“This is going to be a giant poster wall, of pretty much every poster we could assemble from the early 70s until now,” says Geoffrey Rush, gesturing high on the wall in the corridor, just outside theatre one at The Arts Centre. “There’s a big montage of crying over there,” he continues, moving into the space and pointing at a set of television screens in the far corner. “There’s another montage of fighting, and then sword fights and gun fights and drunks and a flying sequence, and all of the deaths I’ve done. There’s a lot, you know…in 90 per cent of the films I’ve been in you think, ‘He’s not going to make it to the end’.”
Just a few minutes earlier, we’d met outside in the courtyard. Rush was on the phone for what seemed like a long while, pacing back and forth, waving his free hand up and down and smoking a cigarette. When he was finished he bounded up and introduced himself with a flourish of the right hand. Moving inside, he leaned over a scale model of the exhibition and began at the start. It’s a rather small space – especially when you consider the breadth of Rush’s international career – and it’s busy with people assembling glass display cases and hanging posters.
It’s just a few days before the launch of The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush – one of a series of exhibitions at The Arts Centre displaying the personal collections of famous Australian performers – and we take moment on the couch upstairs to look back at his colourful career in earnest.
Born in Toowoomba, Queensland, Rush joined the Queensland Theatre Company in 1971 and cut his teeth on the classics. He performed in The Importance of Being Earnest and Shakespeare greats like Hamlet and The Winter’s Tale. Speaking on life before the QTC, Rush describes the Queensland entertainment industry (in the same way his character from The King's Speech, Lionel Logue, would) as completely baron. “When I was a kid, relatively, in Queensland or Australia, you may have thought of it as a wasteland. There was no film industry,” he says.
In 1975, he moved to France to study at L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, in Paris. It was in Paris, under the guidance of Jacques Lecoq – the French theatre and mime teacher renowned for his holistic approach to movement - that Rush developed his unique style. Years later, Rush penned a letter in memoriam of his mentor, describing the period as essential to his growth as an actor. “Jacques Lecoq taught me how to fall over, get slapped and be a failure,” it said. “He also, I should add, taught how to get up and stand, to simply stand and be with myself, and with an audience.”
Some 19 years later, Rush stood onstage at the Academy Awards and accepted the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, for his portrayal of David Helfgott in the 1996 film, Shine. He was relatively unknown at the time, but his portrayal of the Australian pianist resonated with audiences around the world. Shine was produced on a shoestring budget, in relative terms, when you consider that the other nominees in Rush’s category were in big money features. Created by Scott Hicks – a local Australian director – Shine cost a miserly $6 million, compared to the $50 million spent on Jerry Maguire, for which Tom Cruise received a nomination.
Downstairs in theatre one, there is a display that encompassed the piano he played as Helfgott in Shine. His Oscar sat on the mantle, along with the Tony, the Emmy, his first Fantale wrapper, his Australian of the Year Award and a bunch of other accolades and heirlooms. Behind that there are costumes and photographs from his roles in the following years: the costume of Captain Barbosa from Pirates of the Caribbean, the suit he wore in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and the outfit of his character Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love. Along the walls there was a script from The King's Speech with scribbled out passages and quotes and hung letters of congratulations from Johnny Depp (signed as Captain Jack Sparrow), Cate Blanchett and Woody Allen.
While we chat, one intriguing thing about Geoffrey Rush comes to the surface. He’s achieved all of these accolades – dazzled audiences on Broadway, on television and on the big screen – all the while living in Melbourne and throughout, he has remained heavily involved in local culture. “The thing I like about Melbourne – and I’ve lived here since ‘88 – is the Melba foundation. There are vigorous, zealous, smaller, very prestigious groups like the Melba foundation, putting out Australian recordings,” he says, sitting up a little from his position on the couch. “You have the Wheeler Centre, which has now become a literary salon. You have the Recital Hall. These kinds of things really provide a strong cultural hub.
“I think that is part of Melbourne’s winter life. Because we do get together and have dinner parties and talk about politics or art or whatever…because it’s cold enough to have a fire and stay inside. I think that does something to the social pattern – it’s harder if you’re drinking champagne on a yacht on Sydney Harbour,” he laughs.
Rush has been a Melbourne citizen in many ways, too. In 2009, he rallied for the Victorian College of the Arts, joining a protest against generalised performance courses at the VCA. Before that, in 2004, he stood beside close friend Barry Humphries in a protest against the redevelopment of Camberwell Station and apparently, if you’re on the Alamein Line at just the right time, travelling towards Camberwell, you can sometimes see Rush tucked into the corner reading a book.
A few days after first meeting, we chat again at the exhibition opening. Rush is standing in front of the screens in the corner, making a speech before the lectern for television cameras. “For those critics who don’t particularly enjoy theatre or don’t like any of my films, this will not so much be an exhibition but more some sort of torture chamber,” he says, to laughter. “I do not presume that in all of this stuff I was necessarily good… It’s just what I did.”
The Extraordinary Shapes of Geoffrey Rush is on at The Arts Centre, until September 29.