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Hard act to follow: Guy Pearce earns praise as a musician

UNMISTAKABLE panic flashed across the face of David Bowie.

"You have inhabited a lot of characters when you're, y'know, playing your music," Ian "Molly" Meldrum had told him.

Bowie nodded. "How do you know which one's the real David Bowie?"

The urbane Thin White Duke had been unwittingly ambushed. And the shock was obvious. There was no answer.

Guy Pearce laughs.

"It's a good question," he says.

Pearce has "inhabited" a few characters in his time, too. His first high-profile role was Mike Young in the perennial television soap opera Neighbours, with a cherubic Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Craig McLachlan. He was 18.

Then he moved on to the big screen as a drag queen in The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

He's been the tortured, tattooed Leonard in Christopher Nolan's enigmatic cult mystery Memento, Charlie Burns in the searing, grimy The Proposition, a Rudyard Kipling-esque British soldier in Two Brothers, a demented FBI agent in Lawless, and a cartoon villain in Shane Black's Iron Man 3.

He was the single-minded, studious loner Ed Exley in Curtis Hanson's acclaimed crime thriller LA Confidential.

But at the moment, he's simply playing his music. And few of the things he's done before are as hard, he reckons.

The 47-year-old is sitting in his office in the Melbourne home he shares with wife Kate Mestitz, whose family still lives in bayside Geelong, west of the city where Pearce grew up. There's a guitar on the other side of the room, leaning next to a bookcase.

The less-than-tidy desk has a computer on one side and an open laptop next to it. Near the door is a pile of sneakers - "a pair for running, another for the yard and another for wearing out," Pearce says without prompting.

A window looks over a smallish garden - "that (view's) important … it's been my only link with the outside world at times," he says.

Pearce seems grounded. So why has he decided out of nowhere to write, record, play and tour with his own music?

"To start with, it's not out of nowhere," he says, without a hint of annoyance. He's been asked this before.

"I've played and written music for as long as I can remember," he says. "But I was afraid …"

And it was mainly journalists who were running the scare campaign.

"I'd mention music in interviews and they'd roll their eyes and say, 'you're not one of those actors who wants to be a rock star, are you?' Then I'd say, 'no, no … geez no'. And we'd laugh … and I'd leave it alone."

But music has been part of his life for a long time. Before he was a teenager, he sang in choirs, was studying singing and playing sax and keyboards. By 14, he was overdubbing and experimenting with voice, his own melodies and sound.

He's written countless songs, jammed with friends and played at festivals. He's also known for chewing interviewers' ears off about his love of music.

"I've always carried a guitar around with me and played … this really isn't anything new," he says.

So what made him decide to "go public" now?

"Michael Barker."

The New Zealander is a percussionist, drummer and multi-instrumentalist of some renown who Pearce met through Tim Finn. They became friends, and one day conversation drifted towards why Pearce had not recorded his songs.

"He just gave me this look," Pearce says, smiling. And then Barker took aim at sneering critics.

"He just went, 'if they don't like it, it's not for them'."

No ifs or buts. No judgments. It simply clicked. But for Pearce, his music is far more personal than his acting.

"Acting, you're fleshing out someone else's creation," he says carefully. "The character is essentially the writer's … But the music, the music is all mine … it's very personal.

"I like that it's like poetry - lyrics can be interpreted differently than they were meant, but that doesn't matter. It's part of the experience … It's a very personal thing for everyone."

Pearce decided to settle in Australia - close to family - rather than stay in Los Angeles. His mother Anne and his disabled older sister Tracy still live in Geelong.

"I'm not kidding myself … being based in Australia makes (being a movie actor) harder," he says.

"When there's something that might suit me on offer in LA or they ask me to read for a part, it's a case of, 'well, I'm due there in a couple of weeks … perhaps we can do something then?' But that's not really how (Hollywood) likes to work … It's all a compromise."

And it has reaped some benefits. It gives him more time to work on his music and to pick up roles like Jack Irish, in a few exceptional ABC mini-series. They catch the flavour of Melbourne, its history and its aspirations. And Peter Temple's eponymous, weary detective, solicitor and sometime-cabinetmaker sits easy with Pearce.

Life is not so much what might have been for Pearce these days - he astutely rejected the lead role in Daredevil years ago ("I didn't understand the comic, really … or the script"), and just missed out on playing Henri Ducart in Batman Begins ("It's cool … it was Liam Neeson's part").

It is more about what is. His album, Broken Bones, is impressive. Its nine songs were written and re-written over the past 20-or-more years, showing influences as broad as Jeff Buckley, Neil and Tim Finn, Muse and even Bowie.

He played two well-received shows  in Sydney and Melbourne before Christmas, and will tour with ex-Powderfinger guitarist Darren Middleton at selected venues  - including the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane - from January 31 to February 28.

And what about Molly's Bowie question? Pearce mulls it over, then says: "About me? Honestly, I don't have an answer either."

Guy Pearce and Darren Middleton's Broken Translations Tour plays QPAC in Brisbane on February 12 and the Nambour Civic Centre on February 13.