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Guy Pearce just so happened to be living in Amsterdam when the opportunity to play Dutch folk hero Han Van Meegeren came his way. Set in the aftermath of World War II, Dan Friedkin’s The Last Vermeer chronicles the Dutch painter and art forger as he strives to prove his innocence amid charges of aiding and abetting the Nazis. Despite playing a complex historical figure, Pearce felt a great deal of freedom in his portrayal since the majority of today’s audience lacks a frame of reference for Van Meegeren.
“Having been here in Holland for a year or two before we made the film, and talking to my partner’s family [Dutch actor Carice van Houten], everybody knows who Han Van Meegeren is, but they don’t necessarily know his personality,” Pearce tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So there was a certain amount of freedom because he’s not captured a lot in audio and film. Hopefully, I’m not offending his family who might say, ‘You’ve missed the mark completely,’ but I certainly felt that I had the right to try and find a version of him that captured the world that he wished he’d lived in versus the world that he was actually brought up in.”
Pearce is also looking back at his role as Leonard Shelby in Christopher Nolan’s Memento, which released in U.S. theaters on Mar. 16, 2001. Since Shelby suffered from anterograde amnesia and was incapable of retaining new memories, Pearce is now considering if his most celebrated performance would have benefited even more from not reading the entire script and only receiving each day’s shooting pages.
“When I did that film, I spent two weeks with Chris Nolan doing a bit of rehearsal,” Pearce recalls. “I had to put all that down and just remember that, ultimately, Leonard really only exists in a 10-minute bubble and then forgets what happened before and doesn’t really know what’s coming next.”
He notes it might have been “advantageous” only getting snippets of the script instead.
“[That way], I could just let all that stuff go and treat each scene like its own little comedy sketch. Having said that, I’d be more capable of doing that now, as a 53-year-old,” says Pearce. “I was more insecure as an actor back then, and I probably would’ve been far more anxious about doing it daily — without knowing what the rest of the script was about.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Pearce also discusses his upcoming reunion with Kate Winslet on HBO’s Mare of Easttown, and the invaluable lesson he learned from L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson.
Prior to signing on, when you first read the script for The Last Vermeer, or any screenplay for that matter, do you immediately imagine yourself in the role as you read? Or do you approach the text as objectively as possible?
No, I have to imagine myself in the role as I read it. It’s funny because I’ve read scripts before where I’ve had people say to me, “Well, there’s two roles here and we don’t mind which one you play. Read the script and you tell us which one you think you might want to play.” And I can’t read the script. I just can’t do it. I have to know who it is I’m supposed to be inhabiting in order for me to progress. So when I read a script with a particular character in mind, which is usually the case, I’m completely trying to figure out whether I can do it or not, at the same time as understanding what the story is. And quite often, the first read is quite slow, depending on if it’s something that I can connect with or not. And if it’s something that I do feel like I connect with, I have to go back and read it immediately to then actually focus more on the story. Of course, I’m focusing on the story to some degree when I’m reading it the first time, but my focus is on the character more than the story the first read.
Within your performance, Han Van Meegeren puts on a performance of his own, which causes the characters and the audience to question his authenticity in the same manner as his paintings. Since Van Meegeren is not a world-class actor like yourself, did you consciously include some cracks in his facade, or tells as they say in poker?
That is an interesting question. The cracks, I suppose, or the tells are that, ultimately, here is a man who is trying to portray this sort of lifestyle that he would aspire to when in actual fact, he is a fairly damaged and broken human being who has cultivated some sense of fantasy for himself. And he managed to do it because he’s now an art dealer who’s selling artworks and making a fortune. And as we see in the film, he’s also forging paintings as well. As I speak to you, I’m sitting here in Amsterdam, and in this very city, at a certain point, [Van Meegeren] owned hundreds and hundreds of properties just in Amsterdam alone. So while the rest of Holland and the rest of Europe were either under Nazi occupation or under the threat of some sort of Nazi takeover, Han Van Meegeren was living the high life in his glorious apartment, having parties, drinking champagne and having sex with lots of women. He was really sort of going out with a bang, as it were. He was living the life that he believed he deserved when, really, he was somebody who’d had a very difficult childhood. He had a father who never encouraged him and, in fact, discouraged him. He turned to art at a very young age and really relied on the art world to get through and to survive, only to find that in a very early show of his, he was completely dismissed by the critics as derivative, unoriginal and sort of tired. So that fall from the grace that he had aspired to was massive. Rather than adhere to it and crumble — or at least adhere to it, get his bootstraps back on, work hard and forge on — he took a different route. I don’t know if it was just about revenge. I don’t really think it was. I think he just thought, “I’ve experienced too much pain to take the long road here. I’m going to take the short road.” And he found himself, as I say, dealing in art, forging artworks and making a fortune. And of course, he was selling rather rare and expensive works to high-level Nazis like Göring and Hitler. He ended up getting himself into all sorts of trouble, to the point where he ends up on trial as a heretic and the worst kind of anti-Dutch character that the country had seen. So when the war was over, he was thrown on trial for conspiring with the enemy. So it was quite a dramatic and fascinating life this man led. (Laughs.)
Van Meegeren lamented the way that art is valued and devalued, and that got me thinking about the way we regard actors’ performances. Did this role lead you to think about why some of your work is celebrated and why some of it, while equally good, went under-appreciated?
Well, I think about that stuff anyway, and it was interesting to do this film and to consider the same sorts of things in the art world. But it’s a good question because, ultimately, any artist is just trying to do their best work. They’re trying to push the envelope, tell their story and find new ways of being innovative, et cetera. And quite often, it makes no sense. Quite often, what is successful is just as confounding, as things either fail or just don’t go anywhere that, as you point out, can be quite good. And we never know if it’s unfair or if it’s just what the society or culture needs at that point in time, or whether there’s just too much. There’s just a flood of artwork, films and music, and only some things can break through. And what does it mean anyway? We make every film, every painting and every album, to some degree, in the hope that it’s going to be the next big thing. But what does it mean if it is and what does it mean if it isn’t? Ultimately, in my many years now of acting, I’ve realized that I’ve got to stop thinking about what the result of it might be as far as its place in history, its popularity or whatever. All I can do is just be authentic and try to choose things from a genuine place of inspiration and try to play characters from a genuine place of inspiration. And if they fly and take the world by storm, fantastic! And if they don’t, that’s okay too. My sense of myself, my sense of self-worth and my identity shouldn’t necessarily be predicated on the popularity, the success, or lack thereof, surrounding the work that I do. I take great value in the fact that you and I even get to sit here and chat now. Or that I even get asked to do other work, or read a script that someone else is writing purely for my opinion, or that some kid comes up to me who wants to be an actor and wants to know what advice I might have to offer. So I find that the older I get, the more I’m able to have a three-dimensional perspective on this work that I’ve chosen to do or this work that’s chosen me to do it. Because on many levels, the success or failure of work, artwork, film work, acting and the arts often just doesn’t make sense. (Laughs.) So you’re better off not reveling in it or indulging in it too much because it really can drive you a bit mad.
Even though Van Meegeren is a historical figure, did you feel considerable freedom in terms of your portrayal since most people don’t have a frame of reference for him?
I probably did to a degree, yes. Having been here in Holland for a year or two before we made the film, and talking to my partner’s family [Dutch actor Carice van Houten], everybody knows who Han Van Meegeren is, but they don’t necessarily know his personality. So there was a certain amount of freedom because he’s not captured a lot in audio and film. So we don’t really know. Hopefully, I’m not offending his family who might say, “You’ve missed the mark completely,” but I certainly felt that I had the right to try and find a version of him that captured the world that he wished he’d lived in versus the world that he was actually brought up in. So there was a sense of freedom. Of course, I also wanted to honor what I could understand about him and that there was a damaged human being underneath this sort of flamboyant peacock.
Since you typically have to read an entire script before committing to a project, this next question is strictly a hypothetical. If you shot Memento in sequence and were only given the pages for each day of shooting, you and your character, Leonard, would figure out the bigger picture at the same time, presumably. Do you think withholding information like this would be even more advantageous to your already great performance?
It might actually be advantageous. When I did that film, I spent two weeks with Chris Nolan doing a bit of rehearsal. Different actors would come in and we’d talk through scenes and just try and understand what each scene was about and get a sense of it. And then I had to forget all of that. I had to put all that down and just remember that, ultimately, Leonard really only exists in a 10-minute bubble and then forgets what happened before and doesn’t really know what’s coming next. So to have done the film in the way that you suggest might have actually been advantageous because it really felt to me, in a way, that I could just let all that stuff go and treat each scene like it’s own little comedy sketch. After I read the script the first time, because Chris’ writing is so beautiful, I really felt a connection to the inner emotionality of Leonard that I probably could’ve started shooting the next day. Having said that, I’d be more capable of doing that now, as a 53-year-old, than I would’ve been back then when I was 30 or however old I was when I made the film. I was more insecure as an actor back then, and I probably would’ve been far more anxious about doing it daily — without knowing what the rest of the script was about — than I would in 2021.
Are you aware that Tenet was born out of Memento’s opening shot of the bullet reversing its way back into Leonard’s gun?
No, I wasn’t. (Laughs.) And I’m embarrassed to say I’ve yet to see Tenet. I need to get to it.
Mare of Easttown looks fantastic. Were you and Kate (Winslet) looking for an HBO reunion of sorts, or is it complete happenstance?
It’s complete happenstance. (Laughs.) I mean, I’m always looking to do something with her again. I think she’s just extraordinary, and doing Mildred Pierce together was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I find her just an incredible human being. When she called up to say, “Would you come and do this?” I didn’t even have to understand what the story was. I just said, “Yes, of course, I will.” So it was a delightful surprise. Funnily enough, it was March the 12th when I shot my first day on that show and then we got shut down after one day. So I went back in September, October, and did the rest of it. (Laughs.) It was quite a gap between scenes, but that’s okay. I was happy to drag out the process.
What’s the most memorable or impactful note you’ve received from a director, screenwriter, producer, etc.?
When Curtis Hanson and I did L.A. Confidential, it was like being at film school. It wasn’t just about directing me in a performance; it was about teaching me how to perform in front of camera. When people congratulate me on my performance in that film, I very quickly let them know that that performance was equally, if not more, Curtis’s responsibility. I can be a very anxious person and I have been a very anxious person in my life. And one of my greatest faults when I work is that I can feel anxious about wasting everybody’s time around me. So I can rush and I can sort of feel like I need to get out of everyone else’s way. One of the best things for me is to watch dailies and rushes. When I see myself on camera, that’s when I’m reminded to slow down and really own the stage, as it were, or own the screen at that point in time. And Curtis was very good at reminding me of that. He took great care in me and in my performance, and really enabled me to believe that when I’m on screen, it’s as valuable as anybody else on screen. That’s something that I’ve carried through, and it’s always a test. I always have to remind myself of it, and I always think of Curtis. It’s been the greatest lesson for me, I think. It’s sort of a general note to help me focus and just feel like I’m worthy of being there.
Have you ever taken a role because you and the character were dealing with something similar and you knew you’d have to work it out in the process?
I don’t think so. I’d have to sort of think back through each film to remember if that’s really true or not, but I don’t really think so. There’s always something that I learn about myself or that I grow from during a film. There’s always something, and I never often know what that’s going to be or whether it’s to do with myself, the outside world or a particular culture. I might meet another actor and work with them and start to realize that my relationship with that other actor is very similar to a friend that I have at home. And maybe that friend is troubled or whatever, and I start to view my relationship with my friend at home differently because of that experience with that actor. So I do find that every film that I do ends up being quite informative. And the great thing, too, is when you’re away on a film, you’re away. So when I come home, it’s that great opportunity that you have in life to step away from something and come back with a bit more objectivity. So I always end up going home with a bit more objectivity. One, because I’ve been away for one or two or three months or something, but also because of the people I’ve just worked with, what I’ve inhabited character-wise and the story that we’ve delved into. And quite often, films are dramatic. They’re very dramatic experiences, generally. You’re dealing with very dramatic topics. And to come back home and imagine yourself in the situation that your character has been in, or that other characters in the film have experienced, it can be quite an eye-opening experience. But I don’t necessarily feel that there was any specific job that I went into going, “Right, well this is going to help me with my such and such issue.”
The Last Vermeer is now available on Digital, Blu-ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
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