Film Scouts Interviews

Geoffrey Rush on "Quills"

by Andréa C. Basora
Memories of the Marquis: An Interview with Geoffrey Rush

Nov. 22, 2000

Director Philip Kaufman ("The Right Stuff", "The Unbearable Lightness of Being") describes the audience for his risqué new film, 'Quills' as "grown-ups who like good movies…. It's about serious subjects…. I think people want to see films that don't necessarily end when the lights go on ['Quills'] is something they can talk about in the days to come and it addresses things I think grown-ups are interested in." What they may be talking about most, however, is the astonishing performance of Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade. Based on the play by Doug Wright, "Quills" is an intricate fable about sexual, literary, and political repression that traces a fictional series of events at the end of the notorious Marquis' life. It is the turn of the eighteenth century and entombed in the insane asylum at Charenton, the Marquis is writing furiously and smuggling his lurid manuscripts out for publication with the aid of a comely laundress (Kate Winslet). When the secret gets out, the French government sends the distinguished and cruel Dr. Royer-Collard to take things in hand. A dark gothic comedy, "Quills" showcases the quicksilver talents of Geoffrey Rush as the charming, yet frighteningly volatile Marquis. What was it like to play one of history's most infamous libertines? Rush sat down to talk about it with

Q: It hasn't opened yet, but we're already hearing Oscar buzz about this film.
A: These are the kinds of films that open at this time of year. It seems like there is a 'winter season' in the U.S. when the hope is that your film will garner critical, maybe awards-type buzz because of the nature of the material. So Oscar buzz? It's kind of a perverse notion, the idea of an august body like the Academy having an affinity with this story.

Q: Do you think the fact it is a 'period' film will reduce the audience for 'Quills'? Or does it resonate enough with contemporary times to make it relevant?
A: There is a reticence to what is called a "period" film. But I think there's a shift happening here, because I think you realize that although the film is certainly set within the details of a different era, I'd like to think that it's pretty recognizable: the forces of repression versus expression, how if you suppress an artistic, or creative, or imaginative impulse--if you try and plug up a volcano it's going to blow out somewhere on the side of the mountain.

There seems to be, in some areas, a preoccupation that if anything is set in another era, that for it to be validated it needs to have contemporary relevance, parallels. To me they're so self-evident. This film is very much of its own time because, like our own time, this period in France--and it affects North America as well--we are looking at a pretty crucial period of history where Europe is dismantling centuries aristocratic, feudal structures and within a generation making a turnaround to democracy and social institutions that were there for all people. But at the same time that that is happening ideologically, you've also got the terror--there are all these contradictions and Sade is so representative of the so-called age of Enlightenment where superstition was being replaced by rational thought. You have Rousseau saying 'man is basically noble, man is basically good,' and you've got Sade on the other hand saying that man is a depraved, dirty little beast. And he almost seems to be prophetic about the centuries that follow. And you can see arguments over censorship and conflicts over sexuality, the nature of sexual deviance is very much part and parcel of its own time. And I think we have a kinship with it, because we recognize it. I think our circumstances are different now, but we're probably connecting because we feel the same terror and anxiety over the amount of change around us, and it's very hard to keep a clear grasp of a moral line.

You've only got to look at the Internet which is one of the most democratic and wild forces in contemporary life and like it or not, even though the noble side of it is, this is a fantastic technological tool that can provide great resources and great information exchange, it comes part and parcel with being a great site for the depraved side of human nature, for pornographic tastes--it seems like the hits on those sites are pretty frequent. I think by sitting back and watching the debate, and feeling involved, you get to some kind of understanding that this debate and this conflict is actually what it is to be human. It's there in the religious history of the world, it's there in the political history of the world. It's responding to all of that, rather than there being an easy aphorism to lead your life by. So, I don't know, Sade's writing is still pretty hard to top. When [writer] Doug Wright and I were filming in Pinewood studios, we'd dip into '120 Days of Sodom'--we'd be reading it in the dressing room and going 'Oh my god, this is outrageous!' There's a dark irony and a humor in how preposterous and fantastic it is--and it is.

Q: Is this the beginning of Geoffrey Rush, hottie?
A: I think the Marquis de Sade is probably the closest I will get to having a romantic lead--and that's probably a very good thing.

Q: When did you first read the Marquis de Sade's writings, and what was your reaction?
A: I would have been about 19. He was an iconic figure and acclaimed as a counter-cultural hero when I was at university in the late sixties, early seventies. Which is part of a pattern, because he seems to go in and out every couple of generations. And at that stage, we ignored the fact that he was an aristocrat and a monarchist--that didn't quite fit in with the political pattern of the time. But certainly in terms of what was happening in the area of sexual liberation, he seemed to be 'the man.' But that was an interesting time. I finished my high school in 1968 and was seeing films like 'Oliver!' and in 1969, my first year at university, we were seeing Alan Bates' penis and Olivia Hussey's breasts. My local record store was the f-word in one of the lyrics. There was a very celebrated censorship case in Australia for an actor saying the f-word on stage. A friend of mine was in the play and the cops would come and arrest him for being obscene in a public place. Eventually the case got thrown out of a higher court. It became a very representative debate and shifted legislation--and shifted thinking. You know, you saw it in Hollywood that year in films like 'Midnight Cowboy' and 'Easy Rider'--they all emerged in that very short period of time. So, of course, Sade was certainly on our extracurricular reading list.

Q: How did you prepare for role of Sade?
A: Well, Francine Du Plessix Grey, who wrote one of the biographies, 'At Home with the Marquis de Sade' (great title!), she outlined a psychological breakdown and I got very fascinated by that, because I knew that you can't play a legend or an icon, you can't play a tabloid figure from history--you've got to find out what would this guy be like if he came over to your place for dinner. How does a person relate to other people, if he's in prison, if he's a libertine, an aristocrat. How does he lie on a chaise long? There are lots of things behaviorally that you need to get in touch with. I was interested in the tantrums, the volcanic rage, the time bomb that this guy is constantly sitting on, given that he presents to you a very charming and dangerously witty persona. And events within his psycho-sexual development, as the Freudians would claim happens in the years of four to five, were pretty fascinating. There was a profile there that was interesting, to see what you could unleash at any given moment.

Q: Were you at all embarrassed by the frontal nudity in the film?
A: I think vanity had to be the first thing that you checked in at the door, in lots of ways. We shot it in sequence--it was [the director's] creative choice, and a pretty essential one--it was a bonus to be able to journey with the story and that quartet of central characters and the moral and sexual standpoints they come from. It starts off in a reasonably civilized way; Charenton is sort of in place, but once the Doctor arrives he and the Marquis are off on a path of argument that reaches a point where he is stripped of everything. They take away his writing equipment, all his stuff, and they strip him. So the nakedness of the man, as well as being a physically real one, is also a pretty significant metaphorical one. And somehow you're in that space when you're playing it and thinking about it, even though you do occasionally stop and go, 'What am I doing? Is this my job?'

Q: What were the most fun aspects of the Marquis' personality for you to inhabit?
A: Bitchy wit is a good area to play in. You know when the writer has given you great ripostes to arguments, that are powerful and strong--where you think, wow! I wish I could do that at dinner parties.

Q: Did you find that you were taking some aspects of the Marquis home with you?
A: No, I don't really work in that way. I do like to focus quite strongly in the workplace, but because I was working with my real-life wife on this--as the Marquise--we made a pact, certainly playing the de Sades, to not take our work home with us. Besides, we have plenty of dildos at home already….

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