“Welcome to my gloomy beige headquarters,” Geoffrey Rush laughs.
He’s right, of course. We’re sitting in two cushy chairs in a hotel room that has been stripped of almost all the other furniture, staring each other in the eye, blazingly aware of the artifice of our conversation. I’m a film critic, he’s an actor, and we’re supposed to talk about his latest movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
But Geoffrey Rush is anything but perfunctory. He’s made his Oscar-winning career playing scene-stealing eccentrics and deep thinkers. He’s taken part in a zombie sword fight and shot space slugs with rockets. He knows how to give a good interview, and in our relatively short time together he takes me inside the engaging thought process behind why he keeps returning to the Pirates of the Caribbean, why he gravitates towards outsider roles and more.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is in theaters now.
Crave: Whenever I see a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, I always think to myself that it looks like Geoffrey Rush is having the most fun.
Geoffrey Rush: Oh, really?
Is that the case? It seems like you get to have a blast.
Yeah, it is. Look, a fun project diminishes the whole experience, really.
Yeah, because it’s hard work. We’re on a very industrial work site, you know, particularly in the first chapters of the whole saga. I surprise myself that I had quite good sea legs. I was always very fearful. I don’t like the ocean. I’m not a natural swimmer, even though I come from Australia. That’s a terrible thing to say.
But you know, we were out day after day after day, week after week, going out on boats, and I’m an actor from the theater and I love props. So when they gave me the whole Black Pearl, with 80 pirates, and I was amazed how Disney let them be so grimy and gritty and disease-ridden and feral… but at the same time, with that reality, there was always these fantastical… it’s the folklore of piracy. The supernatural has come into almost every episode on some level.
But for me that’s meant that I’ve had the opportunity of working with actors, probably, that may never have happened in any other context. But I got to work with Chow Yun-fat and I got to work with Ian McShane from Deadwood. And I got to work with Bill Nighy, like, my vintage, a man of the theater. And now Javier Bardem. You know, these are rare treats, and on top of that the aberrant, absurdist chameleon brilliance of a Johnny Depp.
Yeah, it’s a no-brainer when every three or four or five or six years they say there’s another chapter coming up. There’s a pleasure in renegotiating with that caliber of performer.
It’s interesting… you look at your filmography and Pirates is kind of the one thing you keep coming back to over and over and over again. You’ve been playing Barbossa on-and-off for going on fifteen years.
Does the character mean something to you in particular because of that?
[Laughs.] He’s not my alter ego. But no, he’s always been very transformational, and I’ve never felt as though… Right from the first film, when Johnny and Orlando and I were talking about, you know, we’re going to play pirates and it hasn’t been a successful genre for a very long time and people were very cynical about it’s based on a theme park ride. And Johnny kind of busted that wide open and said, we’ve got to excite the audience’s imagination with unpredictabilities. And I was a great fan of his independent era. You know, when he was doing What’s Eating Gilbert Grape or when he was doing Edward Scissorhads, and I just went wow, this guy has a loopy… he’s his own man, with his imagination.
When he came up with the idea, we started talking about British rock stars and we were trying to avoid the stereotypes of what we thought screen pirates should be about, and he was rather brilliant coming up with the idea. He said, “Well, I read the script and I looked for the little secret clues. They drink a lot of rum. What does that mean? What happens, you know what I mean? They’re in the sun. They’re fried. They’re wearing ridiculously heavy costumes,” which historically they did. They should have been in board shorts with a lot of Plus 50 sunscreen, but they didn’t. The genius idea that he came up with for Jack was getting the land legs and the sea legs completely wrong at any given moment in the script. And I just thought that was such an imaginative starting point.
And for me, in the first film, I was described before my entrance as someone who had been “spat out of the mouth of hell,” and you go well, you’d better bring something to the entrance that kind of warrants that reputation, you know? And then the writers kept morphing the character into different control freak personas. I became a kind of politician. I got to work with King George II. That was particularly appealing for me because I’d worked with Elizabeth I and I’d work with King George VI and I thought, is there a boxed set in that? “The Geoffrey Rush Collection of Royalty”, you know what I mean? [Laughs.]
That will make a great retrospective someday.
I don’t know. And then in this one of course, with the legacy of Blackbeard’s magic scimitar, he becomes a corporate CEO. An obscene, vulgar amount of wealth, and Barbossa is not a man of great style. He never once thought, “Maybe I should put some of this money into dental hygiene or buying some high-end face products to get rid of the crusty appearance.” There’s a fun side to that character and there’s also a kind of ruthlessness and narcissism that, it’s enjoyable to be able to paint a character with those kind of brush strokes.
I always respect how seriously you take every role, even if you’re in a broad narrative like the Pirates movies, or even Gods of Egypt where you got to shoot rockets at a space…
Slug. [Laughs.] Apophis, yes.
I was think to myself when I see a scene like that, “Does he ever realize how weird it is what he’s doing right now?”
Oh yeah. You’re totally aware of it. Particularly on Gods of Egypt because that was blue screen ecstasy. I’m an old theater actor. We’re used to that. You know, often on a set you don’t have all the trappings and all the detail that the CGI palette can give you, and someone will just point a laser light up on the blue screen and say… well, they’d show the art work or the pre-vis, the artistry behind the creation of what will end up on the screen… and you go, “Your character does this every day or their life. They’ve got to conquer the demon of the night so that Egypt can live comfortably.” So you have to pull out all the stops of what makes that character tick.
I read somewhere that you played Snoopy on stage once.
What is the secret to playing Snoopy?
It’s like any of these characters. I sort of gravitate, not necessarily towards an eccentricity… I feel if I choose to look with some hindsight at the accumulation of what is an ongoing rough and tumble, unpredictable career, choosing jobs that – I don’t know – differ from the one before, you know what I mean, whatever chemistry goes into what would be fun to spend three months of my life or six months of my life with… they’re always the outer concentric circle.
You know, the hero of the Peanuts is Charlie Brown. I play the dog that sleeps on the top of his dog box who’s a philosopher. I’m drawn to that. So I’m drawn to Barbossa as I’m drawn to Einstein, because they are outsiders, and I suppose as a character actor that’s the turf that you’re locked into, in a way.
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Top Photo: Rich Polk/Getty Images for Disney
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.