Guy Pearce on What Makes a Bad Man Seem Bad

Lawless, the new film written by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat, is about a band of bootlegging brothers in Franklin County, Virginia. Shia LaBeouf is the baby-faced one, Tom Hardy is the strong, silent one, and Jason Clarke is the drunk one. Guy Pearce plays FBI Special Agent Charlie Rakes, flown in from Chicago to hound the Bondurant boys into submission. Rakes, who combines punctiliousness with perversity, is part fop, part snob, and part fascist. He dispenses beatings with maligned glee and, in one throwaway shot that speaks volumes, dyes his hair as a naked woman sits dejectedly on a sheet of newspaper spread across his bed. The long arm of the law has never been so gnarly. He speaks with a bizarre cadence and wears a mondo hair style. We spoke to Pearce about both.

Charlie Rakes is a character who is caught up in his own view of the world in the weirdest kind of way. He is incredibly egotistical and narcissistic. He’s from Chicago and, when he arrives in Franklin County, is totally disgusted by the filthy living standards of the people in the backwoods. He has this disdain for them that I wanted to communicate.

Working on an accent is an interesting thing. I worked with Tim Monnick, who works with DeNiro and Blanchett. He’s a delightful guy and much more than a dialect teacher. He’s a real historian as well, and supplied me with recordings of people from that era. We call him the Voice Whisperer. We’d work on a dialect and he’d say, “No, that’s not quite it since that ‘R’ sound didn’t come in until the Irish influence in the 1940s.” He’s also very good at dissecting class. We ended up coming up with this particular Chicago accent of somebody who probably came more from the wrong side of the tracks than he would want to admit who constructs a mythology of where he came from. It’s just a really strange shape and melody—and intonation.

As far as the hair goes, it’s weird and we all talked about it being weird. We had seen reference images of men who have their hair slicked and parted down the middle. That was common at the time, but we wanted Rakes’ style to represent his extreme vanity, so we shaved the part and the eyebrows. I wanted him to be as foreign to the people of Virginia as they were to him. To have a complete alien come in and tell them their world is wrong is essentially what the movie is about, so we made Rakes as weird, vicious, and really disgusting as we could. It was a real pleasure