Geoffrey Rush and the fine art of a scam

By Helen Barlow

Geoffrey Rush is an unlikely villain in his role as a crooked auctioneer, writes Helen Barlow

No one suspects that high-end auctioneer Virgil, played by Geoffrey Rush, is actually running a forging scam in The Best Offer.
No one suspects that high-end auctioneer Virgil, played by Geoffrey Rush, is actually running a forging scam in The Best Offer.

In his new film, The Best Offer, actor Geoffrey Rush plays a workaholic auctioneer by the name of Virgil. He also, much to the actor's delight, strips off for a love scene with Claire, a nubile young heiress and art collector, played by Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks.

"It was a bonus extra, a bonus extra," quips the jovial 63-year-old of the scene.

But just in case the directorial intentions of Giuseppe Tornatore, who is most famous for 1988's Cinema Paradiso, may seem in any way frivolous, Rush is quick to point out that: "Giuseppe doesn't write soap operas.

"This story about a man who collects paintings is like a metaphor for obsession and isolation and insularity. He's being pushed to such a degree that I think it pushes the film into the territory of a noir thriller."

Although filmed in the lap of luxury in and around Vienna and Trieste and finally in Prague, the exact setting for the story is unnamed.

The thriller element comes via the fact that Virgil is running a forging scam, abusing his position as an expert in the high-end European art world. Yet no one would suspect this filthy rich, immaculately groomed gent of anything. For one thing he wears an array of tailored leather gloves. "There were as many as you saw in the wardrobe and they were all fitted by the most high-end glove-maker in Rome," an incredulous Rush notes of Tornatore's attention to detail. "We had them tailored like surgical gloves because I said they had to be like a second skin."

In the early 1970s, Rush, who hails from Queensland and now lives in Melbourne, studied in Paris under Jacques Lecoq where he developed the physicality he brings to so many of his performances. At the time he was "slavishly watching the movies from the great golden age of Italian cinema", he recalls, as well as those of his hero, Charlie Chaplin. Rush brings Chaplin-esque movements to many of his characters, including David Helfgott in Shine and Lionel Logue in The King's Speech. He gave it a go in The Best Offer too.

"I would always push it with Giuseppe, 'Can this be a slightly Bob Hope moment?'," he chuckles at the memory.

He admits he dabbles in art collecting. "I bought a painting recently but I don't buy a lot. My wife paints a little, my sister-in-law is an artist and my daughter has dabbled in paintings. There is a lot of turpentine around our house. The smell of art. We bought a couple of things once, but it was more to fill in wall space. I said, 'Something cheap and of a size that fits with the couch!'."

And Rush has only been to an auction once. "This was a long time ago. I think maybe my wife [actress Jane Menelaus] was wanting to buy a piece of furniture or a mirror or something."

So to help prepare for the role, Tornatore showed Rush footage of some of the New York's leading auctioneers.

"They are revered like orchestra conductors, maestros. If you get [a] particular guy you may make $10 million more, because they have a way of psyching the audience and selling at the right point."

Rush also got valuable insight from sitting down with legendary auctioneer, Roger McIlroy, who, like Virgil was very popular in the houses of Europe and London.

"First thing when he got on the set, he said, 'I don't want to see any namby-pamby use of the hammer. They grab it by the head and go, Boom!' It's really very dramatic. They sell something every few minutes. It's fast."

In his own field, few actors have been esteemed for such virtuosity as Rush.

In fact, he's a rare performer who has won the hallowed Triple Crown of Acting - the Academy Award for Shine in 1996, an Emmy for The Life and Death of Peter Sellers in 2004 and a Tony for Exit the King in 2009. Unlike the high-flying Virgil, though, Rush prefers to live a comfortable life with his family and maintain a good work-life balance.

"My two kids used to come to the Pirates of the Caribbean set in Hawaii during their school break," he says.

"You'd be surprised how many actors factor things around their kids' school holidays, otherwise you'd be the dad who went to sea and had children who wrote books about you."

Who: Actor Geoffrey Rush
What: The Best Offer, opens September 19

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