, generally, I'm kind of calm.' Then I might do something on one piece of paper that just relates to the energy of the character."
Each weekend of the "Traitor" shoot, Pearce would reread all of his scenes for the coming week and then take a fresh, big-picture look at the entire script. If any of his lines seemed extraneous to him, he would call Nachmanoff and politely suggest cuts. Pearce explains: "I've got a bit of [obsessive-compulsive disorder], I think, so I can get a little obsessed about detail stuff."
Pearce's childhood veered into the unexpected often enough that he appreciates having a detailed script. Born in England in 1967, Pearce moved to Geelong, Australia, with his parents and developmentally disabled older sister when he was 3. Then in 1976, his father, a military test pilot, died in a plane crash that made national headlines.
"I would feel quite anxious around people and be nervous that I was going to get asked some question I couldn't answer, and I wasn't going to know what to say," recalls Pearce, who currently lives in Melbourne with his childhood sweetheart and wife, Kate Mestitz. "On stage, you've got dialogue you've learned. You've got a paying audience. It couldn't be better, you know? My therapist would say it's probably because of having lost my dad when I was really young and, that being a really tragic thing, that [I was] worried about what was potentially around the corner being really disastrous. So in doing a play or doing some structured work as an actor, it's set. That's probably why I was drawn to it, in a way."
After high school, Pearce immediately landed a part on the 1980s Australian soap opera "Neighbours," which led to a series of breakout film roles culminating in 2000's amnesia-fueled thriller "Memento."
"It was a pivotal film for me and quite a good representation of what I'm interested in," he says. "It probably enabled a little more confidence. I tend to project my father figure onto any director that I'm working with, or mother, if I'm working with a female, or it can be confused. But Chris Nolan's trusting me was really important and just allowed me to trust myself more."
Following "Memento," Pearce leapt into a spate of projects, including 2002's big-budget, critically reviled adaptation of "The Time Machine." He lost some of the confidence he had previously found and went through a period in which he considered quitting the profession altogether.
"It was a bit of a breakdown, actually, and I was smoking a lot of pot leading up to that time as well, and that clearly didn't help at all," he says. "I'd just been taking opportunity after opportunity after opportunity. I didn't have my own direction going on. So it was really about decompressing, and I was seeing . . . a therapist, and I just needed to take stock."
Fortified by a new selectivity, Pearce has spent the last half a dozen years delivering a series of understated performances in films such as 2005's fratricidal drama "The Proposition" and 2006's Andy Warhol film "Factory Girl." His upcoming lineup includes November's post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy adaptation, "The Road," December's Adam Sandler comedy, "Bedtime Stories," and the Australian true-crime saga "In Her Skin."
Although Pearce may have the ability to disappear into each of these roles, that doesn't mean that some strangers don't stop him on the street.
His role in "Traitor" has already led to a few interesting encounters with the public -- although this has more to do with Pearce's preoccupation with the film's religious content than it does with his celebrity. "I've got a T-shirt that says, 'Jesus saves,' and the 's' in 'Jesus' is a big dollar sign," he says. "I've worn it here [in America] and had people come up on the street and go, 'You can't wear that.' People in Australia think it's funny. I'm fascinated by religion. I don't believe in God, but the thing I do believe in is that we're all connected. And I guess that's what other people might call God. I don't know enough about religion to really say, but on some level, doesn't everyone just believe in a different version of the same thing?"