Geoffrey Rush says he owes his Hollywood career to going "barking mad"
I owe it all to going barking mad… Geoffrey Rush explains how he went from jaded theatre stalwart to Hollywood royalty
1:35 AM on 20th May 2011
Geoffrey Rush seems such a mild-mannered chap, it’s a shock to suddenly hear him castigate one of his Pirates Of The Caribbean co-stars.
As Captain Barbossa, the cutlass-wielding pirate of the blockbusting film series, he describes how the bonhomie on the set of the films was disrupted only by the diva-like antics of one particular star.
‘She was the only actor capable of extreme tantrums, which was quite frightening,’ he says.
Studious: Geoffrey Rush gives off the air of a studious English professor rather than one of the most versatile actors of his generation
‘She was very cute, but I suppose the only moment of tension I had was thinking she could bite me on the nose and give me rabies. Also, I was warned beforehand: “There will be days when Chiquita may drop a bundle on your shoulder and you’ll have to let her know who’s boss.”’
Yes, Chiquita, the female capuchin monkey who played the role of Barbossa’s primate companion Jack in the first film of the series was, in thespian parlance, a right old handful. Keira Knightley, who played Elizabeth Swann in the first three films, wanted her stuffed.
And Rush, who in his latest outing as Captain Barbossa ends up with a wooden leg, says now: ‘The peg leg was much easier to work with than the monkey, believe me. Those capuchins are very highly strung.’
It’s Rush’s fourth voyage as the self-serving piratical acquaintance of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow in the latest instalment of the series, On Stranger Tides, and it sees the duo battle forces such as raging mermaids and the infamous pirate Blackbeard.
It is set to become the latest blockbuster in a series that has already made 1.8 billion worldwide — the success of which has stunned everyone, not least Rush himself.
‘There had been a long-standing Hollywood curse on the pirate genre since the Fifties which no one had been able to crack,’ he says, ‘and I’m told initial drafts of the film were of the more conventional, swashbuckling kind. It was only once the element of the curse was introduced with the pirates turning into ghouls under moonlight that they finally thought: “Now we’ve got something with a juicy edge to it.”’
Captain Barbossa, pompous and vain in the Pirates films, couldn’t be more of a contrast to Rush. Softly spoken and thoughtful — the loudest thing about him is the striped blue-grey jacket he is sporting.
Hegives off the air of a studious English professor rather than one of the most versatile actors of his generation and applies the same studiedconcentration to mainstream roles such as Barbossa as to the more heavyweight ones including speech therapist Lionel Logue in The King’s Speech, and David Helfgott, the tortured pianist of Shine.
The latter earned him the Best Actor Oscar in 1997, not to mention worldwide recognition.
The episode left him unable to work for two months — a period of self-enforced rest which proved a turning point in his career.
‘I’dworked intensely in the theatre for a long period,’ he says, ‘doing eight plays a year in different parts of Australia. Also, I’d just turned 40 and so there was a lot of restlessness. It was a case of hitting a wall and thinking: “Have I got another 30 years left as an actor and what kind of direction will I be going in”
Back again: Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides marks Rush”s fourth voyage as the self-serving piratical acquaintance of Johnny Depp”s Jack Sparrow
‘It changed everything for me,’ says Rush, ‘and it opened up the possibility of working with actors I admired. It also came at a time when things hadn’t been going well.’
Rush, who at the time was unknown as a screen actor but who had been enjoying stage success in his native Australia, suffered a breakdown in the early Nineties.
During a performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, he walked off stage after being seized by an anxiety attack. Two weeks later, the cast found him, in his own words, ‘down on all fours, barking mad’.
‘The theatre is a physically demanding occupation and not as well-paid as films, and since my daughter was also born around that time, it became an economic question, too: could I keep freelancing as an actor and create an education fund But the pay-off was I then took a breather, which is probably what those signals were telling me.
‘And intaking a breather, I was choosing different things to do, which was when Shine came along. It was three or four years before we made it and it all kind of paid off in the right way without any precision planning going on my part.’
Pay off it undoubtedly did. Based on the true story of concert pianist David Helfgott (who goes through a breakdown as the film unfolds), Shine shot Rush to stardom, making him the first Australian-born actor to win an Oscar.
His mother fell off her chair in shock when her son snapped up the award and must have had a torrid time maintaining her balance in subsequent years sincethe plaudits have continued to flow.
He has been nominated for three additional Oscars for his roles in Shakespeare In Love, Quills and for his role as the monarch’s vocal therapist in The King’s Speech.
Though Colin Firth scooped up every conceivable award for his portrayal of King George VI, many felt Rush was robbed of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Highly skilled: Rush has turned his acting talents to more heavyweight roles including speech therapist Lionel Logue in The King”s Speech
‘I wanted to avoid making Logue conform to some perceived Aussie cultural stereotype — a sort of Les Patterson, Crocodile Dundee kind of character,’ he says.
‘But there did need to be some sort of attitude with him. When I first read the script, I thought it was a fantastic story that probably wouldn’t do too well commercially, which shows you how much I know.’
Born in Toowoomba, Australia, a farming town 60 miles west of Brisbane, Geoffrey was the youngest of two children — his parents divorcing by the time he was five.
A ‘shy, frightened little fellow’ at school, he changed the second he found himself on stage starring in school plays and by the time he was ten, ‘I realised acting was a great outlet for expressing my emotions.’
After graduating from the University of Queensland, he went on to star in countless Australian theatre productions and during one of them — a Sydney production of Waiting For Godot — he met a young, up-and-coming actor called Mel Gibson, with whom he shared an apartment for four months.
During that time, Rush and Gibson were in competition for the attentions of the same woman, with Rush eventually winning.
‘Oh, I’d forgotten about that,’ he grins. ‘That was probably my biggest achievement!
We’re not really in touch any more, but I’ve heard that his latest film, The Beaver, is amazing, which is great and may be just what he needs at the moment.’
Rush and his wife, actress Jane Menelaus, have been married for 23 years, having met during a performance of The Benefactors. Jane put her career on hold to raise their two children — Angelica, now 19, and James, 16.
The family still live in Melbourne, having decided not to move to Hollywood once his film career took off, ‘because the most important thing was giving our children stability and ensuring they were in the right place to be schooled. It seems to have worked out OK in the end.’
Rush will feature in another blockbuster this summer, Green Lantern (starring Ryan Reynolds in the title role), voicing the character of Tomar-Re, a member of comic book heroes the Green Lantern Corps.
And then in November, he and his wife are due to star together in a Melbourne Theatre Company production of The Importance Of Being Earnest — Menelaus playing Miss Prism and Rush starring as the imperious Lady Bracknell.
Should he need assistance accessing his inner female, he could do worse than ask his Pirates co-star Johnny Depp for some pointers — Depp’s portrayal of Jack Sparrow being a triumph of considered camp.
‘Before we filmed the first Pirates, Johnny said: “Jack spends half his time on a ship and half on land, so he never quite gets his sea legs right. Plus he drinks a lot of rum and spends his time outside frying in the sun. That’s going to do something to your brain.”
‘And he was absolutely right,’ says Rush. ‘When Johnny did his first scene, my voice coach said: “I can’t quite understand what he’s saying” and I think people were expecting a more conventional, slightly skewed Errol Flynn kind of character. No one expected what Johnny eventually came up with.’ He laughs.
‘But he obviously knew what he was doing, didn’t he’
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is in cinemas now.