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RUSH, GEOFFREY: A Little Bit of Soul

NO RUSH TO HOLLYWOOD.
During a long, slow lunch, Geoffrey Rush tells PAUL FISCHER why he is in no rush to storm Hollywood, happy with A Little Bit of Soul. . .

The year was 1980, and this would-be journalist, then a drama student at the University of NSW, happened to get free tickets for a small production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. I needed to see it, because I was going to interview one of the young actors, a new and exciting star, I was told. The guy in question was Mel Gibson, and his co-star was his flat mate, even less known: one Geoffrey Rush, no less. Almost 20 years later, Rush he smiles bemusedly at the memory, and the irony of last year's Academy Awards. "It was funny; I had just won the Best Actor award, and Mel was on his way out to present Best Director. We passed each other back stage, and he just winked at me, then congratulated me. It was a strange feeling."

Unlike Gibson, the Queensland-born Rush preferred the sanctity of the theatre, garnering an extraordinary reputation. After wowing audiences on screen in his Oscar-winning Shine, Rush has changed the pace, first as Godfrey Usher, a boozy Federal Treasurer who may be the reincarnation of the Devil, in Peter Duncanís farcical comedy A Little Bit of Soul, then as Javert in Les Miserables.

"It was a hoot doing this, hanging out in the country for several weeks doing this subversive comedy."

In Duncanís film, David Wenham plays the nerdish scientist Dr Richard Shorkinghorn, who has devoted years of his life to finding a process to reverse the effects of ageing. He is invited to the weekend retreat of Grace Michael (Heather Mitchell), the head of the Michael Foundation, to further discuss funding for his experiments. He is shocked to learn that his former assistant and ex-girl friend Kate (Frances O'Connor) is also working on a similar experiment and has also been invited for the same reason. The two scientists try to impress their host and Graceís husband, Usher, in an attempt to get the vital grant necessary to finish their work. But the weekend holds some unexpected surprises for the pair, including murder, mayhem and the Occult.

"It was a hoot doing this, hanging out in the country for several weeks doing this subversive comedy. One doesn't get a chance to do it often, and loved doing a high-handed style of comedy. I think its roots would probably be in the Howard Hawks/Billy Wilder vein of screen comedy. With this, Duncan has taken the weekend in the country notion - young couple go to visit sophisticated society, older couple in the country, with strange things added to the mix."

He doesn't think audiences are likely to compare the film unfavourably to its more intellectual predecessor, Children of the Revolution, on which Rush and Duncan also worked together. "I don't think Peter will mind the comparison anyway. I wanted to endorse the project as much as I could to say that this is the sort of film I want to be involved with here, because we're doing it on a lean budget and creatively."

"It's just a fun piece, nothing inherently serious, though Peter [Duncan] does allow his Leftish politics to sneak in there."

There are some choice moments in A Little Bit of Soul, in which Rush, as the film's farmer/politician, is the spitting image of Malcolm Fraser. Coincidental, Rush insists. "There was a kind of Fraseresque influence there, but it wasn't a conscious thing. He was a created character; he's not even an amalgam of known treasurers. It's just a feel for that kind of post-Reagan politician that seems to be somebody that's operated through spin doctors and sound bytes. These are the kinds of politicians who, on the campaign trail, know precisely when to drop their 6 p.m. sound bytes for the evening news, the one that's going to encapsulate that day's activities."

Yet Rush wants it known that A Little Bit of Soul plays it all for laughs. "It's just a fun piece, nothing inherently serious, though Peter [Duncan] does allow his Leftish politics to sneak in there." They shot the film very quickly, reminding Rush of the "real purity of the process and the guerrilla tactics of movie making. It was great." He relished the film's dangerous political undertones. "I loved the idea of playing this Federal Treasurer who confesses, drunkenly, that when he gets up to talk in Parliament, he has no idea what he's talking about. This is wild, plus there's a modern Faust story underpinning the whole thing."

The 48-year old Rush was born in the small town of Toowoomba and raised in Brisbane, and also spent two years in Paris studying at the Jacques Lecoq School if Mime, Movement and Theatre.

"Even when I was filming it, I would drop him every night. I'm not that sort of actor that needs to stay with it." on playing David Helfgott in Shine

Rush's film career was slow in developing. He made his debut in a bit part in Gillian Armstrong's gaudy musical comedy Star Struck (1982). With Neil Armfield's problematic Twelfth Night (1986), Rush had his first significant film role as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. He had his first lead as the oldest son of Leo McKern and Joan Sutherland in "Dad and Dave - On Our Selection" (1995), a comedy about a turn-of-the-century family living in the Australian bush which also featured Shine co-star Noah Taylor.

But it was his portrait of the adult Helfgott suffering with mental illness in Shine that established Rush as a film star. He earned glowing notices and several prizes including the 1996 Australian Film Institute Best Actor Award, the Screen Actors Guild Award, the Golden Globe Award, the Film Critics Circle of Australia Award and the Oscar as Best Actor, amongst many others.

Having spent almost a year intensely promoting Shine, Rush says that ridding himself of Helfgott was never tough. "Even when I was filming it, I would drop him every night. I'm not that sort of actor that needs to stay with it."

Following the release of A Little Bit of Soul, Rush will be seen in the highly anticipated film adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, co-starring Liam Neeson and Clare Danes. As the obsessive jailer, Javert, Rush plays a truly classic character, directed by the formidable Billie August. "Being from a European school of storytelling, he's allowed very deep, mysterious, reverberative undercurrents to emerge through the film, without it all being signposted and emotionally signalled."

"It's funny how you suddenly get pigeon-holed, but at least the stuff I'm doing is genuinely interesting."

Apart from Little Bit of Soul, much of Rush's next work will all be costume dramas, from Les Miserable to the upcoming Elizabeth I (starring Australia's Cate Blanchett) and his next film, Shakespeare in Love. "It's funny how you suddenly get pigeon-holed, but at least the stuff I'm doing is genuinely interesting." Not long after our leisurely lunch, Rush would be heading back to Los Angeles where he's be presenting the forthcoming Oscar for Best Actor. "I'm now a member of the Academy, and I get to vote for this stuff, which is so fantastic." He would offer no predictions but admits "to being dazzled" by Nicholson's performance in As Good As It Gets. "And I adored Wag the Dog." Rush may not necessarily be after Hollywood stardom, but he concedes "that at least I get to do what I love."

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PETER DUNCAN

"I loved the idea of playing this Federal Treasurer who confesses, drunkenly, that when he gets up to talk in Parliament, he has no idea what he's talking about."

"There was a kind of Fraseresque influence there, but it wasn't a conscious thing."

"I'm now a member of the Academy, and I get to vote for this stuff, which is so fantastic."







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