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THE SUBLIME JOURNEY OF GEOFFREY RUSH

By Atissa Manshouri 

 

There are few words that better describe the career of Geoffrey Rush than extraordinary. But that alone won’t cover it. Throw in astonishing. Add in exemplary. Mix in some inspiring and a helping of surprising. With the breadth and quality of his work as an actor on screen and on stage, Rush demands a certain creative alchemy of superlatives to capture just what it is that makes him so fascinating to watch.

And so, with all these words floating around my mental image of the actor, I am surprised for a moment to be talking to him about ordinariness. And accordions. 

On the phone from his home base of Melbourne, Rush is describing his character, Hans Huberman, in MVFF’s Opening Night film The Book Thief. As an actor, Rush is famed for his ability to enter his characters’ skins through the details that make up their overall shapes—the costumes, the physicality, the habits, the particulars. And yet for Huberman, Rush pointed foremost to the need for a certain ordinariness. “I really had to strip myself of too many quirks or overly embellished details,” he says. What resonated most for the actor was how regular Huberman was; a humble, decent man thrust into a roiling world that was dangerously off its own axis.

An adaptation of fellow Aussie Markus Zusak’s best-selling novel, The Book Thief tells the story of a young German girl taken in as a foster child by a working-class couple in the countryside. Sensing some kind of kindred spirit in the illiterate Liesel, Hans begins to teach her to read and to understand the power of language. The drama unfolds against the rise of Hitler and World War II, and the insidious way in which that Nazi ideology begins to creep into everyday lives.

In the film, as in the novel, Huberman, a perpetually out-of-work painter and sign-maker, finds refuge in playing the accordion. “A very oom-pah-pah instrument,” Rush jokes, but one that has a very distinctive sound. For the actor, the instrument provided the avenue into Huberman’s psyche. “Those moments where he’s playing the accordion are like a sweet mysterious inner dialogue he’s having. Is it subversive? Is it romantic? Charming? Is it allaying people’s fears? As a prop, it became my lungs. I got an understanding of the way it breathes, that special wave sound it makes.” As he describes his process, it’s clear that even in his pursuit of ordinariness, Rush will inevitably locate the sublime.

The Book Thief marks Rush’s latest, highly anticipated film project in a long line of cinematic triumphs, along with a welcome return to MVFF, a festival that holds a special place in his heart. “It was the first US festival that I came to with Shine after Sundance. We’d premiered it there and had a great reception, but then we were sort of on lockdown for around eight months after that. So yes, I remember [Mill Valley] extremely clearly. Peter Coyote was there, and I met Thelma Schoonmaker outside on the street.” As he recalls with a chuckle, “In a way it was a special spawning ground for my international film career!”

That film career soared indeed as Rush won virtually every award imaginable for his role as David Helfgott in Shine, and left audiences with the indelible image of a grown man, face smeared with sunscreen and crisscrossed by a tangle of Walkman wires, gleefully bouncing on a trampoline while radiating pure joy and freedom. It is an image so iconic that it now graces an Australian postage stamp (along with one in Rush’s own likeness).

In the years since that breakthrough performance, he has scarcely looked back, managing somehow to spread his considerable energy and talent across productions large and small, on screen and on stage, both in the US and in his native Australia. It is a measure of his unusual versatility that in the same breath he can be described as a quintessential character actor, a leading man, a big-budget villain and a slapstick comedian. His Academy Award for Shine has been followed by three more nominations for his laugh-out-loud turn as the struggling playwright Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love, his remarkable embodiment of the Marquis de Sade in Phillip Kaufman’s darkly brilliant Quills, and most recently for his lovely take on Lionel Logue, King George’s creatively profane speech therapist in The King’s Speech.

Let’s not forget the genuine relish with which he’s torn up the screen four times as Captain Hector Barbossa in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Or the roles in many of his native country’s cult classics from the past two decades, including Lantana, Candy and Ned Kelly. Or his two outings as the calculating Walsingham in Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Or the small but potent role as Ephraim in Steven Spielberg’s Munich. Then there’s the voice—that voice!—as Nigel in Finding Nemo, as Ezylryb in Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, and as Tomar-Re in The Green Lantern. Add to the list The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, undoubtedly one of the finest instances of an actor playing an actor.

In an impressive feat of time—and time zone—management, Rush’s expansive filmography is also punctuated regularly with theatrical turns, both as an actor and director. Having long worked in Australian theater before his film career took off, Rush won a Tony Award in 2009 for Exit the King (his Broadway debut, naturally), and recently headlined The Diary of a Madman in both Australia and New York. His work as an artist has earned him his country’s highest cultural and civilian honors, culminating in 2012 with his selection as Australian of the Year. In that role, he ventured across the country and into schools and communities to talk about the importance of the arts.

“They’re always the first to go, the arts,” Rush bemoans. “They’re a so-called ‘luxury item.’ But they’re actually a really huge and intricate part of our lives. We forget how much it permeates all sorts of activities. And on a grander scale, it’s the thing that helps form an ever-shifting national identity.” 

So perhaps we need to add heroic and patriotic to the list of superlatives, but with the full knowledge that mere words will never do justice to a career that is anything but ordinary.

 

SELECTED FILMOGRAPHY

2013 THE BOOK THIEF (MVFF36)

2013 THE BEST OFFER (MVFF36)

2012 THE EYE OF THE STORM

2011 PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES

2010 THE KING’S SPEECH

2009 BRAN NUE DAE

2007 ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE

2007 PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END

2006 CANDY

2006 PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST

2005 MUNICH

2004 THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS

2004 PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL

2003 FINDING NEMO

2002 THE BANGER SISTERS 

2001 FRIDA

2001 LANTANA

2000 TAILOR OF PANAMA

1999 MYSTERY MEN 

1999 QUILLS

1998 SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE

1997 ELIZABETH

1997 LES MISERABLES

1995 CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION

1995 SHINE