Guest of Honor

Geoffrey Rush on Good Guys, Pirates, Neanderthals & Robots

The acclaimed actor talks about his new awards contender "The Book Thief," and about what may become his most lasting legacy: an animatronic theme park pirate.

Matt Carr/Getty Images Entertainment

Australian actor Geoffrey Rush has appeared in some of the most acclaimed films of  recent decades, including “Shine,” “Quills,” and “The King’s Speech” – each of which earned him an Oscar win or nomination. Along the way he found time to play Shakespeare’s ribald contemporary in “Shakespeare In Love”… and of course one of the titular criminal seafarers in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series.

His newest film is “The Book Thief,” based on the award-winning novel by his Aussie countryman Markus Zusak. Set amid the horror of Nazi Germany, Rush plays a kindly man trying to raise his young foster daughter while shletering a Jewish refugee.

Rico Gagliano: World War II, it’s just an endlessly fascinating topic to people — there must be a million scripts set in that era floating around on any given day.Why pick “The Book Thief”?

Geoffrey Rush: Well, you know, I think you’re right. It’s a statistic I heard, recently,  that in that global war… and it was not only in Europe, of course, it was Russia and Africa and Japan, and American and Australians were involved… it was something like 65 million people died in that six-year period. So I can understand why people want to tell stories about this horrific chapter in the human story.

Rico Gagliano: And everyone was involved.

Geoffrey Rush: Everyone was involved, on some level. My stepdad told me stories, when I was 20, about the period when he was 20 and he was fighting up in Borneo.

Rico Gagliano: He was Australian, obviously.

Geoffrey Rush: Yeah. And, there were a lot of elements to his personality, as my stepdad, that I found very valuable. And when I first read this script, I got that feeling. You know what I mean? I thought, “I know this fellow. He’s very, very much like my stepfather.”

Rico Gagliano: I love the character — he’s just the gentlest and the kindest man, and you brought kind of the same quality to “The King’s Speech”. I just want you to be my uncle after I see these films —

Geoffrey Rush: — Well, you know, it was that sort of rhythm and that quality that appealed to me when I read the screenplay.

I just recently had done a lot more theater, and I had been playing some pretty outrageous characters, like Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and I fulfilled a musical-theater fantasy by playing in the musical “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Big, bold, burlesque kind of Broadway show.

So, that was something — when I happened to read “The Book Thief” screenplay — that appealed to me: The stillness, the quietness of this man.  But knowing, as the story progresses, that there’s a much more interesting inner life.

the-book-thief-DF-05337_rgbRico Gagliano:  Well, I wanted to ask you about this — because people ask actors if it’s hard getting into the frame of mind to play someone dark and evil… but how do you get in the frame of mind to play somebody this decent? I mean, when you’re shooting a film, I imagine you’re not always feeling like a saint.

Geoffrey Rush: No!  I suppose I was always looking for little hints of how deeply troubled he was about the circumstances that they were in.

You know, the old actor’s adage is, “When you’re playing drunk, you don’t play drunk, you play somebody who’s desperately trying to look sober.” You know what I mean? So you’ve got a contradiction there to give it some resonance or some depth.

So I suppose, because of the kindliness that he has towards this young girl, I wanted that to be in battle with something inside him that knew that the country — or that his particular little microcosmic town — was heading in a really dark direction.

Rico Gagliano: All right, well we should note you’ve played plenty of not wholly-decent guys. You’re going to reprise your role as the pirate Barbarossa in the next “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie.

First of all, tell me what it’s like, after this kind of a subtle role, going into that insane world.

Geoffrey Rush: Well, you know, the scale is certainly different.  But I remember having this conversation with Johnny Depp once.  And he said “You can think of this, in the back of your head, as being that we’re doing an art movie.  And there’s just you and me, having a fight.  Just two actors playing a scene.” You just happen to be 30 miles out at sea and the scale of the crew might mean there’s 800 people for lunch.

Rico Gagliano: That’s a very expensive art movie you’re pretending to be in!

Since we’re talking about “Pirates”, you are, by the way, the only person I’ve ever met who has an animatronic robot in their likeness at Disneyland. There’s a Geoffrey Rush Barbarossa in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme ride. Did your kids ever visit the robot-you at Disneyland when they were younger?

Geoffrey Rush: Yes! In fact, my daughter’s traveling around America with a friend of hers at the moment, and they went to see it just the other day.

Rico Gagliano: That sounds like the craziest —

Geoffrey Rush: — and I thought, you know… When you see statues of historic, famous people in Melbourne or London or whatever… you think, “Well, it’s not highly likely that I’m going to get that done in my lifetime.” But you know, maybe my kids’ kids’ kids, in the early 22nd century — if Disneyland’s still functioning, and I’m sure it will be — they can go and see great-great granddad being a pirate! Which is kind of like performance art, you know?

Rico Gagliano: Yeah!  You should record stuff for the robot to say to them. Stuff that you would normally say, so when they go by, it’s like “Wear your galoshes!” Words of wisdom.

All right, we have two questions that we ask everyone on this show. One of them — and maybe I’ve already asked it — if we met you at a dinner party, what question should we not ask you?

Geoffrey Rush: What question not to ask? I don’t know!  I often fantasize about, you know, who I’d like to have at a dinner party…

…I think a good dinner party always has a little frisson of conflict or debate, and whatever questions people bring up, that’s what triggers either the food throwing or the yelling or the further heavy drinking… or the uproarious laughter!

Rico Gagliano: I see. So, anything goes, basically.

Geoffrey Rush: Anything goes.

Rico Gagliano: All right. By the way, you mentioned that you think about who you’d have a dinner party — who would it be?

Geoffrey Rush: Oh, the list is endless…

You know, because we know so little about Shakespeare, and I reckon he would have been a great, great working man of the theater. While all of the actors were sitting around pubs and doing schtick and stuff like that, he was probably back home writing down what he had heard some sailor say in a pub who was Italian or something. You know what I mean? And, he’d be writing that down. I’d just love to know more about the nuts and bolts of what his daily life would have been like.

Rico Gagliano: And you could show him “Shakespeare In Love” and see what he thinks.

Geoffrey Rush: Yes! And he’d say we got it really, terribly, terribly wrong!

Rico Gagliano: What if he was like, “That was perfect!  How did you know?”

World Premiere Of Walt Disney's "Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End"
Geoffrey Rush, and friend, at the premiere Of Walt Disney’s “Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End” (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images).

Geoffrey Rush: That would be interesting.

Rico Gagliano: Here’s our second and last question. It’s more of an order, really: Tell us something we don’t know. And, this can be about anything. About yourself, or about a piece of trivia about the world, something that would just blow our minds.

Geoffrey Rush: Well, I just read, scanning through the paper this morning, that scientists have found human remains from 400,000 years ago, which they’ve been able to map the DNA from, and it’s thrown into question what we traditionally accept as the standard evolutionary processes: This is pre-Neanderthal, human, and Homo Sapiens co-existing.

I think, if you get your own human genome read now, everyone will find that they’ve got a tiny, little bit of Neanderthal in them. Maybe some more than others!