"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
In an inspired piece of viral marketing, 20thCentury Fox released a three-minute video this past February to promote its forthcoming film “Prometheus”: Ridley Scott’s latest science fiction opus that may or may not be a prequel to his Academy Award-winning “Alien.” The video, which can only be described as a TED talk on steroids, stars Guy Pearce as the reptilian entrepreneur Peter Weyland, whose Weyland Industries was arguably the true monster of the original sci-fi classic. If the scene doesn’t whet your appetite for the feature’s June release, it at least offers a glowing reminder of Pearce’s prodigious, movie-stealing talents. Given the relatively low profile he’s kept over the past decade, sometimes it’s easy to forget.
Eighteen years removed from his turn as a flamboyant drag queen in “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” and 12 years after his breakout performance in Christopher Nolan’s “Memento,” Pearce remains something of an enigma; he’s an English-born actor, living in Australia and working in Los Angeles. While he’s appeared in two of the last three best picture winners (“The Hurt Locker” and “The King’s Speech”) and earned an Emmy for his role as Monty Beragon opposite Kate Winslet in “Mildred Pierce,” he’s never quite earned the kind of movie star recognition he deserves from audiences or producers. His latest film, “Lockout,” a kind of screwball comedy disguised as a sci-fi thriller (think “Escape From New York” if the island of Manhattan were a high-tech prison in outer space), finds him playing the unlikely role of action star. It’s another strange twist in a uniquely eclectic career, but even drag queens have to flex their muscles from time to time.
A surprisingly slight man clad in jeans, a purple flannel shirt and a pristine pair of blue adidas gazelles, Pearce sat down with Salon at the Parker Meridien hotel to discuss his newest film, his disdain for the term “genre,” and his past as a teen bodybuilder.
“Lockout” seems like a bit of a departure from the kinds of movies you typically make. It’s your first blockbuster since “The Time Machine” in 2002. What attracted you to the project?
I think it was a number of things really. I’ve been asked to do action-oriented movies in the past and they just haven’t been right for me. They’ve felt a little serious or something — either the characters took themselves too seriously, or the film took itself too seriously — whereas this clearly doesn’t. Having said that, I’ve also been very aware in the past of action films that don’t take certain things seriously enough.
Can you give me an example?
I can’t think of [a title], because I don’t even store that kind of information. It’s one of those things we talk about here in America, where people can be very flippant about violence. A movie that gets a PG-13 rating can show someone running down a street killing 27 people. And there are no repercussions. In “Lockout,” my character has a cynical sense of humor, but it comes from a real place. And when you look at Joseph Gilgun’s character, who’s popping off hostages one by one, it’s not treated in a light-handed way. Even though there’s a heightened sense of reality to it, it has a more realistic view than some other action-oriented films.
It seems to walk a tightrope, or at least try to.
Yeah. It’s funny with genre films; I’ve never understood the way people talk about them. I’ve always thought you’re just diving into human psychology. It doesn’t matter whether it’s science fiction or action. Where do you even draw the line between genres? At the same time, I do think certain genres allow you to get away with certain behaviors. People can chew on their popcorn and go, “Ah well, it’s just a movie.” You can’t really say that about most of the films I do.
With the possible exceptions of “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “Memento” in flashes, I’m not sure I can remember a performance of yours in which you’re quite this funny or winning. Would you like to play more comedic roles?
Not necessarily. I don’t have an agenda and I don’t really have a view of my career if I’m not looking back at it. I just respond to what comes my way. As soon as I start to think about a plan, it suddenly feels very dishonest to me.
How do you choose your films? Is it a purely aesthetic decision?
Yeah, it’s just a response in the same way that you read books, and out of the five books you read, you go, “Wow, this one has really stuck with me.” Within that are various elements. Can I see myself as that character? Can I see myself doing something with that character that feels endless and timeless, and not boxed in? I look at screenplays and I go, “Yeah, it’s an interesting story, and I could step in there, but I feel like there’s something limited about it.” That’s what makes me say no to something. Or I’ll go, “Well the character’s fantastic, but the story’s lame, or doesn’t have enough in it, or whatever it happens to be.” Saying no to something can be just as affecting as saying yes to something. It just happens that I say no more often than I say yes.
So I’m assuming that you didn’t sign up for “Prometheus” because you wanted to make a science fiction film.
Absolutely [not]. The character that I’m playing is fascinating. It didn’t even occur to me until I started doing all this press and people were like, “So, two science fiction movies. Is this your new thing?”
I know you can’t really get into the movie’s plot, but what was it like working with Ridley Scott?
It was amazing. It’s funny because every time I start to talk about my five minutes with Ridley Scott, I think about Russell Crowe working with him five times, and I go, “Really, what can I say?”
You have more insight than most.
(Laughter) I suppose I do. Ridley has a wonderful way of making you feel comfortable and making it feel like it’s a little, intimate story that you’re filming. You forget about the five 3-D cameras that are around and this massive world that this whole thing inhabits. He has a great regard for his actors and what he wants them to do; he’s a great communicator in that sense. Really, it was an absolute delight.
Do you remember the first time you saw “Alien”? It’s always been one of those movie-watching experiences that leaves a lasting impression on people.
I don’t remember the first time I saw it, but I’ve seen it a few times. And of course I watched it again prior to shooting “Prometheus.” I looked at it and realized it’s actually a horror movie. The fact that it’s set in space gives it the credibility and the integrity of there being strange creatures that can kill you. When you make a horror movie set in a house and some ooga-booga monster comes out from under the floorboards, you know it’s safe because it’s not actually real. I guess the realm of science fiction enables you to make a horror movie as effective as “Alien” because fuck knows what can come and get you out there in space. Listening to what Ridley has to say about science fiction, and why science fiction exists, I think he’d probably laugh at a movie like “Lockout.”
One of the things that’s so curious about your career is that you seem to move seamlessly from supporting to leading roles and back again. It sounds like that’s not necessarily by design. Do you think of yourself as a leading man, in as much as that label still means anything in post-recession Hollywood?
I don’t and I think it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to feel like you can carry something. I know that’s a contradiction because I’ve played leading roles, but I play a leading role in “Memento” who’s wracked with anxiety and confusion. Or I play a leading role in “Lockout” who’s kind of smart-alecky and cynical. I struggle with the idea of playing the guy that everybody wants to be. I feel like I play the guy that everyone knows they’ve got inside themselves and they fucking wish wasn’t there. If there’s a theme across the characters I play, that’s probably it.
You’ve described yourself as having a “mini nervous breakdown” a decade ago about your acting career. What precipitated that and how did you get past it?
I went through a period where I just wanted to punch everybody. Since then, I’ve had a lot of therapy and I’ve figured a lot of things out. I think what was underlying it all was the fact that I’d been [acting] since I was a kid. Here I was at 30, still doing what I was doing when I was 8, and still responding to it all in exactly the same way. I didn’t feel confident saying this career that I have was based on the decision of an adult.
[Another] prime thing was that I just didn’t feel confident about what I was capable of and what skills I had. I needed to take a year away, reassess and realize that I’ve got some skills, I have something to offer and I can see the validity in this.
In a profile for the Independent in the U.K., you were quoted as saying that “you need to have a level of emotional consistency when you raise a child, and I don’t know that I have that.” Do you think that’s a hazard of the career that you’ve chosen?
(Laughter) No, I think it’s just the moody bastard that I can be. Look, I’m probably far more stable now. Again, that probably goes hand in hand with the fluctuating person that I’ve been in the past. But having said that, I still don’t want children and my wife doesn’t want children. I still have those moments — they’re much less frequent and to a much lesser degree — where I’m filled with intense anger. I hate myself and I hate everything going on around me, but I know how to handle it now.
Few people, at least in this country, know about your teen bodybuilding career.
A little, yeah. How did that come about?
I was going to the gym when I was pretty young, just a kid with his mum. She would be doing aerobics or whatever, and I was doing general fitness stuff. It was a gym that was owned and run by a husband and wife team — she was a runner-up Miss Universe a couple of times, a Miss Australia winner. Her husband was one of the powers that be in the bodybuilders federation. Purely because it was that gym, they were saying to me, “You know, you should think about entering this competition.” I really had no interest in pursuing it. It was just a fluke.
A lot of actors use their visibility as a kind of platform for their political views. Is there any cause that you feel particularly passionate about?
There are a lot of things that I feel strongly about, but I really don’t feel like I’m the right person to blow his trumpet. I think that it affects how I’m viewed as an actor.
Maybe it’s a little lame to say that, because if I’ve got the chance to make a change, then shouldn’t I? At the same time, I don’t want to undermine [myself] by getting on my soapbox. But in answer to your question, animals. Animals, animals.
You’re English-born, but raised in Australia. How does it feel that a majority of your audience recognizes you for the work you’ve done in America?
Hollywood is pretty much the center of the filmmaking world. I know they make a lot of films in India, but I don’t speak Indian. I’m always trying to work more at home; there’s something very personal about that. Of course, I would like those films to be seen. It was great when “Animal Kingdom” had the effect that it did and “Priscilla” as well. But it’s always an honor to work here. When the Americans make a good film, it’s pretty special really.
Jacob Sugarman is Salon's cover editor and the editor of Open Salon. You can follow him on twitter @jakesugarman.More Jacob Sugarman.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)