Geoffrey Rush Wants to Leave You Speechless

Actor Geoffrey Rush
Actor Geoffrey Rush

Geoffrey Rush, an Academy Award winner for "Shine," could be in the spotlight again on Oscar night when they call for THE ENVELOPE PLEASE for Best Supporting Actor. Rita Braver now with this Sunday Profile:

Geoffrey Rush has built a career playing the uncommon man … like the mentally ill pianist in "Shine."

The over-the-top Captain Barbossa in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.

The beleaguered theater manager in "Shakespeare in Love."

And when we met up with him a few weeks ago, he was happily shaving his head to play a madman on stage, because (let's face it) Geoffrey Rush has made a name for himself portraying off-beat characters.

Rush described them as "the drunks, the rogues, the ratbags, the idiots, the wise fools."

And he just got his fourth Oscar nomination, playing another quirky character: Fellow Australian Lionel Logue, the speech therapist who helped the future King of England overcome a stutter I "The King's Speech."

"The extremity of those two men, divided by continents and class, it just intrigued me how did they actually form, not only a professional relationship, but ultimately a very, very deep friendship," Rush said.

"Is it true that it all got started when a manuscript for a play was dropped off at your door?" Braver asked.

"This literally was a brown paper package on my front door mat in suburban Melbourne," Rush said.

Rush thought it would make a better film than a play, and helped develop the movie.

Still, he worried that it might not have box office appeal.

"Is it gonna be too dry? Is an audience gonna be involved with this?" Rush feared. "People will go, 'Oh, it should've been made for television,' or 'It should've been a play,' or maybe you didn't make the right choice."

The choice was definitely right! The film received 12 Oscar nominations this past week, including Best Picture.

Rush spends his down time Down Under … at his family's country home about an hour outside Melbourne, where he does "the occasional wood splitting."

He was born about 1,000 miles away, in Toowoomba. He got his first acting break when a theater director spotted him doing a nude scene in a college production.

"Used to bring the house down," Rush said. "It was provocative enough at the time and I always say I like to think he saw that I had a very big future in front of me!" he laughed.

He worked steadily, in play after play, throughout Australia.

"Jobs, interesting jobs were coming in, and I thought, 'Wow, I think I've got something that might be almost distinctly my own,'" he said.

"Did you dream, 'Oh, what I really want is to be an internationally known movie star'?" Braver asked.

"No, never, never, never remotely on the radar," he said.

His theater work led to his film career, but first there was a frightening detour - when he drove himself so hard he had what's been described as a nervous breakdown.

"I think I hit a brick wall there for a while," Rush said. "And experienced a kind of series of pretty frightening panic attacks that would seemingly come out of nowhere.

"It happened twice on stage," he said. "I had the classic - I saw the exit sign at the back of the theater, and left. It eventually faded.

"I mean, I did an interview like this for a colleague about eight years ago, and he said, 'So what happened?' And I said, 'Well, I think the cure was, I got an international film career!'" he laughed.

He's not kidding! Based on the true story of David Helfgott, an Australian pianist who suffered a mental breakdown, the 1996 film "Shine" helped Rush get through his own crisis, and much more:

"It swerved my career in a direction that was just completely unexpected," he said.

He won an Oscar for Best Actor, going on to become one of the few actors (and the only Australian) to win the Trifecta: an Oscar, a Tony (for "Exit the King" on Broadway), and an Emmy, for an HBO biopic about volatile actor Peter Sellers.

Rush said he was a little afraid to take on that role. "You bet. But sometimes it's good to be afraid," he said.

(Left: Rush with Charlize Theron in "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.")

But despite his big American career, Rush has never gone Hollywood - he always heads back home.

"Yeah. I suppose there's an Australian character that has informed who I am, what I am, and I want that to go through to my kids."

He has two children with his wife, Australian actress Jane Menelaus.

"We did a number of plays together," he said. "She's a wonderful, wonderful actress and a great tragedian."

She even played his wife in "Quills," about the Marquis de Sade. "And you were mean to her!" said Braver.

"That was all just done with stunt techniques!" he replied.

He may be a big time movie star, but he's currently putting on his own make-up, night after night, in a tiny Sydney Theater to play the lead in Gogol's classic tale, "The Diary of a Madman."

It's a role he first played in 1989, and one he'll bring to New York next month.

So why does he coming back to the theater?

"My L.A. agent actually defined it best, in a very, kind of brisk, effective way," Rush replied. "He said, 'Oh, I understand why you're doing that; sometimes you gotta go and sharpen the knife.'"

And at age 59, Geoffrey Rush is sharper than ever.

"What's the best thing that someone could say about you as an actor?" Braver asked him.

"That it stayed with them," Rush said.

"So you'd like to leave us speechless?"

"Yeah!" he laughed. "As a therapist, yes!"

For more info:
The King's Speech" (Official Movie Website)
Belvoir Theater (Sydney)
"The Diary of a Madman" (Brooklyn Academy of Music, Feb. 11-Mar. 12, 2011)