First, let’s rewind. The year is 1979, and two struggling Australian stage actors are playing Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. To save money, they share a tiny house in the suburbs of Sydney. The house has no furniture; they sleep on the floor. One has just appeared in a movie — a scruffy, apocalyptic romp called Mad Max — but neither roomie can really imagine hitting the jackpot halfway across the globe in Hollywood.
Godot works in mysterious ways. Seventeen years later, the two actors — Mel Gibson and Geoffrey Rush — find themselves hitting that very jackpot. Sure, they’ve used different methods: While Gibson marched off to America to kick butt in Lethal Weapon, Rush opted for the road less traveled, staying down under to hone his craft in plays by Chekhov, Mamet, and Shakespeare, and gradually emerging as Australia’s top theater actor.
But this year, thanks to his performance in a lyrical Aussie film called Shine, Geoffrey Rush is suddenly getting a Hollywood reception that lives up to his surname: Oscar talk, red-carpet premieres, eager emissaries from CAA. All this, and it’s only the guy’s second trip to the States. ”It may be giving me an exhilarating but false impression of the country,” says Rush, 45, mirthfully slopping french fries in ketchup at a Manhattan eatery. ”Because I seem to be feted wherever I go, rather than being a completely nondescript nobody.”
Rush is far from nondescript. Tall and gangly, with a shock of dark hair and a jester’s gleam in his eye, he could be Charlie Chaplin crossed with an outback edition of Ichabod Crane. But he’s right about the ”nobody” part. When Shine‘s director, Scott Hicks, went hunting for the perfect actor to play David Helfgott — a virtuoso pianist who mutters like a madman and burrows his face into female cleavage without warning — he knew he’d found his Mozart in Rush. But the choice hit a sour note with investors.
”In solving one problem, I created another in terms of the financing of the film,” Hicks explains. ”Because Geoffrey was not only unknown, but he had no film credentials to speak of.” As Hicks and producer Jane Scott tried to drum up funding for Shine, the news of their casting coup ”just fell with a clunk onto the table,” he recalls. ”Everybody wanted to get rid of Geoffrey and to cast ‘known quantities’ as actors.”
Hicks stood by Rush anyway, and the gambit paid off. After making the film for a bargain-bin $4.5 million, Hicks watched Shine turn into a phenomenon in Australia and a hot ticket on the international festival circuit. When Shine rocked the Sundance Film Festival last January, all those reluctant benefactors were now literally screaming to get a piece of it. Miramax cochairman Harvey Weinstein flew into a rage and got tossed out of a restaurant upon learning that an archenemy, Fine Line Features, had snatched the rights to release Shine in North America.
But let’s rewind again, to 1986. One night, on a lark, a filmmaker in the Australian city of Adelaide goes to hear a ”comeback” recital by a mad genius named David Helfgott. ”I was so astonished by what I saw that I approached him and his wife and said, ‘Look, can we talk about the idea of a film?”’ remembers Scott Hicks, now 43. ”That was the beginning of this 10-year odyssey.”