Film

Geoffrey Rush: "I foolishly thought I wanted to be an astronomer"

Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush talks school rebellion, theatre obsession - and the 'startling thing' that changed his life

I have a fairly acute memory of my childhood. And there was a big change around the age of 15. I had been learning the piano since I was eight. My mum was a single mum, a working mum, very resourceful, and she wanted my sister and I to learn the piano. But around age 15 I fell out with the piano teacher and around the same time I entered the school drama club. To me, it was an oasis of creativity and freedom. I wasn’t sporty, and I wasn’t keen on the very regimented approach of my teachers, mostly men from the World War Two period, with short-back-and-sides cuts. My hair was past my collar. When I joined the drama group, I immediately knew they were my people.

At first in the theatre group we had art, music and drama teachers, who blessed me with their mentorship. But they all got moved on so we decided to run the club ourselves. We did hoary old plays like The Admirable Crichton or Arsenic and Old Lace. But though I was completely obsessive about being involved in the theatre and being in a rock band, I didn’t even entertain the idea of making a career out of it. I felt surrounded by creative activity but there was nowhere to put it. I thought I might end up a radio announcer or a teacher.

Geoffrey Rush with Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech

Sometime I look at old box brownie photographs of that time and I see this pimply, skinny kid who looks quite gawky. I don’t know if I could give him advice – it’s more the reverse, he still has an impact on me. Actually, we have pretty regular conversations. He taught me how to deal with a life of constant shifts and lots of eclectic influences. He moved schools a lot. He had a mum, two devoted grandmothers, an absent father… Then when he was 15 he met his stepfather, a shearer who knew about Beyond the Fringe and Samuel Beckett, a real old-school rural leftie who listened to late-night radio. I still feel a very strong, sharp connection with that teenager. He keeps reminding me to accept new stuff, always stay on your toes. So I would say thanks gawky teenager, for teaching me things that are still guiding my life in my 60s.

I remember my year 12 report. Until year 10 I was very academically sharp, top of the class. I was foolishly thinking I wanted to be an astronomer – my other great passion – so, under the wrong kind of teachers’ influence, was studying advanced maths and physics. My school report on year 12 was full of low marks for effort and industry and I told the headmaster that I disagreed with them. I said he simply didn’t know what I was doing with the theatre group. He threw me out of his office. I shouted out over my shoulder that I’d had a marvellous time at that school and now he’d spoiled it. I just felt there was an ignorance about how kids thrive.

I love musical theatre, I’m a straight show queen.

One of the most startling things in my life happened right at the end of my university years. The years 1969 to ’71 were a very vibrant time on Queensland state campus. We had a very right-wing state premier so there were a lot of demonstrations. University was full of thespians and Trotskyites. At the end of my time I got spotted by the director of the Queensland Theatre Company and offered a three-year contract. That’s still a very strong memory, when I was picked out. It turned my life around. I did my final exam on the Friday, then had my first theatre rehearsal on the Monday. In 1972 I put ‘actor’ on my first tax form. And I thought: this is good, I’m going to try to keep this up.

I’d tell my younger self it doesn’t have to happen when you’re 21 or 30. I worked with the Queensland company, then I went to Europe – including, of course, the theatre mecca that was London. I worked happily in theatre for about 24 years. Then my daughter was born and I thought, I’m on a state-subsidised theatre wage. That’s not generous. I have to start earning some money. I did about five auditions for Miss Saigon – I love musical theatre, I’m a straight show queen. I got down to a shortlist of two. Then suddenly I got the letter to say the film of Shine was going ahead. That was just my second feature film and I was 43.

Geoffrey Rush finally getting his break in Shine, 1996.

When I read the script of Shine, I did think, wow. I was used to Shakespeare and theatre scripts but the hero of Shine was not the king. He was the aberrant guy on the outer concentric circle. I felt he was like a classical holy fool. There was probably a tinge of autobiography, the way I found my way into that character. I’ve always been intrigued by the question of how can the outsider claim honourable status in the centre of the story. The film changed my life. I won an Oscar. I was suddenly on the radar. What did Hollywood do? They offered me a film about Liberace. Because he also played the piano. I had to say, I didn’t want to be the new face of the keyboard genre.

The King’s Speech was the first time I read an international story that contained a major Australian character. I loved the clash in that of the antipodean character and the regal character of the royal family. For me, it was a great experience – sitting at a table reading with actors like Derek Jacobi and Michael Gambon, thinking, wow this is it! We all knew it was a great story but we had no idea how that film would be received. It could have been dismissed as a niche British costume drama. But then we started getting the responses, and people were saying, it’s not about stuttering, it’s about finding your best self. And then it just rode the wave of the moment. I got a load of mail from people who said it really helped them. It had some beautiful outcomes, that film.

I’d tell my younger self, don’t think you’ll be past it when you’re 50. I was 43 when I made a fateful decision and I went from my long plod in the theatre and entered a new world working with heroes in international cinema. I’m in my 60s now and enjoying a period of my life which really only started when I was middle aged. That’s my accidental story. Everyone has one, and they’re all different.

Geoffrey Rush stars in The Daughter, out in cinemas May 27

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