Guy Pearce on Playing History’s Greatest Art Forger and Shooting Memento

A time traveler could throw an interesting dinner party just by rounding up all the historical figures played by Guy Pearce over the course of his career: Andy Warhol; Harry Houdini; F. Scott Fitzgerald; King Edward VIII; Errol Flynn.

Just be careful when you bring up that last one to Pearce himself, who is nothing if not unpretentious about his own work. “I always have to take a breath when I’m reminded of the Errol Flynn movie. One of the worst films in the world, and one of the worst performances in the history of cinema,” he says. “But thank you for bringing it up.”

Pearce has nothing to grimace about following his latest historical drama, The Last Vermeer, which recently arrived on home video and VOD after a 2019 film festival run and a planned theatrical release that was derailed, of course, by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Last Vermeer is one of those wild historical narratives that sounds so incredibly unbelievable that you’ll be scrambling for a biography (or at least a Wikipedia page) as soon as the credits roll. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the hedonistic Dutch painter Han van Meegeren was charged with treason for selling a valuable Vermeer painting to the Nazi Hermann Göring. It was a damning charge, until van Meegeren astonished the court with his defense: The “Vermeer” was actually a forgery he had personally painted and sold off as the real deal — fooling expert appraisers and swindling the Nazi in the process. It was the capstone to a secret sideline in recreating long-lost masterpieces by legendary artists that makes van Meegeren, even now, the most successful art forger in history.

The media frenzy from the trial turned van Meegeren into a Dutch folk hero overnight, though there’s considerable doubt about whether he was a daring, patriotic antifascist, or just an amoral opportunist. Pearce, who stars in The Last Vermeer as Han van Meegeren, manages to play up every angle, making van Meegeren into a complicated, charismatic chameleon who no one — including his staunchest defenders and his fiercest enemies — can quite manage to pin down.

Pearce talked GQ through The Last Vermeer, his upcoming reunion with Kate Winslet on HBO’s Mare of Easttown, and the 20th anniversary of Christopher Nolan’s cult classic Memento.

Guy Pearce in The Last Vermeer, 2020.Everett Collection / Courtesy Jack English for Sony Pictures Classics

GQ: Throughout your career, you’ve played so many real-life historical figures from so many different eras. Is your process for building these characters pretty standard by now? Or is it different every time?

Guy Pearce: You just delve into whatever material you can find. It depends on the time period. Books, audio, video. With Andy Warhol, there were a ton of great footage and recordings. With Harry Houdini, who died in 1926, there wasn’t that much — just black-and-white photographs and these strange, wax-printed audio recordings.

You really don’t get a sense of the personality of somebody from such old recordings. It’s hard to get a sense of someone’s natural behavior and psychology. Thankfully, in the future — when they make a film about the Kardashians — they have all this wonderful, real footage of how they are in real life. It’ll be really easy to play Kim Kardashian in 40 years’ time.

I can only go so far, though. At a certain point I have to put it all down because I need to take it on myself.

Even decades after his death, Han van Meegreen remains a complicated and controversial figure. Having done all that research, and spent all that time embodying him, where do you land on him?

Ultimately… I’m aware of his upbringing. The terrible ideas that his father instilled. His father would actually make him write, over and over again, about how he wasn’t worth anything. As a new dad — I’ve got a four-and-a-half-year-old boy, now — I can’t imagine anything worse. I just don’t understand how a parent can do anything other than encourage their children. If I was to say something like that once to my little boy… firstly, I couldn’t cope with that guilt.

But second: How would my little boy deal with that? So van Meegeren, who was brought up to believe he wouldn’t amount to anything, he discovered artwork, and painting and drawing, and decided to make a life for himself in the art world. Some sort of therapy, or value, or identity. I can totally understand that, and how that would have been a fantastic escape for him.

So then, to be denigrated by the art critics, and be told that his work is derivative and meaningless and tired — that must have just thrown him back into that awful pathology that his father instilled. And that’s too much. That’s a trauma. An incredible trauma. And an adult, forced to stay in the trauma he’d experienced as a young boy, no wonder he did what he did. What Han van Meegeren did was completely immoral and unethical, but I get it, in that way.

Do you think he might have had more success as an artist, on his own merits, if he hadn’t spent so much of the prime of his career making and selling forgeries?

Possibly. All artists take criticism, and we all hit brick walls, and we’re all made to feel that we’re failures. But you persevere, and you learn from that criticism and grow and develop. Or you don’t.

I think he was a brilliant artist. But apart from the Billie Eilishes of the world, or these other 20-year-old geniuses that get discovered because they have to… for a lot of other people, they have to work for 10 or 15 or 20 years before people go, “Hang on a minute, this person’s got something.” If van Meegeren had persevered, yeah, he might’ve. But he didn’t have the wherewithal. So I think he went, “I’m going to go around the back way and cheat it.”

And in a weird way I guess it all worked out. His story is so legendary that he’s become a kind of famous artist, and his paintings — even the forgeries — have become incredibly valuable.

The weird thing is that he was thrown in court for selling these Vermeer forgeries to high-level Nazis, and he got through the trial. And then he died six weeks later of a heart attack anyway. It’s like, Wow. Okay.

As a big fan of HBO’s Mildred Pierce, I have to mention how excited I am to see you team up with Kate Winslet again next month for Mare of Easttown. That’s another project that got interrupted by COVID, right?

Because of COVID I did one day, one year ago, back in March. In fact, it’s coming up on exactly a year ago, because it was March 12. I did one day and they shut us down. Kate had been working for a few months by that point, but I got just that one day. And we didn’t come back until September. But we did get to work together on our birthday, on October 5, so it was a bit of a blessing in disguise, in the end.

Was it hard to get back into that character’s headspace after a shutdown that quick and sudden?

No, it was fine. It’s hard to get back into a headspace if you’ve completed a project, and you think it’s all over — and then you have to go back six months later and do reshoots. That’s much harder. But [on Mare of Easttown], I hadn’t even really gotten going. I was just waiting to go back when the time was right.

We’re also around the 20-year anniversary of Memento’s original release in the United States. Looking back now, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think back to shooting that film?

Just being inspired by Chris all the time, to be honest. It was a quick shoot. 25 days. Five weeks, five days a week. All the color stuff in the film was shot in the beginning, and the last two days was all we had scheduled for my black-and-white stuff in the hotel room. I was rehearsing that stuff on my own, in my hotel room, every weekend. Lots of props and notes and photographs and tattoos, so when we got to that last two days, I’d be ready.

I always joke and say, “I’m only doing this job until I can become a first A.D.” I’m very aware of time on a shoot. And I kept saying to Aaron Ryder, the producer, “We’re not gonna be able to get this done in two days, man. I’m telling you. This is a lot of stuff.”

And as we were getting ready, he came up to me and said, “I’ve got a present for you.” And I said, “Really? What is it?” And he said, “Day 26. We’ll shoot on that Saturday as well.” He took my warning. And three days was barely enough to get all that stuff done.

How did you end up booking that movie in the first place?

I read the script for Memento, and then I watched [Nolan’s first film] Following, and just went, “Wow, this is incredible. I really hope I get this film.”

And I heard these stories where actors go on and on about how much they want the film. And they camp out on director’s porches, just so they can prove that they’re the guy for the film, and so people say, ‘Wow, he’s so passionate about the project!’

I find that stuff hard. My argument is: You’re either right for it or not. You wouldn’t turn up at the meeting if you weren’t interested, right? I don’t feel like that stuff’s necessary.

But I did say it to Chris. And he is still the only director I’ve said this to. “Chris, I wouldn’t ever normally do this, and I’m so sorry to even say it. But I just want you to know that I really love this and I really want to do it.” And Chris — in his fantastically English way — responded [affects an extremely convincing befuddled Christopher Nolan impression], “Oh. Okay. Uh. Thank you. Right you are.”

And I felt like such a dick. But maybe it worked! And it might have helped that I was cheap, too.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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