Actor Guy Pearce was tying himself in emotional notes about the prospect of playing the famous escapologist Houdini.
He’s played an amnesia victim, a drag queen and artist Andy Warhol, but Guy Pearce found a role he really couldn’t get out of when he signed on to play American escapologist Harry Houdini in his new film, Death Defying Acts.
“It was tricky on a couple of levels,” the English-born, Australian-raised actor says.
“The physical side was a challenge.
“Houdini’s a really strong, muscular, solid guy who’s also got a very great sense of himself and the power of himself. So there was real personality and physical traits that I wanted to honour.
“The first thing I really felt I needed to do, before I could even agree to do the role, was really to get back to the gym and actually start feeling physical again, like I could actually feel my body again, because I’d sort of made it disappear.”
In Death Defying Acts, Houdini meets a beautiful but deceptive psychic (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her daughter (Saoirse Ronan) when he offers a huge monetary reward to anyone who can contact his mother from beyond the grave.
Playing the famous magician meant recreating some of his famous stunts, including the Chinese water torture cell.
“There was a lot of training for the breath-holding stuff that we did, and working with the chains and Chinese water torture torches,” Guy says.
“I had to do a lot of preparation, learning to hold my breath for a really long time, to hang upside-down for a long while. So there were a variety of lessons I had to go and do, a few magic tricks. Not a lot of magic stuff, but a bit - coin disappearing, cards disappearing and reappearing, that kind of stuff. I didn’t know these before.
“It was astounding the stuff that I learnt as far as what we can actually do to ourselves to transform. I had quite a serious physical routine.”
It’s been a long road to movie stardom for 40-year-old Guy, who first found fame playing hunky teacher Mike Young in Aussie soap Neighbours during the late 1980s.
After waving goodbye to Ramsay Street, Guy made his first film breakthrough playing a mouthy transvestite in 1994’s Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert. Critically-acclaimed parts in LA Confidential and Memento came next, followed by the chance to play Andy Warhol in Factory Girl.
“That’s the interesting thing in a way, of being an actor,” he says.
“You just get to delve into people’s worlds for a little minute, get a taste of what things might be like.”
He freely admits to being hardworking and ambitious, yet Guy insists his Hollywood success happened by accident.
“I had no intention of going to LA,” he says.
“I wasn’t hugely secure in what I was really able to do at home and I thought, ‘why go to LA and be out of work when I can be out of work at home?’ I really just went there initially to do publicity on the back of Priscilla.
“Don’t get me wrong, I was ambitious and there was stuff I really wanted to do, but I wasn’t overtly ambitious. I just saw opportunities, I really made an effort to audition for loads of stuff and got lucky – I got LA Confidential. There are plenty of actors who could have played that role, so I just think I was fortunate.”
Rather than taking whatever comes along, Guy says he has always been picky about the films he decides to get involved with.
“I’ve got to feel like I can imagine myself in the role,” he says.
“Sometimes I look at things and go, well, this is a really good script and I love that director, but I don’t know how I’d do this. Other things I’ll read and I think, ‘wow, I can totally see myself in that role, I can clearly imagine it but I hate this director and I think it’s a terrible script. So all the pieces have to fall into place.
He often seeks advice from his psychologist wife Kate about taking on new parts. The childhood sweethearts have been married for 11 years.
“I’ll get Kate to read stuff and we’ll talk about it. I’ll say, am I missing something here? Is this cleverer than I think or not? So it’s not an easy thing sometimes. Other times it really is. Like when I read Memento, I could have shot that the next day.”
He admits that he had doubts about playing Houdini – to the point that director Gill Armstrong had to convince him that he was right for the role.
“I had just played Andy Warhol in a film where it was important to stay factually correct,” Guy explains.
“So a part of me was saying, ‘do I really want to take on the role of a self-promoting megastar?’ I said to Gill initially, ‘I don’t think I’m right for this’.”
Guy eventually accepted, but was determined to approach the character differently than he had for the iconic pop artist.
“Although I am playing a real person again, this was more of a ‘what if’ story, so I was able to let go of being so rigid with the research material and work within the world of the script,” he says.
His co-stars helped too – Guy says he got on famously with Catherine Zeta-Jones.
“I found Catherine delightful. She’s completely professional and really good at what she does, and she’s also warm and got a great sense of humour, so we all had a lot of fun.
Despite being a bona fide star with an enviable track record, Guy remains modest about his success to date.
“I don’t know what it is, it’s different things for different people, because some people just get lucky,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.
“Other people are exceptionally talented and it doesn’t matter what they do, they’re just going to succeed at it. Some people are just in the right place at the right time. It’s about persistence.”
? Death Defying Acts is released in UK cinemas tomorrow.