\Guy Pearce on Plucking His Eyebrows and His ‘Lawless’ Character

September 8, 2012 everardbivens

Guy Pearce in “Lawless”

In prohibition era Franklin County, Va., the trio of Bondurant brothers ran a profitable moonshine business. Everyone was having a grand time, at least where the alcohol was concerned, including the local police force. They looked the other way on the distillation and imbibed their fair share of the spirit until Charlie Rakes, a Chicago Special Deputy with a taste for extortion, rolled into town.

The film “Lawless” was adapted from the book “The Wettest County in the World,” a historical novel written by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of one of the main characters in the book. Bondurant co-wrote the screenplay with Nick Cave, who significantly changed the Rakes character, played by Guy Pearce.

Pearce phoned Speakeasy to discuss the finer points of his law-breaking character, his distrust of directors and shooting “Iron Man 3.”

How much did you develop the film version of your character, Charlie Rakes?

I didn’t develop him at all. The decision was made early on between Nick Cave (writer) and John Hillcoat (director). They wanted to create the nemesis of this guys. The Charlie Rakes that is in the book is a local and a very different personality and so the decision was made to bring in somebody who was from the outside. Someone of this nature and personality highlighted the bond and family connections that existed within the three brothers and that town. Even though they were working illegally, there was a great strength in the township family. So for someone to come in from the outside, that just highlights that. He is deliciously egotistical and full of vanity and has a little disdain for anyone that he thinks is lower than him. They are all sorts of qualities that were clear on the page.

Many things about your character were a little off, including your hair.

It’s always about the hair.

How did you come up with the hair?

I think the part got wider as the part went on because my hair was slicked down so severely. The edge of the part that was still there, the hair would be pulled out as time went on. It was lucky that I wasn’t shooting for three months instead of three weeks or I would have ended up with a two inch part down the middle.

Who came up with the wide part and the shaved sideburns?

We looked at some reference photographs and we looked at people from the period. There are all sorts of weird haircuts from the period, with sideburns shaved right above the ears and there was someone there with a big wide part and I just jumped on it straightaway. I already had talked to John about having the character pluck his eyebrows, which John was a little nervous about but once it all came together he saw what I was talking about.

Were you nervous?

Once I jumped onboard the parting of the hair, which yes, we did shave, then we took the sideburns up really really high. We dyed my hair black and it was all about creating something that was just a bit off, a bit weird, a bit wrong, a little wrong in this environment that he stepped into. He probably looked strange in the city as well, but he wouldn’t stand out as much as he did in this little town.

You also had a very clipped speech.

It came from the disdain he had of everything around him. One of the things that was written in the script a lot that we sort of lose in the film, in the script we see him spraying perfume in front of him as he walks along because he finds the smell of the air in this place disgusting. And so, this feeling of somebody who thinks everything around him is disgusting, you know if something is disgusting to you and you pull a bit of a face, well that face that you pull dictated how I ended up speaking. There was this slight sneer and so I worked with the dialect coach, we factored in the history of the accent as well not just the way you speak the words, it all came about.

But there’s a fine line between being a strange, eerie sort of villain and a caricature.

Oh yes. He’s way off. Particularly from the point of view of those boys.

How did you walk that line?

You rely on your director. It is very easy to take a character like this too far. I always try to keep it real, but what can real to me can be too much for the camera. It was really pulling back and in a way, shaping. When I do my best work, is when you feel like you are putty in the director’s hands. It doesn’t happen very often because I don’t trust many directors the way that I trust John Hillcoat or Curtis Hanson or Chris Nolan or Ridley Scott. But when you do feel like that and you have absolute trust in the them and they have absolute trust in you, then you feel so inspired to try all sorts of things, it doesn’t matter if you go too far because they will just pull you back, it’s a little bit like conducting an orchestra. And when you have that director, it’s glorious.

Why don’t you trust many directors?

Because I don’t think they have the insight I want them to have. It’s not like I’m standing there but sometimes you’ll say I’m thinking this or this, and the director will glaze over and say, “whichever.” And you go, “okay,” well you don’t care or you just aren’t looking at things closely. John looked at psychology and the weirdness of personality, I just love being around him. I’m prepared to go anywhere. Whereas other directors just go, “just do what you did in that other movie.” That’s an extreme case but sometimes you don’t know until you get on set and you say, “that’s a shame, we’re a bit limited here aren’t we?”

And you pushed it with Hillcoat?

It’s not just the work experience but knowing John’s films and his style, the time that he creates, if I played that character in a different film, I may not get away with it at all. It would be ridiculously over the top. But there’s something about John’s films that I think the camera makes the audience feel like anything can happen in terms of violence and sexuality and romance. Just the surprises of the world can come at you at any time.

You’re working on another villain, Aldrich Killian, in “Iron Man 3.” How’s he different from Charlie Rakes?

I don’t talk about films because I am extremely sensitive and superstitious about it. I can’t give anything to anything outside of the movie.

Where did that superstition come from?

It’s more than a superstition, it’s just like saying I’m making a dinner, wait until it’s done, don’t stick your finger in the bowl. If I share things outside of work then I feel like I’ve given away energy.

Write to Alexandra Cheney at alexandra.cheney@wsj.com or follow her on Twitter@alexandracheney.

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