On August 31, audiences will meet Special Agent Charlie Rakes, an eyebrow-less sadist of the highest order. Rakes is the villain in John Hillcoat’s Prohibition-era shoot ’em up, Lawless (formerly The Wettest County and co-starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and Mia Wasikowska), and is embodied by Guy Pearce with ice-cold glee. It’s a terrifying performance, with the 44-year-old giving lifeblood to an instantly iconic screen villain. But before Pearce’s id gnashes its scenes to shreds in Lawless, audiences can see him as a bona fide action hero in the sci-fi prison-break film, Lockout (currently in theatres), where Pearce stars as a wrongly imprisoned agent who must break out the President’s daughter from a tricked out space jail. He’ll follow that up with a role as the corporate demigod Peter Wayland in Ridley Scott’s insanely anticipated Prometheus. We recently caught up with the Australian native to talk about playing heroes versus villains, his most underrated films, and playing a good Andy Warhorl in a bad Andy Warhol movie.
You play a sort of quintessential hero in Lockout, but in Lawless, you’re the epitome of a screen villain. Which do you prefer?
Look, I enjoy playing a variety of characters. I wouldn’t necessary pinpoint it as the hero or the villain in who I prefer to play. The more I think about it, the more I realize I don’t understand what the hero is. In a lot of films, heroes take themselves very seriously, but people can be heroic without realizing or even trying. People do the most heroic things and go, Oh, I wasn’t thinking, it just happened. Snow in this film is a bit of an antihero, a bit of an asshole. But I supposed the thing that’s heroic about Snow is when really pushed, he’ll come through with the goods.
Do you relish going off the rails the way you did in Lawless?
Yeah, to me, any character is off the rails. Strange, obscure characters like Charlie Rakes in Lawless are great to play. Also, because I’m working with John Hillcoat so the more unusual that you’re able to get away with, he loves that. And I think he likes what I bring to a character because when I work with John, I tend to bring lots of strange ideas with me.
What did you bring to that character?
There was a vanity that was written about him, and because of that vanity that existed on the page, I really wanted it to be unusual and spooky.
It was almost like he was from another world than the rest of the characters.
Yeah, and the interesting thing about that which John talks about, is the coming together of the Western and the gangster movie, and that period in American history where cities and country life are crossing over, particularly in the criminal world.
After the success of L.A. Confidential, you’ve said that you were offered a lot of action hero roles, but you were reluctant to play them. Why start now?
Because I think they took themselves too seriously. Sure, you do a film like L.A. Confidential which is an incredibly serious movie, but it’s very clever. A film that’s very, very serious but no so clever is kind of either pretentious or boring, I think. Lockout comes along, which I probably wouldn’t have done ten years ago.
So your perspective has changed?
Well it has, but I still wouldn’t do some of those other movies I was offered ten years ago.
Well, Daredevil I don’t really remember well enough to know. I would read 20 pages of something and go, No, no that’s not who I am. What are they talking about?. Whereas Lockout came at the right time for me because he’s a piss-taking kind of guy—not that I am, but in that kind of world, I thought it was fun. It obviously harks back to those films in the 80s. I think, even, when you look at the relationship between me and Maggie, it harks back to films from the 40s, sort of Hepburn and Tracy vibe—that kind of bickering and those tough guys with that sort of attitude of treating a woman kind of mean, but with underlying respect. And where the women are giving the men equal banter.
What do you think is your most underrated film that didn’t get the audience that you hoped it would?
Either Death Defying Acts or A Slipping-Down Life because that got caught up in a legal thing for about 8 years, and finally, when it was released it had such a black mark against its name that no one went and saw it, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful movie. And Death Defying Acts is a really well made, beautiful film, and it got released here. But no one told anyone it was getting released, and then it was stuck in one cinema and just vanished. That was just a waste. I think it’s one of the nicest films that I’ve been a part of. It’s beautifully constructed and beautifully made.
Was that a disappointment for you?
An absolute disappointment, and I think Factory Girl is a disappointment because the film’s not as good as it could’ve been.
What do you think was lacking?
Hard for me to really say what all the elements would be that made it not work as it should, but I feel disappointed because I feel really pleased with what I did as a performance. Someone said to me funnily enough, Wow, man! Great performance! Best Andy Warhol performance ever in the worst Andy Warhol movie ever. I was just like, Yeah, I know. I can’t argue with that. It was just like a waste, such a waste of a brilliant character to play.
With Lawless, Prometheus, and the new Drake Doremus movie, you have quite the schedule of upcoming projects. Which one are you most excited to see?
Well, we just shot some extra stuff for Drake’s film, so I got to see that and it’s brilliant. It’s absolutely heart-wrenching, so painful and real and fantastic. I’m very excited about that movie, but clearly, very excited to see Prometheus because I haven’t seen that. And obviously with the anticipation that everyone else is carrying, you try not to get involved in it. So I’m very excited about both of those and, of course, Lawless as well. It’s been a lucky year.