HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — Geoffrey Rush sat in his canvas-backed set chair reading a script. The Oscar winner says he never counts the lines of dialogue. "It must be my stage training," he says. "It doesn't matter how lengthy the role is, but what the character has to say."
When he was in the midst of playing the Marquis de Sade in the film "Quills," a role that won him a Best Actor nomination at this year's Academy Awards, director John Boorman sent him the script of "The Tailor of Panama" (see review, page 17).
"As I read it, I couldn't help but think, compared to the depraved Marquis, the role of Harry in 'Tailor of Panama' is absolutely normal," Rush says.
He was sitting in his dressing room on the set. "I recall looking up from the script and seeing my reflection in the mirror. Dressed as the self-obsessed de Sade, confined for several years in an 18th-century French asylum, [my] once-elegant attire was now faded with a few soup stains added for realism."
His wig, by costume designer Jacqueline West, made him look, to quote Rush, "like a randy old mountain goat - which was not only perfect for the character but helped me slide into the mind set of the arrogant, decadent de Sade."
Flash forward to "The Tailor of Panama." Rush plays Harry Pendel, a tailor living in Panama who reluctantly becomes a spy for a British agent. "He wears the best-looking three-piece suit and belongs to the finest clubs. He hopes people will say, 'Harry, I want you to make me a suit just like yours.' Ah, but when he's out with his wife and two kids boating on the lake, you discover the real, less fashionable man."
Rush has more time on the screen, and is more heroic, than his co-star, Pierce Brosnan. "In many ways, this film became a healthy antidote to what I had experienced playing the Marquis," Rush says. "As legendary and self-regarding as the Marquis was, Harry is kind of a nobody who is much more internal.
"Yet as we began filming, I found the role full of great contradictions, which helps him accidentally to become heroic, while Pierce's character becomes ruthless."
Last summer, Rush filmed the thriller "Lantana" in Australia, an ensemble piece about five couples. "It's a smaller role, but challenging because the character has many layers to unpeel."
Next he begins shooting a comedy with Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon ("The Banger Sisters"). And Rush is signed to appear in "Frida Kahlo" - the life of the famed Mexican artist - with Edward Norton and Ashley Judd. He has a small role as Russian revolutionist Leon Trotsky.
Whether it's an Oscar-nominated role, a cameo, or a few scenes in an ensemble drama - Rush's unusual career selections offer him a "delicious dish" of characters, not the usual blue-plate special.
"I describe it as part of the long-term slough of being an itinerate worker," he says. "I have been fortunate in my theater life to work with a variety of Australian companies."
Rush started acting in small roles at a theater in Brisbane, Queensland, in the 1970s, where he appeared in eight plays a season. His break came when he played Snoopy in "You're A Good Man Charlie Brown." "I made people laugh," he says. "We did one show at night, and rehearsed another play during the day....
"Now I find such training has informed me in a much richer way. You don't always have to be the center of the story.... Just come in a side door, lie low, and pitch in from the side."
Working at one of those Australian repertory companies, Rush met another struggling young actor-to-be, Mel Gibson.
"Mel had rented a large, very old house in the suburbs. Since neither of us had much money, he asked if I wanted to share it. The only furniture was two beds. Oh yes, there was a refrigerator, in which Mel always kept a large plastic bag of carrots. I think he felt if that was all we had to eat, at least it was healthy. To this day, he's still on a health regime."
When Rush received the Academy Award as Best Actor for "Shine" in 1997, Gibson, who had received the Best Director Oscar for "Braveheart" the previous year, was in the wings. What a great place for a reunion!
Recalling that moment when he heard his name announced, Rush says, "Of course, your heart is beating in your ears until you hear the winner's name, and when it turns out to be yours something takes over.... Sometimes when your name isn't called, you wonder what would happen if you'd look into that box of a camera and stick your finger down your throat and go baaah!"
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor