Before Jack Irish, before Easttown, Guy Pearce was a boy from Erinsborough. He talks fatherhood, fame and overcoming his fears.
Sixteen-year-old Guy was extremely buffed; he won the state junior bodybuilding competition at that age. He was quite fixated on bodybuilding as well as on other things like music and acting. What was really fascinating to me about bodybuilding was it was also really creative. The idea that you could shape your body, like you were doing sculpture. And, of course, my ego was involved but I probably didn’t realise it at the time. I was doing it secretly, nobody at school knew about it, then I’d run out on the football field with a sleeveless top on and people would be like “Oh my God, where did you get those arms?!”
I was anti-social. I could socialise but it took a lot of energy from me, and any sport or any activity that I could do on my own was much easier. I loved playing football, tennis, fencing, jujitsu – things where all my energy got to be about what I was doing rather than having to work well with other people. I’ve often found that in social situations, particularly when I was younger, I’d have to take myself outside for a minute just to catch my breath. I would be shocked if I was faced with my 16-year-old self now and saw how much of a high frequency he vibrates on.
It was just me, my mum and my sister Tracy. My mum taught at a girls’ high school. She was the home economics and needlework teacher. My dad died when I was eight. He was killed in an accident. It was very dramatic and very quick and sudden and shocking. I remember Mum telling me that it had happened and then I don’t really remember anything after that. I don’t think I realised until later in life the effect it had on me. I think part of my anxiety was connected to losing my dad. Also, I have a sister with an intellectual disability, and I felt quite a big responsibility to help Mum with her. That’s a lot for an eight-year-old boy to take on, so I think the feelings of responsibility didn’t allow me to just relax and be a kid and be social and hang out with other kids. It was like my mind was somewhere else and it felt like socialising was all a bit fake. I didn’t know how to do it naturally.
I was always really obsessed with certain girls, but I never ever had the courage to put the hard word on anybody. Never. I would only be with somebody if they approached me. I was a pretty young boy so there were girls who would go, “You sure you don’t want to come out with me for dinner?” And I would go “Okay.” I don’t have the chutzpah to lean forward and say, “Hey babe, how about me?” That’s not who I am. I would end up with girlfriends and be in it for the long haul. I wasn’t flipping from one person to the next cos I just don’t get that.
The biggest surprise of my life was when I landed the role on Neighbours. I was 18 and I’d been doing a lot of theatre… I know that probably contradicts some of what I’d said about being anti-social, but getting to perform on stage when I was younger was a great escape for me. It was fantastic and I loved singing. I’d been told by my high school drama teacher that a lot of actors are out of work a lot of the time. I’d been told all that stuff and then within two weeks of heading up to Melbourne and going to meet agents I was offered a role on Neighbours. That was such a bizarre shock to me. Obviously losing Dad was a massive shock. And then when I started to work in America – that was a pretty big, surprising thing too. And then when my wife left in 2015. That was a pretty massive shock as well. There’s been a few big ones along the way. But I think the biggest surprise of all is my son. Having helped raise my sister, I had no desire to have children. I really didn’t. I was like, “I’m done raising a child. I’ve done it my whole life.” So when [my partner] Carice [van Houten] and I had Monte… I still can’t really believe that I actually have a child! It’s like a really slow shock. Don’t get me wrong, I love him beyond belief. But the idea that he is actually my son still surprises me sometimes.
The biggest challenge in my life is probably my own anxiety. To be present and not have head noise dictate the situation. In a way, having Monte is forcing me to be patient. It’s forcing me to listen more, and to be in the moment, and that’s wonderful. But that’s probably been the biggest challenge. And being social, it’s wrapped up together really.
The biggest life lesson I’ve learned from my mum is about being straight up and cutting the bullshit. My mum cannot stand anyone who’s trying to pull the wool over our eyes. If anyone’s trying anything, Mum literally would put her hand up and go “urgh” and turn the other way. I totally get where it comes from. I get that she just doesn’t have time for games. And in a way, that’s been a bit hard for me, to try and therefore just play games with my four-and-a-half-year-old son. That’s a bit of a new thing for me, so my son is teaching me to be more playful. Whereas my mum was like, “There’s no time in the world for games; just get on with it.”
I’ve been really lucky with work my whole life. From the moment I started looking for work when I was 18, I haven’t stopped. I look at Memento and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and go, how lucky am I? I never take any of it for granted. I really am appreciative of every new job that I get. And I feel that holds me in good stead. And clearly, I’ve got some talent to be able to keep doing it. But I do go, wow, I’m really lucky that I’ve had the opportunities that I’ve had.
What’s so strange and special about my job is you can actually go back and watch something again. I can go and look at my 29-year-old self. And when Monte’s older he could be flicking through the TV and something comes on and he goes, “Oh my God, there’s Dad! Look how young he looks!”
If I could offer some advice to my 16-year-old self I would tell him to slow down. Have some faith in yourself and know what it is that you want to do. Do it one step at a time and know there’s something valid in it. I always felt that everything I did was a sort of sneaky escape from what everyone else was doing and that it really wasn’t valid, but for some reason I was really driven to do it. But I was desperately afraid that someone would ask me about it. Desperately afraid that someone at school would ask me about the acting or the bodybuilding. And if anyone was ever cynical about what I did or who I am, I would crumble. I’d absolutely crumble. I’d go, “No, you’re right! I shouldn’t be doing this! I’ll stop!” Everybody else had power over me always. And it’s still a test and a challenge for me today. If a hundred people came and saw a film I’d done and one person didn’t think it was that great, that’s the person I’d focus on. Now I’m a whole lot better at going “That’s your opinion and that’s fine.” At the same time, I didn’t really think I deserved to have any praise. I didn’t want any praise. I didn’t want any attention. I just wanted to do what I was doing and not have any focus on it. And it wasn’t until I started going to therapy 25 years ago that I got much better at owning what I do. So, I would go back and tell my younger self to own and be proud of what I could do and what I wanted to do.
By Anastasia Safioleas (@anast), Contributing Editor of The Big Issue.
This article was first published in Ed#639.