Actor Guy Pearce finds his darkest role yet in Martin Koolhoven’s horrifying western Brimstone
British-born, Australian-raised actor Guy Pearce has had a steady run in exceptional entertainment. From his breakthrough homegrown comedy Priscilla Queen of the Desert to his U.S. debut in L.A. Confidential to neo-noir Memento, HBO’s adaptation of Mildred Pierce, The King’s Speech, Iron Man 3 and… well, the list is long and varied. And the remarkable thing is that whether playing a hero or bastard, he sells them both absolutely convincingly. He’s truly one of the greatest actors of his generation.
And yet, when Pearce ends up in darker fare — The Proposition, Ravenous, the aforementioned Memento — he brings a kind of steely, tortured intensity that is without peer. His new film, the Dutch/American horror/western hybrid Brimstone, might be his bleakest film to date; it’s a violent, sexual and savage treaty about the misuse of religion and its catastrophic effect on good people, especially good women. In it, Pearce plays a preacher from Hell, a seething, spitting, muscled and maniacal force of nature who — as told in a schizophrenic narrative — tortures then pursues his mute daughter (Dakota Fanning) across the blood-spattered wild west.
We had the chance to speak with Pearce recently about the film, his own thoughts on religion, and playing one of the contemporary horror cinema’s most nightmarish creations.
ComingSoon.net: At first glance, it appears Brimstone might be another extreme Guy Pearce western like The Proposition or Ravenous. But it’s not. It’s something different. Your character, the Reverend… well, he’s a monster. I tried hard to find an ounce of good in him. I couldn’t. Did you?
Guy Pearce: No… no… I didn’t. And I struggled with that myself. I was talking to somebody recently, in fact, about what a challenge it was to make him three dimensional and I’m not really quite sure if I succeeded. Obviously, for the purpose of the film, we made a character that was just relentless, in his beliefs and his pursuit of his daughter. But it really was a challenge to present what he believed to be an understandable point of view. When you play someone who is evil or psychopathic, it’s always hard to make him fully realized. Is there anything good there? I don’t know. It’s tricky. I think there are some elements there that I tried and whether or not they actually work in the film, I’m not sure (laughs).
CS: Well, there is the moment where he’s self-flagellating. It shows his extreme belief. So I guess no matter what he is, the Reverend is convinced what he is doing is right…
Pearce: That’s right. It’s funny, whenever I play a bad guy, people ask “would you like this character?” I didn’t like this character. But the key is to find something they believe in and just run with it. And if there’s sympathy there, if they’ve been tortured as a child or whatever it is, you can try to keep your audience on your side to some degree. It’s difficult to keep an audience engaged unless they see some vulnerability or some weakness.
CS: I’ve read some rather misguided criticisms of the film that accuse it of being misogynist or citing it’s exploitation of religion as crass. Are you a religious man and did you have any qualms about Koolhoven’s use of religion?
Pearce: Not in the slightest and I would happily sit down with anyone who has questions about using religion to exploit this story. I myself have strong views about the extreme way religion is used to justify transgressive behavior out there in the world. I’m very interested in religion and I think it can be a fantastic tool for people to come to terms with the mysteries and tragedies we must come to terms with every day in our lives. But at the same time, it’s a bit like the internet. It can be used for good or for evil. So I have no questions about the fact that there are people out there whose religious beliefs have taken them outside of real life — whatever real life might be — and therefore enabled them to kill or rape or repress or maim or just ignore other people and their own sense of compassion.
CS: I already mentioned Antonia Bird’s Ravenous — one of my favorite films, incidentally — and like that film, Brimstone’s lines between horror and western are essentially non-existent. Why do you think the two genres bleed so well into each other?
Pearce: Probably because if you throw someone out into the desert, they’re going to feel some sense of horror anyway, so if you set a story that is bleak and life threatening in a landscape that is also bleak and life threatening, then you double your odds. You’re creating a frightening world. But that said, some of the most frightening movies are set in a domestic, familiar house. Which is more horrifying because it’s safe.
CS: I think your fan base appreciates you most because, well, there is no definitive ‘Guy Pearce” role. You defy expectations in your choices. That said, you sure do have your share of dark roles on the resume. Do you seek out the dark stuff or does it find you?
Pearce: (laughs) Well, I think we’re doing a kind of malevolent tango together, where sometimes they’re in the lead and sometimes I’m in the lead. I do find that when I start a script and the first few pages take me somewhere that’s bleak and unusual, taking me to the darkest corners of my imagination, I’m very excited to finish the script and see where it ends up.I want to see if it can hold that kind of intensity. Many don’t. Often the first act is written very well, and then it falls apart. But something like The Proposition and Ravenous don’t. And by the way, I’m glad you’re a fan of Ravenous and funnily enough I’m actually calling you from Amsterdam and I’m heading back to Prague tomorrow where I’m working for the first time in 19 years. The last time I was there was while I was making Ravenous. But anyway, there’s something about the dark nature of ourselves that I’m drawn to. And it depends how that darkness is presented.
CS: This is Martin Koolhoven’s first English-language film and yet I notice he’s put his name above the title. This is “Koolhoven’s Brimstone”… is he an auteur director?
Pearce: I’d say so. In Amsterdam, Martin is a highly-respected director who has made many Dutch films. My girlfriend — who I have since had a baby with — has worked with Martin four times in fact. He’s an excellent filmmaker. Brimstone is probably the darkest film that he’s made. I’m not sure why he put his name above the title, but if that’s connected to his reputation in the Netherlands. But he’s a very good filmmaker, an experienced filmmaker and he’s very unusual. You know, every time you make a film you create a relationship with the director. Some of them are incredibly inspiring and some are just flat and dull. And Martin falls into the former category, absolutely.