As bootlegging brothers in Prohibition-era Virginia, Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf play the heroes in Lawless, but Guy Pearce—as a foppish, corrupt Chicago law officer who heads to the South to get a cut of the siblings’ profits—is clearly the star. It’s his third collaboration with director John Hillcoat, after The Proposition and a small part in The Road. When we meet on a rainy evening at Cannes, the Melbourne-based actor, 44, says he’s anxious about his Chicago accent.
Why are you nervous about the accent?
You just don’t want to get that stuff wrong. I’m always aware of the people of that place that you’re potentially representing. The great thing about the dialect coach I worked with, Tim Monich—he’s a wonderful historian as well as a dialect teacher. He has some great stories to tell about why accents changed in certain ways, and certain class differences between the way people speak. I apologize if I offended anybody from Chicago!
How do you strike a balance between realism and stylization?
One of the things we talked about before doing this film was the strangeness of this man. The balance to me was about finding the strangeness that would be apparent to Tom Hardy and the locals when [my character] arrived, but also the strangeness of him perhaps if we were to see him in his hometown of Chicago. We wanted him to be perhaps even an outsider there as well.
You’ve been taking a lot of ’30s roles lately—Mildred Pierce, The King’s Speech.
It’s funny—it really is just a coincidence. I did two [recent] films set in outer space. Somebody says, “Oh, clearly you’ve got an interest in science fiction.”… Lockout and Prometheus are, to me, completely and utterly different from each other. Really, one could be on Mars and the other could be in 1916.
You first made a splash in the States with a period film, L.A. Confidential. Has your process of finding a character changed since then?
I don’t know that my process has changed. I’m just far more positive about the process now, and I’m far more confident with what I’m doing. I really sort of struggled with those times, funnily enough.
From when to when?
From when I was born to probably about ten years ago. I took a time-out in about ’02 and ’03. ’Cause I’d done [acting] since I was eight, so I needed to just come back at it as an adult and look at it from an adult’s point of view. Because everything I was doing felt like it was sort of based on the decision of an eight-year-old rather than as a 33-year-old or whenever it was.
A number of your films—L.A. Confidential, Memento—are considered modern classics. Did you ever sense that would be the case?
I don’t think so. Not that I thought they wouldn’t—I just didn’t think about it. But that’s like anything you do. You look back with not pride but pleasure at having been part of them. You question it as well—you go, oh, it was a lucky break.
You decided your eight-year-old self’s decision to be an actor was right?
Yeah. It was the 30-year-old, though, who decided to take it on as a career. It was the eight-year-old who was just the opportunist.
Lawless is in theaters now.