A revered stage performer who became an Oscar-winning acting fixture in Hollywood, Geoffrey Rush parlayed his breakout in 1996’s Shine into a succession of roles in films as varied as Elizabeth, Shakespeare in Love, Finding Nemo and Munich, while turning in a memorable performance as the nefarious Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. This week, Rush returns to the screen opposite Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech, Tom Hooper’s period drama that has already started to gather Awards-season buzz. In it, Rush plays Lionel Logue, an unorthodox speech therapist assigned to help the stammering King George (Firth) as he prepares to address the nation on the brink of World War II.
We spoke to the always charming Rush, who recently wrapped shooting on the fourth Pirates movie, On Stranger Tides, to talk about his character in The King’s Speech. And, of course, we asked him to name his five favorite films. “It’s a tricky one,” the actor says, “because you think, ‘Ah God, I can never get it down to five,’ but off the top of my head, these are favorites… ”
I think they’re all fairly artful pieces of work, but I think my all-time favorite is Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, which was one of the… well, it’s like now, somebody still making a film in 2D, three years later: he still made it as a silent film [after the advent of sound], with inter-titling, and it had a recorded score. It’s one of those films that I’ve shown to many, various groups of people socially. I remember going to a DVD night in Silverlake, with a lot of very groovy LA people, and we all had to bring a film. And they were bringing along, you know, Sin City and stuff, and I did a pitch on that film, without saying it was a Charlie Chaplin film — saying it’s about an alcoholic and this young, impoverished guy, and they’re best friends when the guy is drunk and then when he sobers up he doesn’t know who he is; and the young guy is wanting to help this girl who sells flowers on the street, and she’s blind. And they were all going, “Oh my God, this sounds amazing,” and then I said it’s in black and white and it’s silent and it’s a Charlie Chaplin film — and they all watched it and were just entranced; and this is sort of like the Tarantino crowd. I’ve always loved that film.
The next one I would say would be Amarcord by Fellini. In fact everything by Fellini, but Amarcord, particularly, I just happened to see it — I think most of the films I’m going to mention I probably saw in my early 20s, either in Queensland or when I first went to Europe, and they were the films that just stuck with me and I felt when I saw them they kind of blew me away.
I’d probably have to throw in the Sergei Bondarchuk War and Peace from the ’60s. I remember seeing that with my step-dad when I was about 15. The scale of it and the kind of dramatic style of old, expressionistic use of the camera, that led me then to look at things like Ivan the Terrible. I just thought they were amazing. No one’s quite touched it since. When you look at it, the only thing that’s dated is probably the font they used for the titles — it sort of says it’s a bit ’60s, but the rest of it you just go, “Wow, this guy played Pierre as well as directing it.” And there’s not one CGI soldier, you know: they’ve literally got 50,000 troops in the back of shot.
Next, Geoffrey Rush discusses his role opposite Colin Firth in this week’s The King’s Speech, and his just-wrapped Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
RT: The King’s Speech looks like it was fun to work on — did you enjoy it?
GR: I did, I had a ball. It was something that we had real scheduling difficulties with, because I had committed to a musical in Melbourne and it looked like it was going to clash, but [director] Tom Hooper managed to move things around and I had a window of opportunity for seven weeks. So for a film it was a very intensive period of rehearsal and work shopping; primarily the scenes that Colin and I were doing, because we were going to shoot all of our stuff in a month. And that added a sense of pressure and also of play, which I think was invaluable.
The character you play, Lionel Logue, was an Australian speech therapist — did you know much about him before you took the project on?
I knew nothing about him. At first I read the play that David Seidler had written, a couple of years back I think, and I knew about the bigger historical wheels that were turning around that period in the British monarchy: the abdication, and I knew that the Duke of York, George the Sixth, was a stammerer and over the years I’d seen different news reel footage of that. It was probably the last period where a royal figure was so prominent in terms of the morale of the country. At the time, the Prime Ministers would make all the official speeches about the declaration of war and stuff, but then it was up to the King, against all those odds, and up against the sort of ranting, charismatic rhetoric of Hitler, to make these great broadcasts; because radio, at that stage, was relatively new, I think — the BBC started in the early- to mid-’30s, so it was kind of a new medium.
But Lionel, I knew nothing of him. He was a completely fascinating figure, and that sort of appealed to me; the extremities of the differences between these two men that happened to be thrown together against seemingly great odds. The fact that the Duke of York was very protocol driven, with a great sense of history and rules and regulations, you know; his job description was completely different to Lionel, being the son of brewer and kind of an amateur dilettante, Shakespeare fanatic who loved recitals, taught elocution and then found himself working with shell-shock victims and developing, just through pure experience, techniques that are now regarded as very orthodox. They would have been very avant garde at the time.
Is it true that Lionel wanted — and failed — to be a professional actor, and did you imagine what your life might have been like had you been in the same position?
[Laughs] It’s a little vague that area. He did, because I know we got a hold of his diaries, and all of his papers were given to us not long before we started shooting. I think the production design department located Lionel’s grandson, who said he had all of his grandfather’s papers… and there were letters and photos and diagnostic charts and diaries. Logue, I think, only started diarizing his life once the Duke of York became King, because I think he might have thought, this is worth archiving for posterity in some way. So the contents of the letters, for example, and just the nature of what the chosen information was that went into the daily accounts… there’s even the Duke of York’s first diagnosis card, the jottings that he made on their first meeting. All of that material was invaluable in finding a greater nuance and reality to those meetings, and not imagining the more clichéd versions of it.
You’ve always been an eloquent performer, but were there any “tongue twisters” Logue used that even you had trouble with?
Well I don’t have a natural inclination. I know some actors who can jump around dialects with a great facility, with what we might call a “natural ear”. I’ve always worked very closely with two specific voice and dialect coaches, one of whom happens to have been a former speech therapist who had worked with stammerers and so forth. But the one woman I have worked with, Barbara Berkery, who I met on Shakespeare in Love — she worked with me on The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and The Golden Age and on the Pirates films and so forth — it’s a slight homage to her, because the “thistle sifter” tongue twister that’s in the film is one that she taught me. And I’ve always loved it because when my son was younger I used to give it to him, and he’d just stumble fretfully through the whole thing.
Once your muscle memory is trained on those sort of things, I think they become for me, and for Lionel Logue, kind of party pieces, you know. It’s like learning the scales or something — you’ve just got to hammer away at it until your fingers can run up and down the keyboard and know which black and white notes to hit. Similarly, a good tongue twister always has those difficult sounds. And I always liked the idea because I thought, as a team, Logue is a thistle sifter, as is the Duke of York; we’re all thistle sifters — we’ve got this in our life and we’ve got that in our life. We used to find hilarious variations of that at any given moment on the set; anything that sounded like thistle sifter we would turn into a tongue twister… and most of them were obscene. [laughs]
How’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides coming along?
Oh it’s great. Pirates 4 has a real snappy, interesting quality to it. It’s got almost a completely different tone and tempo to the trilogy.
Are you liking it better than the previous sequels?
Ah, no… look I’ve had a good time on that whole quartet of films. The fact that this one was not just another franchise movie — there was a whole lot of new ingredients and new energy and fresh ideas thrown onto the table — was great.
The King’s Speech is in theaters this week.