Rush is an entirely inappropriate name for the wiry 62-year-old Australian actor. He spent ten years on stage before venturing into film, and it was a further 15 years before he won an Oscar for Shine in 1996. He was over 50 when he made his first appearance in Pirates of the Carribean and almost 60 when he starred in box-office sensation The King’s Speech. Geoffrey Rush is not a man in a hurry.
In person, he’s laid-back and avuncular, with a habit of folding his hands and gently tapping his feet as he talks. His answers to questions are long and detailed and his voice becomes slower and deeper as his sentences stretch out. Sometimes all you can hear is a rumble.
In Hollywood, where the accent is on youth, fast living and overnight fame, he’s an anachronism. He works for the love of the craft rather than the perks of celebrity and is well grounded in family, community and theatre. Asked what makes him happy he says classical music, Broadway show tunes and his children.
Would he consider living in LA? “No,” he responds. “I’ve never had the need to. I live in Melbourne. My son is just doing his Year 12 exams as we speak and my wife and I wanted both our children to be educated where we grew up.”
His film career, the way he tells it, is more a product of accident than design. “By the time I did my first proper lead role I was 24 years into a theatrical career and I just felt that Shine could be a fabulously interesting one-off. It turned out not to be that and the subsequent choice of material has ranged from some big budget studio films like Pirates to the mini majors.”
It was 2010’s The King’s Speech, where he played maverick speech therapist Lionel Logue, that put him firmly back in the spotlight. The story of Logue’s relationship with Prince Albert (later George VI) first landed on Rush’s desk as a play back in 2005. He liked it, but didn’t want to commit because it would have involved living in Britain during his daughter’s last year of high school. However, Logue continued to intrigue him.
“I’d never heard of him before,” he admits. “He wasn’t a celebrtated figure, certainly in Australia. I just liked the relationship between the two of them and told my agent that I thought it would make an interesting film. I became kind of executive producer on it at the beginning to get it kick-started and then Tom Hooper and Colin Firth came on board.
“Even when we were shooting it, I had uncertainties. The scenes between Bertie and me, which take up over half the film, were all shot in seven days. I couldn’t think of many films where two men sit in a room and talk a lot. I wondered whether it was going to work. Tom assured me that it would and he was right. It found a connection.”
Rush admits to “mixing things up a bit” in the roles he accepts. He says he doesn’t want to be typecast and relishes a challenge. However, he’s aware that despite the switches in nationality, occupation and period, he frequently plays men who are good listeners and counselors.
“If there is a strange linking thread between all my roles, from Walsingham in Elizabeth to Trotsky in Frida and Logue in The King’s Speech it’s that I’m a mentor. There’s more of that than not. I’m there to help people.”
And he is there to help again in his latest role. The film adaptation of Markus Zusak’s phenom- enally successful The Book Thief, a young adult novel set in Nazi Germany, stars Rush as Hans Hubermann, the foster father of teenage Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), who shelters a young Jewish exile (played by Ben Schnetzer). In the film (in cinemas from Friday 21 February), Rush charmingly portrays Hubermann as a kindly, slightly disheveled painter and decorator who has fallen on hard times because of his reluctance to toe the Nazi party line.
“It was such a contrast to what I was doing at the time,” he explains. “I’d been doing plays by Ionesco and Wilde, and the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. These were fairly boisterous and bombastic parts and so I was attracted to the ordinariness and simplicity of this man. It was a challenge for me. I don’t normally enter this kind of territory.”
Key to his performance is the way he connects with the Canadian actress Nélisse, who celebrated her 13th birthday while filming at Studio Babelsberg in Berlin. “He was so much fun,” she confesses. “He told jokes and showed me these magic tricks. Sometimes we’d do these really intense scenes and I’d be laughing so much that I couldn’t continue. It didn’t feel like going to work. It felt like going to see a clown.”
It would be a mistake to be fooled by Rush’s light and languid exterior, however. He takes his craft seriously and has won four Screen Actor’s Guild Awards, three Baftas, two Golden Globes and an Emmy, alongside that Oscar and numerous theatrical awards. True to form he neither wants to hide his awards in the toilet nor build a trophy cabinet. He’s proud of what he’s achieved but wouldn’t ever let it to go to his head.
“It’s a historical accolade,” he says of the Oscar, “and I quite like the augustness of the Academy. I keep mine on a shelf in my study surrounded by a lot of small theatrical memorabilia, particularly from the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney where I worked a lot. I’ve put those round the base both to give the Oscar some company and to keep it in constant visual perspective.”