It’s been ten years since Australia’s Geoffrey Rush won an Oscar for his first leading role in the biopic Shine, and a few years later, he followed that with a pair of Oscar-nominated period pieces, Shakespeare in Love and Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, which teamed him with then young ingénues Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett, both of whom would go onto greater things. While the former would win most of the Oscars that year, including another nomination for Rush, the latter would prove significant for introducing Cate Blanchett to the world, and as Sir Francis Walsingham, advisor to her young Queen Elizabeth, Rush continued to build his reputation as one of Australia’s finest exports.
After ten years, Walsingham is back in Kapur’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which continues the story ten years later at a point when Elizabeth has earned the respect of her court and people and her need for advice from Rush’s Walsingham has decreased to the point where he’s mainly deailng with conspiracies going on behind the Queen’s back.
Geoffrey Rush is one of those rare breeds of actors who can read the back of a cereal box and be interesting, so getting a chance to interview him was more than a small thrill for this ardent fan.
ComingSoon.net: This is sort of a sequel which I understand was already planned even back when you did the first movie.
Geoffrey Rush: Yeah, look, I mean it might have been in the writers’ minds or in Shekhar’s imagination, I don’t know, but it was more around 2002/2003 I remember, because I was shooting “Pirates.” For some reason, even though we were on location in the Caribbean for that, there was one point in time where Shekhar, who lives in Mumbay, and Cate who I think was filming or living in Brighton in the UK–I live in Melbourne–we happened to have a three-hour window of opportunity where we were all in L.A. at the same time. We got together, and Shekhar said, “You know, I would really like to push forward. There’s a script being developed for another chapter in the more celebrated historically-known part of Elizabeth’s life.” I think initially Cate had some reservations, because as you can see from her repertoire and what’s happened since she blazed onto the screen ten years ago, she chooses very challenging and very diverse roles. I think she had some doubts initially about revisiting a character that she’s already played. The nature of the screenplay and the kinds of developments that happened, I think she realized that it was a role that was going to provide many, many more new dimensions above and beyond the slightly more green young woman that came to the throne in the first film. I’m so glad. I said to her, “Look, roles like this for a female just don’t come along that often with so many extraordinary, imaginative dimensions and so many big external and internal parameters for someone to really sink their teeth into, and I decided she was the sort of actress that will bring unprescribed exploration into that process.
CS: And what about yourself? Did you feel you needed to see a script before you decided whether to return?
Rush: No, I know that Shekhar in whatever form I mean, the script on the first film morphed and transmuted a lot as we were shooting, because that’s just the very nature of how Shekhar operates, and he again doesn’t know what the end result is. He moves towards it. He said something in a press conference we did up in Toronto the other day, which I found very interesting. He said, “My role there as a director is to try and let the film make itself in the many directions it’s going to push and pull on every shooting day, and to make discoveries and to let it tell me what it wants to do in a way.” And I think that’s a great way of hopefully avoiding any cliches.
CS: He must at least have a schedule of what he’s going to shoot each day though.
Rush: Oh, yeah, yeah. We had a very strong script, but there was always a certain creative allowance for it being in a slight stage of flux because sometimes, an actor brings something to a moment of performance that needs less dialogue or you think maybe this dialogue is a stage direction than something that should be said or maybe this part of the argument needs to be sharper and swifter. Everyone trusted each other on that. I don’t think it was a situation of actors going “my character wouldn’t say that.” In terms of having been on the “Pirate” trilogy, I just knew for a long time, I called this “another chapter in the life of Elizabeth” but I sort of say “Look at this sequel to the first film” because sequelitis is slightly condemned in certain areas of commentary and analysis as being associated with a money-making franchise or whatever, and I knew that the quality of ideas and the potential in this kind of dramatic storytelling was going to be interesting to revisit with the same creative team and with all the technical people on the film.
CS: I rewatched the original movie last night for the first time in many years, and I was surprised by how consistent the two movies are.
Rush: Yeah, I loved that shot when she’s watching Walter Raleigh and Bess dance the waltz, and you get that slice of Cate back in the youth of the Queen. It’s a very poignant and telling bit of film I think.
CS: Did you and Shekhar talk about what has happened in the last year, because obviously the relationship between your character and Cate’s has changed a lot, and it’s a very different dynamic. Now, she’s very much in control.
Rush: Absolutely. I mean, my role as philosophical, spiritual, political mentor has obviously done its work and she’s now in charge of the court, and still dealing with the same old her reign was a very turbulent one. I think we now regret that in one of the earlier drafts, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, which was a very significant even in the early 1570s, really showed you the kind of long-term religious turmoil that was going on in Britain and in Europe. Cate and I more or less said, “I think we’ve turned into a bickering middle-aged couple, who’ve been in charge of the administration, as it were, for quite some time.” Shekhar’s angle on it was very much, he said, “What if we take the assuredness it’s almost like Walsingham is so rigorous and so disciplined as a character, how fascinating might it be to see him deal with self-doubt and betrayal within his own family?” As I say in the film, “I’m caught in my own web.” There are great illuminating resonances for a contemporary audiences’ mind on issues like that.
CS: Did you shoot a lot more scenes that actually ended up in the movie?
Rush: By memory, no, there was one key scene that slightly augmented the watchful eye that Walsingham must have been keeping on Bess Throgmorton that didn’t make it into the final cut, but you know, I sort of trust Shekhar and certainly Jill Bilcock, the editor. I did mention it to them, and they said, “Rhythmically, it sort of became a piece of embroidery that disturbed part of the flow,” ’cause they had five or six major converging plots constantly on the boil in this story. It seemed to me like very judicious and very thoughtful pruning.
CS: You talked about Cate being tentative about coming back. Back when she did the original movie, she was very new but now she’s recognized as one of the top actresses in the world, so was it very different working with her this time?
Rush: No, no. On the first film, certainly it was only the second film I’d done outside Australia, and I think for Cate, pretty much the first one she’d done outside. It was kind of her entrée into a bigger international stage, and in some ways, that was quite a useful quality to work on. I think it also raised the stakes for her, because being a relatively unknown Australian actor, taking on this classic iconic English figure sets up a challenge, which I think Cate as an actress truly, truly met. As you can see from the repertoire of the things she’s done since, she’s bringing a greater kind of practical experience that I’m sure helps inform the mind of the Queen in this sequel.
CS: You also have Abbie Cornish in this, who you worked with on “Candy” and she’s almost in the same place where Cate was on the first movie.
CS: Did you put a good word for her in with Shekhar or was he already familiar with her two or three movies?
Rush: To be honest, I can’t remember how that happened. I would have shot “Candy” in the beginning of 2005, I think, or it might have been 2006. It’s a bit of a blur, because in around and that, there was many, many, many commute visits to the Caribbean (chuckles) and I didn’t keep an accurate diary. But Shekhar very much keeps his ear to the ground. He’s aware of finding fresh dynamic talent that he thinks may be great for an audience to make discoveries with somebody rather than seeing a familiar face. He was in Melbourne recently, we hung out a bit down there, he was a guest at the Melbourne Film Festival, and he made a comment in the paper, he said, “I just find it intriguing. I watch all the Australian films,” he said, “Because to me, they are the major English speaking country in the Southern hemisphere and they’re so far from everywhere that I believe it creates a greater sense of adventure in its actors.” They’re willing to travel and they have to travel a long way to do something and that seems to spark their engines much more.
CS: There are a lot of smaller movies coming from out of there–and you’ve done a few yourself like “Ned Kelly” and “Lantana”–that don’t really find an audience here.
Rush: No, look to be honest, it’s been a while since we’ve had a film that’s really cut deep into the American market, but there have been success stories like–to be honest, it’s a different genre from the area that I work in, but the whole “Saw” trilogy came out of Australian filmmakers. It probably doesn’t get the kind of recognition that it should, but there seems to be an inordinate, wonderful amount of good will from the international community towards the kinds of films we’ve made in various cycles over the last 20 or 30 years that people seem fascinated by what we produce and the diversity of what we produce, and certainly the number of actors and cinematographers and designers and people who’ve been bred out of the Australian industry, so that’s all pretty good stuff.
CS: I wanted to ask about the “Pirates” thing you mentioned, about going back and forth to the Caribbean, because I know they were shooting the 2nd and 3rd movie at the same time, so did you have time to do movies in between?
Rush: I did. When they were shooting 2, there were certain key scenes of 3 they would shoot because of the location requirements. Dominica has spectacular volcanic cliff faces and there were certain scenes they wanted to shoot, so in and around that is when I did some scenes in “Munich” and that’s when I did “Candy” so that was 2005.
CS: You had that great scene at the end of the third movie with Johnny that gave hope for another movie and most people loved seeing you two together again, so do you think with the success the movie’s had in the international market, we might someday see a fourth and you’d be interested in returning?
Rush: I don’t know. I think people will let it sit for a while, but there’s a strange attitude about franchise movies and people look at them as that rather than storytelling, but back in the old days, how many “Thin Man” movies did William Powell end up doing? Probably five or six. How many “Road” movies did Bob and Bing end up doing over a 25-year period. There could be a point, because Jack Sparrow is probably now to a certain generation, more well known as a representative of the Disney imagination than Mickey Mouse himself, and I think Johnny’s performance in that role is such an extraordinary thing that it may pop up, you don’t know.
CS: And what about another “Elizabeth” movie? Do you think we’ll see a third?
Rush: Well, I know that Shekhar’s thinking very strongly about it. There’s still a lot of Elizabeth’s life and it gets more and more interesting, because as she got older, there were younger acolytes. I think he’s very intrigued by her refusal to die, and I think he wants to look at what happens when someone achieves immortal in their lifetime as a legendary iconic monarch. What’s it like when they ultimately face their own mortality. I feel very strongly that I could come back as a ghost. (laughs) It was good enough for Shakespeare so I think it could be good enough for Kapur.
CS: But are you glad you didn’t wind up doing “Shakespeare in Love 2” this year and have that competing with “Elizabeth” this time?
Rush: Well, I suppose, but that was always a very special period of my life because at the time, I think a lot of people regarded that it could potentially be career suicide to be in not just one Elizabethan film but two of them, but I loved the counterpoint of being able to play Henslowe and Walsingham within the one season.
CS: You won an Oscar for your first big leading role, at least in the first feature film we knew about, so at this point, how important is it finding roles like the one in “Shine”?
Rush: No, I stitched together a working career that sometimes throws absolutely thrilling challenges my way like “Quills” like “Peter Sellers” or “Pirates” or whatever, and in and around that, I’m quite happy to say I would love to work with Spielberg, because the script for “Munich” was so interesting and complex and do something for the Coen Brothers simply because they asked.
CS: Oh, are you going to do something with the Coen Brothers?
Rush: No, I did “Intolerable Cruelty” a few years ago. I’d met those guys around the time of “Fargo” and just loved their work, but never thought there would be any kind of role in their kind of Americana movies.
CS: Do you have anything lined-up next or are you relaxing a bit after all that time spent on the “Pirates” movies?
Rush: There’s a whole lot of possibilities up in the air, and I’m waiting for something to land. There are so many movable dates and uncertainties around almost up to half a dozen things, but I have been doing a play in Sydney and Melbourne for a lot of this year and I’m hoping in the early part of ’08, it might have a future life as well.
CS: Did you get a chance to see any of the other movies while you were in Toronto for the premiere of “Elizabeth”?
Rush: I did. I saw “Across the Universe,” which I thought was an absolute beautiful work of genius, and I saw “Eastern Promises,” in which VIggo Mortensen is giving one of the great, great powerful screen performances. It’s absolutely amazing.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age opens nationwide on October 12.