Geoffrey Rush counts his blessings

Actor adds Karlovy Vary Crystal Globe to a glittering collection

by Richard Mowe

Full house: Geoffrey Rush introduces screening of The King’s Speech at the Grand Hall as part of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Full house: Geoffrey Rush introduces screening of The King’s Speech at the Grand Hall as part of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival Photo: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Equally comfortable and convincing as a swashbuckling pirate (Pirates Of The Caribbean), a royal speech therapist (The King’s Speech), or a nobleman (Shakespeare In Love), actor Geoffrey Rush has had one of the most diverse and enviable careers in the business.

He's one of the only actors to have received a Tony, Emmy, two Golden Globes and Oscar for his performances. He has been prised out of home in Australia, this time by the prospect of receiving the Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema in Karlovy Vary at the closing ceremony on Saturday. The Festival is screening some of his greatest hits including The King's Speech, Quills and Shine for which he won his Oscar aged 45 in 1997.

Home for the actor who turns 71 today (6 July), remains Melbourne. “I was a Queensland boy until my mid-twenties, when I went to Paris to study before spending time in London. When I met my wife ­– who was an actress – we decided that by the nature of our lifestyles a base would be very important, and we chose Melbourne.

“After I went to Paris to study, spending four years there, I returned home and pretty much stayed Australia-bound for 13 to 14 years. When Shine happened mid-career, it was do or die – I just had to jump on a plane. I was a terrible, nervous flier, but that kind of thing evaporated quite quickly.”

Geoffrey Rush in Karlovy Vary: "I don’t approach my work in a kind of psychotherapeutic way, but there is something terribly cleansing about getting to play all that stuff out.”
Geoffrey Rush in Karlovy Vary: "I don’t approach my work in a kind of psychotherapeutic way, but there is something terribly cleansing about getting to play all that stuff out.” Photo: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Among other places, his career has taken him to Prague, Panama, Budapest and the Caribbean as Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. He says that to go to those places under the auspices of a film project has been slightly better for him “because I'm not an adventurous wayfarer in that sense. But I have had the opportunity and it's been fantastic.”

He suggests flying to New York or London from Melbourne is the hard one. “I know now that it has to be planned very carefully. It will always take me a week or ten days to really swing myself into an appropriate professional functionality, so I arrive early and I'm happy to go through costume fittings and make-up tests during that crazy spaced-out period when you feel like a zombie. It's just a question of preparation and being sensible.”

Rush has calmed down a shade, yet still the offers keeping rolling in. Rush has the mature armoury and background to cope with the all the enduring attention while making astute choices.

He has always had that studied crumpled look, underpinned by an air of relaxation and bonhomie. “Look, at my age I’m sort of starting late; a mature student if you like. I’m not aiming to be prolific, rather I’m more into creative and personal satisfaction. I’m counting my blessings.”

Until his early cinema roles, one of Rush’s claims to fame was appearing as Vladimir opposite a youthful Mel Gibson as Estragon in a stage production in Sydney of Waiting For Godot in 1979. “We were probably both too young - Mel was 23 and I was 28 - but we achieved a very physically funny production which was a joy to play. He’d more or less just come out of drama school, and I’d got back after studying in Paris [at the Jacques LeCoq mime school] for a couple of years.

“I drew on my memories of the tail-end of vaudeville that I caught before television came to my home state, Queensland - and I know that Beckett loved music hall. I’ve seen productions of the play that are so reverential that they are boring. We used to have the audience rolling about.”

Geoffrey Rush in Pirates Of The Caribbean
Geoffrey Rush in Pirates Of The Caribbean

His sojourn in France allowed him to develop his craft and a taste as a bon viveur. “I caught up on a lot of reading - the complete works of Henry Miller and then James Joyce and drank a lot.”

On his return Down Under, Rush worked in the theatre for more than 20 years, mainly in comedy. He fondly recalls his Sir Andrew Aguecheek in a celebrated production of Twelfth Night, Astrov in Uncle Vanya, and the title role in The Government Inspector before Shine turned him into a global power player. At the time a friend gave him the following piece of advice. “This is the time of your life when the minibar will be free - enjoy it!”

His family roots revolve around his wife, actress Jane Menelaus and their two adult children Angelica and James. His father was an accountant in the air force; his mother a sales assistant in a Brisbane chain store.

He met Jane when they were acting together. They spent their honeymoon playing on stage - he was Jack to her Gwendolen in a production of The Importance Of Being Earnest. “Later when we did Marat / Sade, she got to a hold a knife over my head every night,” he says with a mischievous smirk.

He feels comfortable in Melbourne “because mentally and physically that’s where I feel at home. I wanted my children to grow up in Australia, and if I have anything to pass on to them as a parent as a mentor, it is my own experiences of having grown up there, and shaped a career there. We have a vast network of friends.

“So far I have been able to ‘commute’ to wherever anyone wants me to go. I have had the good fortune to be offered roles which sort of match the repertoire and aesthetic that I want to pursue.

"They think foolishly that I am a name but the reality is that most of the better and more successful Australian films of the last 35 years have never been star driven. In any case I don’t put queues round the block unless I am in something that is a complete film and entertaining in its own right.”

Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech
Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

Rush has a reputation as an actor who goes to enormous lengths to get into the heart of the character.

He was Oscar-nominated for his flamboyant performance as the Marquis de Sade in Quills - and was seen as the ex-con in the title role in John Boorman’s The Tailor Of Panama from John Le Carré’s darkly comic thriller. During the making of The Tailor Of Panama the actor was equally determined to ensure authenticity.

"I worked with a tailor in Sydney for a couple of months, and then met a fantastic tailor in Panama. On the first practice I was chewing up all this cloth and the chalk was going everywhere. I worked at it, and eventually was not bad, although I wouldn’t necessarily wear the jacket,” says the man who, when he’s not in jeans and tee shirt, prefers Armani.

“It all helps you to get into the mental state of the character, because there is a rhythm and a focus. The brain goes into this calm place. I don’t approach my work in a kind of psychotherapeutic way, but there is something terribly cleansing about getting to play all that stuff out.”

He has made sure that his agent is well-briefed in sorting out the projects that would hook his interest. He needs a strong story, a committed creative team, and the ethos of “making a film for other reasons than purely marketing ones. I want to hold on to some honourable sense of balance. I am being careful not to clutter my life with career administration so I can keep the focus on the acting.”

Fellow actors like working with Rush, once he drops his serious mask. Kate Winslett, who was his Quills co-star, thought he looked rather impregnable. “Within five minutes I realised that he’s got just about the wickedest sense of humour of anyone I’ve ever known.”

Director John Boorman once opined: “You never lose sympathy for Geoffrey on screen even when he does dreadful things. He has a tremendous range.”

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