Brimstone: Guy Pearce On The Dark Western Thriller

– by Edward Douglas

Ever since his breakout role in L.A. Confidential twenty years ago, Australian actor Guy Pearce has been able to create prestige for himself with memorable roles in Christopher Nolan’s early film Memento and others. (For instance, he appeared in two recent Best Picture winners in The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech). More importantly, he's been able to star in a series of fantastic genre films from The Proposition and Animal Kingdom to the Guillermo del Toro-produced Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Ridley Scott's Prometheus.     

Brimstone, from Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven (Winter in Watime), puts Pearce back in familiar Western territory as The Proposition, playing a very different character, an ultra-pious Dutch preacher known only as “The Reverend” who spends the movie chasing after a young woman, played by Dakota Fanning. There’s a lot more to the story, which is told in chapters shown in reverse chronological order, but it’s an intense, and sometimes very grim, movie that’s the perfect showcase for Pearce to play a far more diabolical character than what we’ve seen from him in the past. 

LRM got on the phone with Pearce last week for the following interview, and we probably should have known better than to ask about his “secret” role in Ridley Scott’s upcoming Alien: Covenant, hoping he might clarify its connections to Prometheus. Nope! 

LRM: In this movie, you’re playing a rather creepy character in The Reverend…well, I don’t want to call him “creepy” just yet. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and give you a chance to talk about him without being judged, but he’s an amazing character. He makes this movie very different from other Westerns we’ve seen. Were you familiar with Martin’s work beforehand? How did you hook up with him?

Guy Pearce:
Well, I didn’t know his work. I had heard of Martin before, but I wasn’t sure what I’d seen of his, but I then watched Winter in Wartime before we started the movie. In fact, before I ever met Martin, and he had shown some interest in me playing the role, so I was in London working on something, and he came to London and we met. I’d read the script and just was really interested in it. I thought the structure of it was great, and the way in which he presented Dakota’s character, the daughter, was really sensitive and ???? her really well. I just found the Reverend to be really quite extreme…you’re right. He is very creepy, but he’s a very strange and probably psychopathic character, so therefore, something really interesting to play.

LRM: The reason I question my characterization of him is that he comes from Holland, Old World Europe, so he’s in that headspace. People from that time and area are very religious and he is that religious zealousness that might have been foreign to America at that time.

Guy Pearce:
Yeah, and he was really trying to carve out a new life, and obviously, the thing that isn’t really talked about in the film is that I think in those times really extreme religious behavior was frowned upon, so the reason they left the Netherlands--not just as a family but as a whole community--is because they were on some level being ostracized anyway, so they went to America, which apparently in the 16, 17 and 1800s was considered the New World.  I’m sure there were many that went to America and set up a new life for themselves and weren’t as psychopathic as this guy. I mean, this guy is particularly maniacal, and not just the ego but the narrow-minded view of power really has gone to his head in a way that truly deludes him further that he was just able to justify.  Obviously, he needed to be created in order to set-up the journey that Dakota’s character embarks upon, and I think the challenge for me was to make this guy 3-dimensional, and not just a complete psychopath; although, he is pretty psychopathic, no doubt about it.

LRM: We meet him in an interesting way because the story is told in reverse order…is it okay for people to know that the story is in reverse order or is that part of the surprise? I was definitely surprised when I figured out what was going on, which I didn’t know at first.

Guy Pearce:
It’s probably not a bad thing for people to know that. I think they’ll certainly be surprised at what’s happening anyway, but it’s a very unusual structure, and it’s not just an unusual structure, but it’s unusual the way this character exists  because he’s there in reality and then he’s there kind of in spirit, in a way. It’s--pardon my French--but it’s a bit of a head f*ck just from the structure of the film. 

LRM: I assume the script was structured in the same way as the movie, so were you reading it in the same way that people would watch the movie?

Guy Pearce:
Yeah, I was confused, and when I met Martin I had to ask him what was going on, really. I thought I knew what was going on, but I wasn’t sure, and I had to clarify with him which section came first and which came afterwards. Just because we saw this chapter first on screen, didn’t necessarily mean that it happened in that order. Obviously, I had a similar experience on another movie years ago called Memento, where I had to sit down with the director and go, “Hang on, what’s happening first? What’s happening second?” This is different also because there are full blocks, full chapters, before you move onto the next chapter, and there’s something in that which connects to the religious nature of the story, the epic religious…it’s almost biblical, I should say, when you move from “Genesis” to “Exodus” etc. I think he was looking to represent that biblical kind of storytelling, if that makes sense.

LRM: So you say that he was able to shoot each section separately since they are different locations?

Guy Pearce:
Yeah, we shot each chapter within themselves, and we shot one part of the movie in June or July 2015 and then shot the next big section of the film in December 2015. We shut the film down for a couple of months and then came back when it was winter and did the winter section, so it was really interesting to break it up like that. 

LRM: You’ve done a Western before with “The Proposition” and this is interesting because it comes from a Dutch perspective, and I was curious if there was historic stuff that Martin pulled that from or where he got that Dutch experience in the West? I don’t think we’ve seen a Western from that point-of-view.

Guy Pearce:
No, and it’s funny really, because The Proposition, as you point out, was also kind of a Western, but it was set in Australia, and then Brimstone is a Western set in America, but it’s made by a Dutchman, as you point out, so I think it has a really different perspective than a typical American…but I think it has a different feel between The Proposition, BrimstoneTombstone and other more classic American Western films. It’s funny, because on some level, I dunno, maybe I don’t consider them to be real Westerns, because I didn’t shoot them in Utah or Arizona, and they had more of a European feel to them, I suppose. It’s hard to say, really, because I did Ravenous, as well, which is also considered to be a bit of a Western, but to me, they’re much more psychological thrillers really. They just happen to be set out in the open.

LRM: I notice that you’ve been working with a couple Australian filmmakers with your last couple movies, with Ben Lewin and Fred Schepisi, who are classic Aussie filmmakers, having done stuff there for a long time. Have you been deliberately trying to stay home and do more movies there?

Guy Pearce: I love it if I can work at home, and it means a great deal to me to play characters who are Australian, where I can explain the Australian sensibility in whatever way I can, depending on the character itself, but it does mean a lot to me to work at home and obviously now there are a lot of Australian filmmakers and actors who are doing really well internationally, and so to work at home doesn’t necessarily mean just in something small that nobody’s going to see. I can work at home and work with people like Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. There’s all these great actors of great international appeal and filmmakers now are doing really well overseas, so it still feels quite international to work with Australians, but it’s just personally satisfying to work in my home town if I can, Melbourne particularly.

LRM: I don’t know if you saw Mel Gibson’s movie “Hacksaw Ridge,” but I think most of that cast was Australian which is amusing since it’s such an American story shot in Australia with Australian actors.

Guy Pearce:
(laughs) That’s right.  I was out to do Hacksaw Ridge, but I couldn’t do it, unfortunately, I think because I was doing Brimstone, so I wasn’t able to do it. 

LRM: I think the last time we spoke was for “Prometheus” and I thought this new movie was going to be sequel, but I also didn’t think you or your character Peter Weyland would be in it What can you say about that? Are you just doing more promos as Peter Weyland for the movie?

Guy Pearce: I can’t give it away. (laughs)

LRM: So far, nothing I’ve seen from the movie makes it seem like a sequel to “Prometheus” but you’re one of the few returning actors…

Guy Pearce:
Yeah, well, I’m not sure how to answer that without giving too much away. (laughs) Just that I’m involved somehow. 

LRM: Are you still doing music or is that when you’re not working as an actor?

Guy Pearce:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m just finishing a new record at the moment and Joe Henry, the American producer and songwriter himself, he’s producing it for me, so I’m just finishing that in L.A., and hopefully I’ll get that out sometime this year, I guess. That’d be great.

LRM: Do you see yourself as a touring musician playing live shows of the music or is that not something you’re that interested in doing?

Guy Pearce:
Well, I’d love to, but I’m also trying to work and I have a new baby, too, so I’m not sure how much touring I could actually get done at this point in time, but we might do a few little shows in L.A. or in NY or something if we could. It would be great to be able to do that. 

Brimstone opens in select cities on Friday as well as On Demand and Digital HD.

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