Guy Pearce stars in Traitor as Roy Clayton, an FBI agent who investigates an international consipiracy that involves Samir Horn (Don Cheadle), a former U.S. Special Operations officer suspected of being a Muslim extremist. The intelligent, intricate plot becomes more and more suspenseful as it progresses. Guy Pearce has previously starred in a variety of films such as Factory Girl, First Snow, The Proposition, The Hard Word, Memento, the underrated film Ravenous, and, most famously, L.A. Confidential. It was a real pleasure and privilege to interview him.
Overture Films releases Traitor nationwide on August 27th, 2008.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What criteria do you have for choosing your film roles?
GP: Well, I'm just generally fascinated in all walks of life I suppose. It’s not that I go out of my way to look for things that push a range necessarily, I just sort of read what comes in. And the things that are well-written, or feel like the characters are well-observed – you feel like they're real, as opposed to cliché. Even if sometimes the character might be a bit of a cliché, there might be some aspects to how they're written that I can still relate to, and that sparks my imagination. If it's a cliché and it doesn't spark my imagination, and I've got to come up with something, than I don't feel like I'll deliver an honest performance. I think it’s about pushing myself probably, but it's not that I'm consciously looking for it. I do read scripts and I just go, "Eh," and I just feel bored reading it. It doesn't necessarily do anything for me, so I wouldn't pursue it.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What kind of research did you do for your role?
GP: I did a very minimal amount. I don't like to have to do research, to be quite honest. It's a very fine line for me because if I'm having to do a lot of research, it's usually because there's something missing in the script. And in this case, the script was really quite detailed, and the information that I felt I needed personally in order to move forward and act was very much there. If it wasn't there, then I was certainly able to talk to [director] Jeffrey [Nachmanoff] about it. Having said that, I bought a bunch of books on the FBI and the CIA. I'm not a great reader anyway, so I'll kind of delve in and get snippets of stuff. But Jeffrey had done a tone of research before writing the script, and I always think it's the writer’s job to actually do all the work – do all the research – and then it's my job to sort of bring it to life on some level. It's very fascinating, though. The thing that I was very interested in was the lack of communication between the various organizations, and that is quite evident no matter what page you open up in any of these books when they talk about the history of the FBI. So that's what I was curious about, primarily.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What was it like putting on an American accent?
GP: It's hard. It sort of depends on what the accent is, and it depends on where you are as well. A Slipping Down Life was set in North Carolina but [it was] made in Austin, Texas, so all the crew had this twangy – not that it's that twangy in Austin as opposed to more rural parts – but still very different to North Carolina, but loose enough that I was sort of veering off in odd directions. So it depends on the accent, and it depends where we are. But Tim Monich, the dialect coach I work with, will send me interviews that he's done with people from various parts of the world. If I'm doing someone from Tennessee like [in] this film, I'llcall him up and he'll have a backlog of interviews of people from Tennessee, and send me those tapes. So I'll kind of listen to it every day on my way to work or whatever.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How have you mastered the Arabic language?
GP: Terribly. Absolutely terribly. It's funny, I don't remember things very well from shooting films. I don't know how actors remember slabs of dialogue from plays that they've done. I'll do a play for three months and then a year later I'll think, "I don't remember any of that dialogue."
NYC MOVIE GURU: What’s the significance of your character sporting a beard?
GP: I just wanted to make sure that I didn't look sort of preppy, clean-cut, L.A. Confidentialy. I wanted him to be tough on some level. I didn't want him to be the clichéd, sensitive good-cop kind of character. So, it just felt right. But there was a lot of beard discussion in the film because, traditionally, a lot of [FBI agents] have goatees or whatever, so there was a lot of discussion of who was going to have what goatee where.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you feel about Traitor opening during an election year?
GP: I'm kind of caught in my own little bubble whenever I choose to do work. I guess I'm aware that things come out and people see them, and you're going to offend someone somewhere along the line. I like to be involved in things that make people think, and I'm aware that that's a precarious place to be because if people are pushed outside of their comfort zone, it's going to be tricky for some, I think. And it's even tricky for me in this kind of situation I suppose, because I don't necessarily have all the answers when it comes to the films that we make. I find in making films that my understanding of what it is that we've made, and what it is that we've done, develops over time. I understand the emotional state of the character that I'm playing – that's the thing that takes me into the world. And I actually get a little bit nervous with how I'm going to deal with it all when it comes out and I've gotta be the one out there like, "Well it's a political thing, and I don't really know what the situation is exactly…" So I'm throwing myself into the deep end as much as I'm forcing anybody else to be thrown into the deep end too. But as an actor, what I believe I'm able to be convincing with is performance, and then we're all sort of thrown into it together and we all go, "So what do we think of what we've just presented?" It's a funny thing actually. I think some actors are great. Some actors have a great understanding of every perspective on a film when they're in the film – as any great commentator, or somebody watching the film – whereas I tend not to. I'm so caught up in my own little bubble, that it then takes me awhile to see it. If I hear people talking about the film and I hear people's perspective on it – even a film like Memento – I'm like, "Alright, yeah, I've never really looked at it like that! That's interesting." So it's a learning experience for me as much as it is for anybody else.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you know when to trust a film director?
GP: It's tricky because you often only have some phone conversations and a few meetings. I've gotten better at asking a series of very specific questions and seeing how they respond to those. But I think it's just an instinctual thing, in a way. You need to know if you can push them, or they can push you, and there'll be some support there. I didn't meet Jeffrey [Nachmanoff] until after I'd agreed to do the film. I spoke to him on the phone a few times. He's very articulate and has a great understanding of all sorts of things, really – he's one of the smartest people I've ever met. But to actually sort of sit down and chat with him, I had to say, "These are some things that are really gonna bug me when we make the film, and I really need you not to do them, because I don't want to waste time, etc." And quite often I find – particularly when you're dealing with a first-time director – they generally feel like they need to be directing you all the time, as if you haven't read the script and don't know what it is you're doing. Quite often I'll say, "Look – how I'm able to actually work today, in filming, I could've actually done it the day after I read the script. The thing that helped me decide to do this film, which is an emotional feeling, meant that I could have come the next day and started shooting straightaway, so I don't need you to tell me my motivation. And I don't need you to ask me to close my eyes and think of the color red and how that makes me feel, so just tell me if you want me to do it faster or slower." So I've learned a lot about myself over the years in what I need and what I don't need as well. I feel like you can get irritable quite easily, and if someone's getting in your way then that's almost worse than not getting enough direction from somebody. I'm a bit of a control freak, I suppose.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How does you being a control freak affect your relationships with directors?
GP: I think if you're honest about it, people are generally quite thankful in a way. I think some directors go, "Well that's great. That's one less thing I have to think of. If you're self-reliant…" Like I'll often say, "Don't tell me a whole load of stuff unless I'm doing it really wrong, or unless I ask you. I don't need you to explain all this stuff to me." So that is one less thing they have to think about.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Would you ever consider becoming a film director?
GP: I'm fascinated in it, and I've done little short films with friends at home. The behind-the-camera part is really appealing to me, but I think all the other stuff – the years of trying to raise money, and trying to pull everyone together – I don't know if I'd have the consistency to deal with that. But as far as communicating with actors, and trying to amp-up some nuance here or lessen something there, and where to move the camera – I think I'd be comfortable with that. I don't know that that necessarily means I'd want to be a director, I'm just very comfortable on set. And a lot of it comes out of frustration. I see people trying to get things done, and I think, "If they just said that… if they just did that…" And quite often I'll just put my hand up and go, "Excuse me! Might it help if we just do this and this?" Because I'm very aware of time being wasted on film sets.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What messages would you like audiences to take away from watching Traitor?
GP: Everyone's going to take away something different, and I think on a general level, I would hope that ultimately people could open up their minds a little bit more. And I think the film cuts a nice line between a subject that is difficult, and it's a film that I feel is relatively commercial in a way – its got a fairly accessible quality to it. The film feels more studio-oriented than an indie art film that no one's going to go and see. I'm not suggesting that it's going to answer all the worlds problems as far as prejudice goes, but I think that if people are able to sit through it. I think one of the great issues that's going on at the moment with the West and the Middle East is it's very easy for us in the West to go, "Them over there in the Middle East are so vastly different to us, that I'm not even going to make the effort to understand anything about them." And the thing that we're constantly being told, inadvertently or advertently, by people like George W. Bush, are that, "They're the bad guys, and we need to be scared of them" – which is just the worst possible way of viewing anybody ultimately. I'm not saying that our film is going to solve that by any means, but at least it's a slight attempt to present something to people who may fall into the trap of believing rhetoric like that and going, "Oh actually, I'm a man of faith too, and they're people of faith, and so maybe we have more in common with each other than I may have initially thought." But as I say, I think everyone responds individually, and people take away different things. I'm sure there will be people who respond negatively to it. I mean someone said to me yesterday, "Why is every Muslim man in the film a terrorist?" But Jeffrey said, "This is the film we're making. This is the story we're making. You can't please everybody all the time."