The mark of a brilliant actor is when all awareness of his existence outside the imaginary world he is occupying dissipates completely. Rather than seeing the famous personality onscreen, you are swept away by the character he embodies. When it comes to inhabiting a character completely – be it a lecherous scribe from 18th-century France, a hyperbolic German priest, or a schizophrenic pianist with an inscrutable music genius – Australian actor Geoffrey Rush is a master. The Queensland-born thespian who spent his formative years striding the boards of Brisbane’s amateur, and later professional, theatre spaces, has carved out his career by ‘dancing with the circumstances’ to become one of the world’s most respected actors. But with an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy and two Golden Globes occupying his mantel, Geoffrey’s heart still lies in the country where it all began. His latest project, Bran Nue Dae, directed by Rachel Perkins, is an exuberant musical road movie filmed in the Technicolour desert-scape of Broome, which, for Geoffrey, signals an exciting new era for Australian film and indigenous storytelling.
Congratulations on the film. You must have had a wonderful time making it …
We did. The great combination of people was a wonderful attraction to making the film. I had seen the stage musical production of Bran Nue Dae in Melbourne back in 1993 and I found it to be so exhilarating. I thought to myself, ‘I’d love to be in theatre like that,’ – this was long before I was involved in films. So when I heard they were going to be making it into a film and the calibre of people who were going to be involved – people like Rachel Perkins, Stephen Page, Missy Higgins, Jessica Mauboy and Ernie Dingo – I knew that it was going to be a film with fantastic ingredients.
Do you think this signals a change in direction for the Australian film industry?
Well, Jimmy Chi always said when he wrote the stage show that he had written it as an ‘elixir’, because when he wrote it, it was right at the peak of the Mabo court decision and there was a blossoming of Aboriginal politics coming into front-page mainstream Australian thinking. Broome is one of those places that developed its own very organic sense of multiculturalism more than a century ago. Many Asian communities were all working with the indigenous pearlers up there and Canberra kind of turned a blind eye and what happened was that a very powerful integrated community developed. When we first went up to shoot, there was a beautiful welcome from all the tribal elders who are very highly respected in that community. Unlike some of the more problematic scenarios that we see in more Central and Eastern Australia where there has been racial tension for far too long, there’s a great sense of humour that’s an important part of the Broome community. They’re fun people and that spirit is very much a part of the storytelling in this film.
What was it like shooting in Broome?
The landscapes in the film are stunning … Jimmy Chi used to sit there in the outdoor cinema in Broome and watch all the old great Hollywood musicals. And he always sat there thinking ‘why can’t I tell a black fella’s story using this idea?’ So the kind of saturated palette that the film got really does reflect those great Hollywood MGM musicals of the fifties. But what’s hilarious is that when people first saw the film, they all thought that the cinematographer must have done some special treatment in post-production to get the colour palette looking like that. But I said, ‘no, no, that’s what Broome looks like – the art direction is by God.’ When I first flew in for a costume fitting, it was like red-red earth and brilliant aquamarine waters and purple vegetation. It looked like an extraordinary Aboriginal painting. Broome is a very magical and special place.
You often play the antagonist but with an endearing comical side. What attracts you to these parts?
Well, for this film in particular, this year has been a great watershed year for indigenous expression. There has been a haphazard set of events, from Kevin Rudd’s ‘sorry’ speech, to the success in the box office of a highly distinctive Aboriginal film like Samson and Delilah, or someone like Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Then to have the combination of people that we did – I just wanted to be part of that creative mix. And to get to do a really stage-German musical-comedy accent! What was your childhood dream? It wasn’t a childhood dream, but I didn’t end up being an actor by accident. At that stage, I never thought it was something you could do for a living because there were no real possible avenues. I used to go see the JC Williams musicals that would travel through Brisbane and I did lots of theatre when I was at university. But I was still studying an arts degree thinking that I’d end up as a teacher or a radio announcer or something like that. At that time the Queensland Theatre Company was formed and they offered me a job, but I was never thinking, ‘Oh I really want to be an actor’. It just happened by circumstance. I kept riding the wave and making the right choices, studying overseas and trying to really lay out a career path by dancing with the circumstances.
What is success to you?
Primarily, it’s pride in the fact that I’ve put ‘actor’ on my tax form since 1972 and I haven’t had a year yet when I haven’t been able to do that. It’s very thrilling now to be the age that I am and working on a film with someone like Jessica Mauboy or Tom Budge, knowing that they assume that we do have a very strong theatrical and filmmaking tradition that’s really flourishing in this country. When I was their age, the film industry was just dragging itself out of 40 years in the wilderness, so that’s why most people used to go to England. And what’s happened this year, with all those things that I mentioned, it feels the same way it did back in the seventies when we started to make films like Sunday Too Far Away or Picnic At Hanging Rock. There was this kind of explosive catalyst going on and I feel now with indigenous expression that it’s really going through the roof and there’s a bravery and an audacity and a strength that’s emerging in all different dimensions, from tragedy to comedy and musicals. Ten years ago you could never have imagined that there was a genre of the indigenous Australian musical film. But now it is what it is and it’s got a pretty populous appeal to it.
What has been your greatest challenge?
I think it’s been just maintaining forward momentum and finding things that keep me on my toes so that I don’t get stale or lazy. Also, trying to engage with as many diverse projects as I can to keep my own personal repertoire as lively and intriguing as it can possibly be.
What has been your greatest achievement?
I don’t really put it down to singular events, but I suppose it’s being part of a broader generation that’s made a decision that Australian storytelling is as valid to us as any other culture in the world. When I grew up there was a feeling that we couldn’t do that sort of thing because we didn’t have interesting stories to tell, which is rubbish, really. I’m now 58, so when I look back and see someone like Jessica Mauboy who is 20, I think it’s really fantastic and it’s all we could have ever hoped for from all of those early, experimental audacious moves that people made 30 years ago to kickstart our film industry.
What inspires you?
Seeing people do original and unpredictable things against the odds. The greatest challenge at the moment is to avoid the pressure and insidiousness of how heavily monitored and marketed artistic expression has become. And to be able to be willing to break those rules again and again – I think Australia is quite remarkable at that. In fact, I think everyone who does anything interesting, whether it’s Samson and Delilah or Baz Luhrmann doing a contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet. Often, if I look at all my contemporaries and see that people like Toni Collette, Cate Blanchett, myself or whomever – the list is huge – all managed to establish domestic and international careers by being in things that weren’t driven by star billing. They were the right brave actors at the right time, in the right place.
Where do you find peace in life?
Pretty much through my kids and through music. I have very broad eclectic and curious taste in music, from obscure swing jazz to classical and underground pop. It’s always an inspiration for me.
What are your words of wisdom?
The only territory that I feel I have any kind of skill in, is that I am now fairly practised and seasoned as an actor. I don’t really step out of that realm that much, so I think it’s about being able to pass on some of that energy on so that people don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel. What I would say to a young actor is this: absolutely trust your initial instinct.