Geoffrey Rush, Fred Schepisi & Alexandra Schepisi – Heading Into the Eye of the Storm
Geoffrey Rush, Alexandra Schepisi and Fred Schepisi at the New York Press day for Eye of the Storm at the Regency Hotel, New York, NY, Sept 4, 2012. Photo copyright 2012 Jay S. Jacobs
Geoffrey Rush, Fred Schepisi & Alexandra Schepisi
Heading Into The Eye of the Storm
by Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.Posted: September 6, 2012.
For decades, people have been trying to figure out a way to translate the works of treasured Australian novelist (and Nobel Prize Winner) Patrick White – with no luck. Many attempts have been launched to bring the famously internal writer’s work to the screen, but except for one short story adaptation, every one of those failed.
Therefore, three of Australia’s finest, actors Geoffrey Rush (Shine, The King’s Speech, Pirates of the Caribbean), Judy Davis (My Brilliant Career, Husbands and Wives) and celebrated director Fred Schepisi (The Devil’s Playground, Six Degrees of Separation, Roxanne) have teamed up to film one of White’s densest, most difficult novels, The Eye of the Storm. They brought along acclaimed British actress Charlotte Rampling (The Night Porter, Swimming Pool) to fill out the dysfunctional Hunter clan.
Elizabeth Hunter (Rampling) is a rich manipulative woman who is dying. Her estranged children – Sir Basil (Rush) a fading British actor and Princess Dorothy (Davis), the broke, divorced ex-wife of a French prince – return home to say goodbye as well as keep an eye on their inheritance. They see it as a chance for redemption, so they can’t leave despite the fact that they have run ins with their sometimes spiteful mother and her attentive staff. The director’s daughter Alexandra also took on the important role of a nurse who starts an affair with Sir Basil.
A couple of days before the film was due to open in New York, Geoffrey Rush, Fred Schepisi (“rhymes with Pepsi,” he explained) and Alexandra Schepisi met up with us and just a few other media outlets to discuss the new film and the difficulties and rewards of bringing Patrick White to the screen.
How familiar were you with Patrick White’s novel before becoming involved in the making of the film?
Fred Schepisi: (laughs) I knew I’d get that one. Not very. I was familiar with Patrick White’s work, but I hadn’t read that novel. But (producer) Antony Waddington, whose dream it was to have a work of Patrick White’s put on film, brought it to me and convinced me to do it. A lot of people had tried to do Patrick White on film and hadn’t succeeded, including Joseph Losey, with one of his [novels] called Voss. Because some of them tend to be very interior. So, I was a little reticent, but after listening to what Antony saw in it, I decided to plumb the book, see what was in there. I could see what he meant, so we took it from there.
Do you think this film would work as a play?
Geoffrey Rush: I don’t know. Patrick’s very first novel, The Aunt’s Story (actually, it was his third), I think he wrote it in the late 40s (it was published in 1948), which gave him his first international acclaim in the UK and America, I know that has been adapted to being created as a piece of theater. It, in fact, starred Helen Morse, the actress who played Lotte in the film. It was done by the MTC (Melbourne Theater Company). In fact, there are a number of actors in the film – John Gaden, who plays the solicitor, Wyburd, and his wife, Robyn Nevin – they are both great exponents of various Patrick White plays in Australia. They have done some very highly significant productions, as have I, on a lesser degree.
How has your background in theater enhanced your performance in this film and your view of Basil?
Geoffrey Rush: The film is set in the early 70s. That’s when I started as an actor, so I tried to find out from close friends… I knew Patrick later in his life, because I’ve been involved in a couple of his plays… who he might have had in mind particularly when he was creating that character in that particular time frame. I talked to his biographer and different people. No one seemed to be able to give me an exact answer. But I would have thought – and I don’t know if these names are that well known in America – but there were a generation of actors that all migrated to England in the 40s, 50s and 60s. That’s what people did, because we presumably had a kind of a cultural wasteland. There were actors like Keith Michell, who might have been known in America, because he did a very famous British TV series called The Six Wives of Henry VIII. This was back in the 60s, maybe. (It aired in 1970.) There is Peter Finch, who was originally English, but he came to Australia when he was quite young. Then he got picked up by Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh when they were doing a tour of Australia back in the late 40s. He went to England and then established a very substantial career. I don’t think Robert Helpmann is in there, even though I put a bit of that in there. So, I was looking at that generation: when I was in my early 20s, the kinds of actors I knew who were in their 50s and 60s, that had either come back from having had a career in Australia, or whatever. That was more the kind of study that I indulged in.
What is your relationship with King Lear?
Geoffrey Rush: Nothing personal, in fact, I think in the original screenplay, Judy Morris, the writer, had written a bit from Lear – which is where he and Cordelia are being taken to prison. “We two alone will sing like two birds in the cage.” She’s just playing Cordelia. It all overlaps. I think I suggested to Fred, look, because he’s in the middle of the Outback, it just feels, filmically, he needs to be on the Heath. I’ve been in the play twice, as Lear’s fool, at different points in my career. I said a little bit of him being on the Heath or about to go on the Heath, fearing that he’s going mad, might be dramatically a little more interesting. He could have chosen any piece of Shakespeare. I quite like the idea of him testing his vocal power in the middle of the Outback. It was fun when we were shooting it. I said to Fred, do you imagine this shot being quite wide? He said, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to be really close on your feet, squishing in the mud. And then I’m going to go wide. And then I’m going to go even wider.” Which I love, because Basil suddenly went much smaller in the frame and then of course he stands on a bit of rusty iron and hacks his foot up.
Geoffrey Rush: It’s almost an audition piece as well. I’m going to put it on my show reel. I got to do a bit of The Tempest in The King’s Speech, when I’m playing with my boys, I did a bit of Caliban. So, there are these strange coincidences where you get to do a bit of Shakespeare in different films.
Would you like to be knighted before or after you do Lear?
Geoffrey Rush: Knighthoods don’t exist. They used to exist in Australia, back in the old, more imperial days. I think – was it [former Prime Minister] Gough [Whitlam] that got rid of them?
Fred Schepisi: Yeah.
Geoffrey Rush: In the early 70s, that period of change that Patrick is writing about in this novel. We had had 23 years of a Conservative government. Most of it with one Prime Minister. I think [Sir Robert] Menzies was in for like 19 years or something? (Actually, it was just over 16.) So there was a huge cultural shift happening that I think was the kind of zeitgeist that Patrick was tapping into. A fading sense of the Sydney aristocracy. Land as gentry, people with money [had] owned the land. The Vietnam War and with a new Labor government, our leftist, Socialist government coming in ’72. All coincided with a kind of new Australian writing. A lot of playwrights started to write for the local voice. Local stories. We were on the cusp of the film industry starting to slowly kick start itself again, after maybe four or five decades of almost non-existent production. So, there’s a lot of stuff hovering around all of that, you know?
Charlotte Rampling played such a fascinating, complicated character as your mother, and I believe she’s actually only a few years older than you. What was she like to work with?
Geoffrey Rush: Charlotte? Absolutely fantastic. I used to see Charlotte on billboards in the London Tube, back in the 70s when I was a student. When she was in The Night Porter with Dirk Bogarde. I never dreamed in a million years that I would end up being in a film with her myself. And that she would be playing my mother. Somebody in the press made a kind of strange, snide comment the other day, saying “How dysfunctional can this family be? Charlotte Rampling is 66 and Geoffrey Rush is 62.” Both of those facts were wrong. She was 65 and I was 58 when we shot the film. But, obviously, that’s the challenge for Fred in looking at “who do I cast in this role?” You don’t want to have to woman in her late 40s early 50s and the woman in the mid-70s played by different actresses. The dramatic continuity would be awful.
Of course, she had to be young enough to do the flashback scenes…
Geoffrey Rush: So who do you get who can age up? We have a bit of a thing in the theater where… certainly onstage and maybe on film, slightly… certainly on stage you can always play ten years older and ten years younger. Well we delude ourselves into thinking that. (Schepisi laughs) I remember when I was in The Importance of Being Earnest many years ago. I was 39 and I was playing Jack, who is supposed to be 29. When Lady Bracknell interviews me and says, “How old are you?” I used to go (high-pitched) “29.” (laughs) Very flat. So, no one has ever really had problems with that. Charlotte wouldn’t have any prosthetics. She said, “I want to act this role.” The makeup woman and her collaborated.
Was that something you were considering when doing the casting?
Fred Schepisi: Absolutely. And you had to find someone who was beautiful and seductive. That was important. If you read the book or read the part, you could very easily play it where that woman was extremely hard and… not bitter, but biting. Like a viper waiting to strike all the time. Charlotte when we were in rehearsals just started doing it [a different] way and I went that’s so much better, because that really is who the character is, isn’t it? She’s seductive. (chuckles) You should have seen the crew. There she is, lying there looking 75 and the crew are all giggling.
Even with that lavender wig.
Fred Schepisi: Yes, even with the lavender wig. Big hairy grips are going, “Whoa…”
In early 70s Australia, how would acting have been perceived by a family of this type?
Fred Schepisi: As Geoffrey was saying, in Australia… I worked in an advertising agency in 1955. Everyone in that advertising agency did not want to be in advertising. That was the only place as writers and painters – there weren’t any actors – that was the only place they could get work where they got paid. That’s when television was coming into the country. Anyone who was wanting to have a career in theater and/or movies, they went overseas. Overseas to Australians at that time meant they went to England. England-stroke-Europe. That’s where they went and didn’t really come back. Some of them came back and didn’t like what they came back to, because it was still a backwater. [So they] went away, again. So it wasn’t so much about families disapproving, because we don’t have that many extremely rich, upper-class families. We were more, or we liked to think we were more of an egalitarian society. So I don’t know that that was as frowned upon at that time. We made a change from 1972 on.
Geoffrey Rush: I started as a professional actor in December of 1971, when I was 20. At that time, the fact that I got a job at the newly formed Queensland Theater Company – it had only existed for like two years as a regional state theater company – [was incredible]. I’d done a lot of stuff in high school, ran the school drama club and all of that, without any kind of infrastructure. There were no drama teachers and things like that. Then when I was at university from ’69 to ’71, it was a very active time on campus, politically and culturally and theatrically. So to be given a three year contract to work in a company was like out of nowhere, you know? I thought I was probably going to wind up in radio or I would have to find some alternative outlet where I could write copy or do on-air stuff of teach. You know what I mean. There was no big infrastructure.
If you could have picked any film project from the 70s you could have worked on, what would it be?
Geoffrey Rush: At that time, I suppose, we were sandwiched very much between British culture and American culture. Getting the best of both in lots of conflicting ways. We were listening to surf music and later hard rock or country rock, whatever, from America. But also we were very influenced by high-powered BBC drama on television, etc., etc. At that point, my real acting gods – totally away from my own personal style, I suppose, whatever that was as a young actor – it was that golden age of the new studio system in the 70s. There was a lot of alternative, counter-cultural filmmaking happening in the mainstream. So as young actors, we would look at someone like Dustin Hoffman being in The Graduate and then being in Little Big Man and then being in, umm, what else was from that period?
Fred Schepisi: Midnight Cowboy.
Geoffrey Rush: Yes, Midnight Cowboy. Year by year, we thought that these guys were really pulling down [walls]… I suppose his New York roots in theater were really heavily influencing his film work. Or looking at early De Niro or Pacino. I got absolutely obsessed and fascinated by their acting heritage – from Lee Strasburg, that Actor’s Studio, whatever. I couldn’t quite work out how they could put together such monumental, dangerous, unpredictable performances in those great classic Americana movies like The Godfather coming out in that period.
What important lessons have you learned as a filmmaker over all these years? How important is it to trust the audience’s intelligence?
Fred Schepisi: (laughs) Well, I’m still learning. I don’t believe audiences are stupid. I don’t like catering down to them. The first film (The Devil’s Playground) I did, I remember seeing it ten years after I made it. I remember watching it in front of an audience and thinking: Oh, God, I did that twice because I didn’t think the audience would get it. I’ve overstated that. You can tell. You can tell. I’ve sat in audiences where you just hear people going “He’s going to do this…” “She’s going to do that…” “He’s going to be back later and kill him…” All that sort of stuff. They are ahead of you, all the time. I’d much rather be ahead of the audience. Not too far, because otherwise you’re going to leave them behind. There are certain times in a film when you can’t take anymore side roads, because you’ve got people on a path and have done the little thought patterns off to this side or that side. Little reflections, if you like. At a certain time you’ve got to bring it in. (Claps his hands together) It’s like shooting an arrow out of a bow, it’s got to go straight to the target. Because, you will upset them, emotionally. One of the things I’ve learned in America was to allow emotion to happen. Americans like to hang on to emotional moments way longer than I do. [Suppose] In Australia, Geoffrey and I had an argument. Before the argument finished, you’d cut to a door slamming. You’d think it would be him walking out of the room, but in fact it was another character walking through another room and taking their angst out on somebody. It’s what I refer to as an intellectual cut, because everybody knows what is going to happen, and therefore, let’s surprise them and take them somewhere else. That’s an intellectual cut. What I’ve learned from America is that if you set people up for an emotion, you’ve got to allow that emotion to happen. The same way as if you set people up for a laugh, you’ve got a give time for the laugh to happen, otherwise you’re short-changing people.
One of my favorite of your movies was Roxanne, which is obviously a very different type of film. Do you value the opportunity to try totally different things as a director? Also, was nice filming in Australia again for the first time since the 80s?
Fred Schepisi: Yes and yes. (laughs) No, I don’t like to go down the same roads. Where’s the fun in that? I like to be made nervous. I like to explore things I’m not necessarily that comfortable with or knowledgeable of and learn about them as I go along. Out of being worried that you don’t have enough school to do something, you get all of your energies focused. Going back to Australia, it was fantastic. The very important thing about this film is that it’s an extraordinary collaboration. It’s not one person’s work. Everybody got into the book, read the book, looked for little parts in the book that we might have left behind when the script was being done that illuminate the character or the whole situation in a better way. Actors were constantly contributing from that point of view. Right down to the crew. The crew was so happy to be doing a film of intelligence – I didn’t mean to describe them as hairy grips before. (laughs) They get excited. They got excited. There are scenes in the bedroom where we have erected a giant crane, the size of this table, in her room to do some of those moves. Not that you’re supposed to sit there and go “That’s a nice crane move.” But they knew why they were doing it and the enthusiasm for that. If something needed changing, they’d change immediately. There was such enthusiasm to make a good film that they could all be proud of and we could all be proud of. It was fantastic. Honestly.
I liked your use of lions and swans and horses.
Fred Schepisi: Oh, well done. Thank you. (laughs) Yes, they are all themes in Patrick’s book. There are [also] roses throughout. Mirrors are everywhere. There’s always stage entrances by you and by you, because Patrick says everybody is an actor. They are all acting all the time, different personas to different people. A lot of it had to do with who Mrs. Hunter (Rampling’s character) was and what her taste was that she imposed on everybody.
It’s rare that you see a film where the set design is so much thematically linked to what is going on.
Fred Schepisi: (chuckles) Well, hopefully you’ll find it in all my films. I believe where things are taking place is frequently as important as what is taking place.
What was the deal about Basil and the food? Does he have an eating disorder?
Geoffrey Rush: I’m assuming the scene you are referring to is when he is leaving the house and we’ve seen Dorothy (the sister character played by Judy Davis) take note of the extravagance of expenditure and stuff that is going on within the household. She’s fearful that the amount of money that she might get is going to be dissipated because Lotte is such an extravagant cook. I think moments like that for him are a way of inveigling his way into being surrounded by all of these women of the household, so he can particularly flirt with her. (motions to Alexandra) He’s a man of big appetites. When he sits in Wyburd’s (the family solicitor) office, he likes to act as if he’s a great man of the world who can look through legal papers and eat biscuits and act very intelligent.
Basil is always trying to be liked, but he’s also always trying to avoid things – serious confrontations, relationships, even work. Was that an interesting balancing act for you as an actor?
Geoffrey Rush: Yeah. There were dimensions of that, I suppose. It’s in an accumulation of small details that you start to find that. I didn’t sit down and actually write that rather eloquent thesis of the character to think: Oh, he does this, he does this. I would look at it more pragmatically as an actor. These are the objectives. These are the actions. These are the things that he does in particular scenes. And let the resonances of that add up by the way Fred chooses to frame it or shoot it or the way Kate (Williams) chooses the rhythm of the edit. You know what I mean. There are so many things come into play.
A lot of times when adult siblings have to take care of an ailing parent, some of the sibling rivalry and issues they had as children play out in their adult lives. How far back did you discuss the sibling relationship?
Geoffrey Rush: There are certain passages in the novel. One of the things that you maybe can’t achieve definitively and specifically in film language, but in a Patrick White novel, he will go in and out of interior states of mind. Then suddenly you’ll hit a full stop and you’ll go: Oh, now he’s jumped back into third person narrative. Or now he’s back inside Basil’s head. So it was great having the novel there. A six-hundred-and-something-page novel next to the hundred-and-five-page screenplay. It was like having a special research bible. You can go: What’s Basil thinking over 20 pages here that I can use to help inform the qualities within this scene? And there are quite a few things. Little flashbacks. I think in the scene when he first goes to meet his mother, there is about a half a page just on his knees cracking. (To Fred) I heard that last night [in the screening].
Fred Schepisi: Yes, it’s there. (laughs)
Geoffrey Rush: There’s one moment in there where his brain just goes on an interior monologue on the feeling that he’s in such a disconnected state coming back from England to Australia and not liking it. Where he meets the actors in the novel is in Singapore in the transit lounge. They’re on their way to do a Southeast Asian tour or something like that. He has the terrible sexual relationship with the young actress and all that stuff. But, umm… now I’ve lost my thread, I’ve gone into so many sidebars.
When he was kneeling down…
Geoffrey Rush: Oh, yeah, yeah. There is a moment where Patrick White writes about how he regresses into wanting to be sitting back in the high chair, when he was like two, wanting to be spoon-fed. There are these little… they’re not psychological portraits, they’re just very resonant emotional images. There’s a lot of that about Dorothy and Basil from their Cudgery (the family’s summer home) childhood and stuff that pops up. (Theatrical and film director) Julie Taymor last night knows it. She said, “What was the photo they used of your Titus Andronicus?” She saw the photo. Because the production designer, Melinda (Doring) said, “Could you provide me with a lot of photos? We need in the set dressing to have a suggestion of Basil’s twenties onwards.” I had to find photos from my own theatrical collection that could look like it was me in the 1940s and 50s, not me in the 70s and 80s. Maybe they made some of them look black & white or a bit more sepia or whatever. There are a number of performances of my own that have been doctored to look like they were Basil’s career, which is a bit scary.
How is your approach to intimate scenes different for you now than when you were in your 20s?
Geoffrey Rush: Intimate as in sex scenes?
Fred Schepisi: Very careful when it’s with my daughter. (They all laugh.)
Geoffrey Rush: I learned a great thing from working on Pirates of the Caribbean. This is a sidetrack, but I think it’s an important thing. We worked with this great maestro, Bob Anderson, who was the sword master. He played the original Darth Vader in Star Wars (in the light saber fight scenes). Even before that, he used to tutor Errol Flynn back in the 50s. He was about 80 when he worked with us ten years ago. He choreographed that famous sword fight in The Princess Bride, where they have dialogue all the way through the foil stomp. So he came in to give us, along with the stunt men and sword masters on Pirates of the Caribbean, to sort of do a master class. We would only get through two moves of the swordfight and he’d go “Stop!” It was like working with (British director) Peter Brook or some great Russian director. He said, “Everyone acts fighting with a sword. They do the general impression of ‘I’m hacking at him.'” He said, “It is a dialogue with a blade.” You are coming in on there. More often than not for film, you are doing rapier style. It’s just showier and a little more interesting than épée work. So you’re aiming to cut someone’s arm so they bleed to death or you’re aiming to come down on their head. With the power of that, they then block and they may come back with, “Ah hah, caught you out there. Tricked you with that move.” You get this dynamic going. I think the same is true with non-dialogue sex scenes. You don’t just go through the general huffing and puffing and making a lot of loud noise – because that’s what people do when they make sex. You’ve got to find the two characters who aren’t given dialogue to say what is going on moment by moment in this particular, very complex physical activity? I remember doing a sex scene with Jamie Lee Curtis in The Tailor of Panama. We wanted to have a credibility. Not that you want to show so much, but I said we’ll have to have some under-the-sheet signals. This is why it’s like a stunt sequence. When I squeeze your right knee, this is when this is happening, physically, because you’re not really doing it, you know? So you have this kind of code. That’s the way actors can talk about it. But the best thing about this particular scene was Alex and I, it ends up with fairly significant dialogue that tells you a lot about the subtext of what shifts from a physical act into a slightly more curious understanding of [whether] she [has] gone down the path that she thought she was quite manipulatively going down during it. There is a vulnerability about him that she detects. There is a lot of unspoken stuff going on there. We went in and Fred’s going, “Hey, come on and look at the set up. I’m going to start really close on you. You’re at the peak, almost at orgasm. But I’m going to pull back and we’ll realize that you are actually looking at yourself in the mirror while you are making love.” This is why he’s a great filmmaker. There is already another dimension to it that is independent of how we are performing it. It’s another layer.
Is there a scene for you that you felt was your entrance into the character of Flora?
Alexandra Schepisi: There’s so much more information in the book. The characters are so densely written. It was just the biggest joy to have access to that back story and that richer building of a character to inform what I had in the script for the film. She really struggles with being a woman in that time in Australia and how sexist men are. That stuff is not explored in the film, but it’s part of who I am and I know that informed my character’s relationship to other people in the room. There’s a certain bitterness and unease about her. That was magic, having access to all of that information. Then of course you continue to build characters on your own and feed in your own ideas as well. But it was brilliant having the book as a starting point.
In the novel, there is a scene where Flora is explaining she is so desperate. Her two options are to marry someone of means or she can clean up old women for the rest of her life.
Alexandra Schepisi: There was not a lot of opportunity for womenat her level of education at that time. So that need to bed the superstar is not just a vanity [thing]. It’s not as common as everybody’s desire to be famous now. It’s a real, desperate need to get out. To give herself an opportunity to have a better life and a bigger chance that she will not get in any other way at that point in time. There’s that hunger for something else. She lives serving these people who are so much wealthier and perhaps smarter and have so much more than her. It’s something she never will have access to. You’re not going to build your way up in the world of nursing to get that. So to see an opportunity like that, it’s the only opportunity she has. Either that or give up. It’s very real. It’s a very deep need for something better – and something better for her children, as well.
Geoffrey Rush: Her name in the book is Flora Manhood. Patrick used to invent very curious names for characters in all his novels.
Alexandra Schepisi: Cherry Cheeseman… (They all laugh.)
Geoffrey Rush: Yes, it’s great. It’s great, isn’t it? I hadn’t thought about this, but Manhood, it’s like he’s given her Flora for a conventional femininity, but Manhood being that she has taken on the strength of what’s acceptable in males at the time.
Alexandra Schepisi: Yeah, and to explore it. To explore her right to have it, somewhat.
Fred Schepisi: There was a great number of pages for every character in the book. Like 50 pages of inside their mind musing on everything, you know? Particularly your character (motions to Alexandra), because Col, the guy she should be with, she’s actually very, very in love with and kind of likes. But it’s always disturbed by this isn’t good enough. This isn’t right for my children. I want my kids to have a better opportunity in the world. They won’t with him, so she’s conflicted all the time. That was something that we had very few scenes to put that across in, but you had to put it across, which I thought Alex did extremely well. This is better for her children than him. And yet, who would she be happiest with and more comfortable with? It would be that guy. All of that is in the book, which is a great resource for everybody, I think.
As human beings, how were you able to shake off your roles emotionally?
Geoffrey Rush: I’m the sort of actor that tends to generally hang the costume up at the end of the day. Not live with it 24/7. For me, acting is putting yourself into a state of imaginative play. When the scene is ready to be shot, you’ve talked about it, you’ve been very outside it and third person about analyzing it. Tossing around ideas. For me, when that work is done, you yield and give yourself over to playing the beats with the input of your fellow players, whether it’s a duo or a group scene or whatever. I’ve said this before, but having been a great admirer of that Lee Strasburg method, tradition from America out of Russia, back in the 30s through group theater and so forth, it doesn’t work for me. I’m a bit fearful that if I’m in character all day, I might end up doing some of my best work at the craft services table. (laughs) It is better to save it for when Fred says, “Action! Let’s go for the scene now.” Are we all ready to play with the refinement and the nuances we think are needed? Maybe take you’ll go, “Oh, that was great, I reckon there is a little bit more just on this moment where you could play and we could establish, mold and shape the dynamic of the scene.”
Does the emotional honesty come mostly from the script, or from the performances?
Geoffrey Rush: I think it’s a mixture of many things. Not having seen the film, when I saw it last night, I hadn’t seen it for a year, and I read completely different things in my own work and what everyone else was doing than hadn’t even occurred to me when I had seen it last time. Sometimes you go… like in the great classical plays, anyone who plays Hamlet knows that “To be, or not to be” is something they should think about very, very carefully. You know it’s a famous moment. I just played Lady Bracknell last year (in The Importance of Being Earnest). Everyone would come up to me and say how are you going to say the handbag line? I went I don’t think I’ll give the handbag line that much significance, because by my analysis of that particular scene, it was much more funny later in the scene when he’s going on about railway stations and she explodes on “The line is immaterial.” The handbag line is just, what? Where are you going? With her class structure and so forth. So, I never earmark a moment to go this must be the moment where you cry. Or this must be the moment where this happens. Sometimes they happen out of the chemistry of rehearsal. I’ll give you a case in point. The day we shot the scene at Cudgery, where without too much buildup and we’d shot some of the other stuff out of sequence, just going into that room where Judy Davis is melting down, naked and wet from a distraught cleansing of herself in the shower. You don’t intellectualize that before going this is her. She just offered the fireworks that I have to deal with. I didn’t know what to do in that room, you know? I thought she’s gone down that path. She was discovering that with such immediacy. Every little beat.
Judy Davis is such a great actress. Her character was so uptight and so cut off. Was it enjoyable to play the scenes off of her?
Geoffrey Rush: I’ve done three other films with Judy. We’ve played husband and wife a couple of times. She always amazes me. I love watching her work now, and I’ve been seeing it all on the set – and I think it’s partly to do with the Schepisi style and also the Patrick White material. [Others agree] the North American audiences, certainly at the Toronto Film Festival and what I’ve seen here now. Even though it’s a dramatic portrait of a woman off-balance with herself, culturally, geographically, within her own family, Judy just gets that slightly comic, almost screwball edge of not being completely upright and vertical. (chuckles) Stomping over to get roses out of the garden to present them to the people in the country. Her comic timing is great. But, it’s knife-edge, dramatic, where you’re going I really feel for this person not being complete.
Well, speaking of not being complete, it seemed the time that Basil was most comfortable was when he was at the country house. Do you think he would have ultimately been happier if he just stayed there and just gone for a much simpler life?
Geoffrey Rush: There was a key line, I can’t recall it, it’s a big detail in the novel, which we kind of put into his narration. He’s not a narrator, as such, in the novel. That was an invention for the film, probably to balance the flashbacks with Dorothy and mom. There was a feeling that he had that other shape going. There was a definite feeling in going back to Cudgery – and Patrick would elaborate on this for pages – that he knew he wanted to go back to some kind of… what do you call it?… is it antediluvian? You know, where you go back to before the fall. He wanted to go back to childhood. Where did I go off the rails? He always had this wonderful image in the novel, which has sort of become the cutting of the foot. There was another incident in the novel where he remembers his father helping him down from a tree.
Fred Schepisi: You actually say it in that scene. You say, “I fell out of a tree and my father carried me home.”
Geoffrey Rush: Yes, I remember we put that in, because I loved it so much from the novel. It was him emotionally trying to connect with that intimacy and tenderness for the father that he probably got so far away from.
Fred Schepisi: Got taken away from. Separated from. And lost the love that was there and the innocence of that time. The purity of that time.
This is a little bit off-topic, but since we have a roomful of Australians…
Fred Schepisi: Are we Australian? (laughs)
Do you have any thoughts about the situation of (the Australian WikiLeaks founder) Julian Assange and how the Australian government is ignoring him?
Geoffrey Rush: I’m not really up to speed on that story, but I know Robert Connolly, one of our very notable younger filmmakers of the moment. He was there last night. He’s done a film, I think, or documentary. Docudrama?
Alexandra Schepisi: It’s a telly movie, but it’s being recut as a feature and it’s going to play at Toronto (International Film Festival) called Underground, about Julian Assange when he was growing up and an activist in squats in Melbourne.
Fred Schepisi: I don’t know about him personally, at all. I do think perhaps the US government are trying to railroad him for exposing their secrets. But it does seem to me that it is good that someone in the world is telling us what is really going on. Because, mostly, sorry guys, the media isn’t.
Have you seen The King’s Speech play in London, yet?
Geoffrey Rush: No, I haven’t seen it.
What do you have coming up?
Fred Schepisi: Go on, you go…
Alexandra Schepisi: Well, I’m actually about to have a baby…
Alexandra Schepisi: …so I’m having a little break. (laughs)
Fred Schepisi: It’s our first grandchild. I can, but I’m not allowed to [say what my next project is]. They’re going to make an announcement in a couple of weeks, so… I’d get destroyed. (laughs) But, I’ve got three or four projects in.
Geoffrey Rush: I found out a bit of it at lunch, because I had lunch with Mary (Schepisi’s wife). It was great. (they both laugh) I’ve just done a film with Giuseppe Tornatore, who did Cinema Paradiso. (It is called The Best Offer.) We shot the last four months in Italy, which was fantastic. It’s brilliant. And I’m about to do A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the very, very early Stephen Sondheim musical, in Melbourne. I start rehearsals next week. Comedy tonight.