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The Life and Death of Peter Sellers - Geoffrey Rush



Interview by James Ashwood/ Excerpts compiled by Jack Foley

GEOFFREY RUSH delivers a remarkable performance as Peter Sellers in the controversial film, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.

Rush, 53, was an unknown Australian theatre actor until the age of 45, when his starring role in Shine won him a best actor Oscar.

He has since made 25 movies, including appearing in Shakespeare in Love and Elizabeth.

He lives with actress wife, Jane, and children, Angelica, born in 1992, and son, James, born in 1995, in Melbourne, Australia.

Q. What was your reaction when you were asked to play Peter Sellers?
A.
I did not want to do it. I read it, thought, this is great, and promptly handed it back. I did not want to put myself on the line, as an Australian playing Britain’s greatest comic actor. The fans of Sellers are obsessive, possessive - and aggressive. I did not want to risk their anger - or my own reputation.

Q. So what changed your mind?
A.
Vanity - my own. I was approached again, about a year after I had refused it, by the director Stephen Hopkins. He said: "We have asked no one else - you are the only actor who can do it."
He picked a time when I was making Pirates of the Caribbean and I thought: "Yes, I am ready for something more serious again."
But the moment I started preparing for the role, I felt that I should have stuck to my original refusal.

Q. What was the greatest challenge in playing him?
A.
You can start with the fact that I am tall and thin and he was short and pretty chubby and very hairy. I was also an Aussie.
And I was also something of a fan, having heard him in The Goons,which was played on lunchtime radio - years after they were made - when I was getting ready to do matinee theatre. So it was the voice, the looks, the culture, the fact I was in awe - take your pick.

Q. How did you prepare?
A
. I spent weeks with the voice coach, Barbara Berkery, who had worked with Gwyneth Paltrow (on Emma) and Renee Zellweger (on Bridget Jones' Diary).
Sellers did not have just one voice - he changed his accent as he became more successful and thinner. He must have had about six voices of his own throughout his career.
Then there were the voices he used for his film characters, which I had to get right, too. There was also some more material when we see Sellers mimicking other people, like the director Blake Edwards (John Lithgow) or his mother, Peg (Miriam Margolyes).

Q. So how come you look so like him on screen?
A.
That was the result of hours of make-up, every day. I had a total of 38 wigs, for a start. There were prosthetics, too - silicone pieces which go on the skin, which absorb the light. They looked like seven pieces of uncooked veal to start with. But by the time the make-up department finished with me, I could not believe what I saw in the mirror.
The trouble was, I would often only get to film about four hours a day because of all the time it took to make me look like him.

Q. Was there any similarity between the two of you?
A.
The only thing I could think of was that our mutual acting hero was Alec Guinness. Apart from that? Nothing. He was a very dark character in his private life and treated his wives and families very badly. To give you an idea of what he was really like, Britt Ekland told Charlize Theron, who plays her; The film makes him out to be a monster at times - but he was much worse than that.

Q. What is your own view on Sellers, other than he made you laugh?
A.
I think he was a comic genius - and that is saying something. I remember that during a tour of Europe I made in 1977, when I took a break from theatre acting in Australia, he always seemed on at the cinema with a Pink Panther film.
I would watch and the audience would be filled with Sellers buffs, in anoraks, laughing their heads off. I was just watching the comedy - so modern and so physical. I was thinking: I have never seen anything like this before.

Q. Were you shocked to learn what he was really like?
A.
I realised he was a bit of a handful, but everyone you speak to who worked with him had a different view.
I spoke to Goldie Hawn, when I was in Los Angeles, and she said that, on form, he was the funniest man in the world.
But she also remembered having him over for one of her Hollywood parties and he walked around, looking sad and silent, staring at the paintings on the walls. She described him as a grown man balancing on a pin. You never knew when he was going to topple.

Q. How do you feel about him now?
A
. I do not want to demonise him and take care in the film not to do that. He was a complex man, full of originality. He was a star on radio and then did all these amazing films. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be both blessed and cursed with all that talent. Life would be tough, which I know sounds ridiculous. But it would be. And he lost it at the end.

Q. How about your own demons?
A.
I am a simple soul, compared to him. But there is a scary side to acting for me, because I have always wanted to develop rather than plateau out.
When people come to me and tell me I was terrific in this or that, I do not want to fall flat on my face the next time. But, tough, I have fallen
flat before. You just get up and dust yourself off.

Q. What makes you insecure?
A.
So many things. I remember a few years ago, just before Shine came out, we were doing a very good and successful production of Hamlet in Sydney, with an excellent actor, Richard Roxborough, as Hamlet.
We were doing 104 per cent capacity and people were sleeping overnight to get in. That makes it worse, because you think: It will never be this good again.
That is very much how I am as an actor. I was very unhappy at some of the things I did in Shine, for example, but you are committed for ever to the screen.

Q. What was the lowest point in your life?
A.
I often thought I was in the wrong business. I was pretty seriously thinking of tossing it in before I shot Shine.
I do not know why. I was pretty restless, I had been through a bad period of stress induced anxiety - panic attacks - and I was not sure of what I wanted to do. I always had a fantasy of being a chef, because I like kitchen life. And I know at that stage, I was sort of struggling to find something.

Q. Was that because of your lack of success?
A.
This is what happens when you are on the wrong side of 40. Young adults, who could be your children, are now working with you. I was playing their parents or mentor.
I started to think: "Oh, I am not part of that group any more. Is this going to be more of the same? Peggy Lee - is that all there is?"
Shine came at just the right time, with just the right part for me.

Q. Had you despaired of ever finding film success?
A.
I did not even think about it. I had been in a few films and it just did not seem to work for me. I knew Mel Gibson and had seen his career soar. Mel was the kind of man who I thought would be a film star. Most other Australian characters I had seen on screen, I could not relate to. In the 1980’s you had to have big pectorals to be in a film. I was weedy and skinny.

Q. How did you get in to this business?
A.
I never had any ambition to be an actor. I thought I would end up teaching or being a rural officer. I did a bachelor of arts degree in my home city of Brisbane from 1969-71.
During that time I acted in a lot of university plays - and took my clothes off in most of them. I was then given a job by Alan Edwards, founder of the Queensland Theatre Company. He had seen me in stuff. I did my last exam on a Friday and started on the Monday, doing seven or eight plays a year for the next three years. I was off and running.

Q. What jobs did you do during your tour of Europe in 1977?
A.
I was a dishwasher in Paris and a hospital orderly in London. But I did anything that was going. I remember unloading frocks for some company in the rain, in a side street near Haymarket, London, outside Her Majesty’s, thinking: I want to be in there - not out here in the rain.

Q. How did you meet your wife?
A.
Jane was with me in a play in Adelaide, in 1986 and we married in 1988. We went off on our honeymoon, doing a production of The Importance of Being Ernest.
We worked together quite a bit. That was one of the advantages of flogging around the theatre circuit. The money was not great – around 650 Australian bucks a week, which is about 300 pounds - but, on the whole, we enjoyed our life on the road.

Q. What has success brought you, in terms of material possessions?
A.
My eye muscles hurt now when I read our MasterCard bill. But we have been pretty sensible about not going mad with it. We decided to move house because I needed more space. I got sick of toys because my office was also the kids room. When the auction sign went up they said: He’s moving to Hollywood. We moved about a mile up the road. We have also got a better car - I do not drive, but Jane bought a Volvo station wagon.

Q. So no high-flying life, like Peter Sellers, for you?
A.
I like to keep things simple and low-key. I could not have lived his life for a moment.


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