It didn't take long for unlikely action star Guy Pearce to earn his tough guy stripes on the set of "Lockout." All he had to do was perform some of his own stunts, including a number of complicated moves that left him with a host of injuries.
"I injured myself every week," he recalls. "Not necessarily major injuries. But I would pull a muscle in my leg or, one time, I fired a gun in this tiny little tunnel, and the bullet casing flew out of the gun and ricocheted off the roof and went straight down the back of my shirt.
"And of course, I had a flak vest on, which is kind of tricky to get off, and the casing was really hot. So, it burned a mark on my back in the shape of a bullet … I'm sure they have me on film going, "Oh, oh, oh, oh,'" he adds with a laugh. "I'm so nervous that's going to be on the DVD."
Like an Aussie Daniel Day-Lewis, Pearce thrives on transformation. One of the industry's ultimate quick-change artists, he's morphed from an uptight police detective in '40s Los Angeles ("L.A. Confidential") to a grubby outlaw tasked with killing his brother ("The Proposition") to a bitchy crossdresser on a tour of the outback ("The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.")
Even though Pearce has made movies in just about every genre from literary adaptations ("The Count of Monte Cristo") and mind-bending thrillers ("Memento") to creature features ("Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark") and war pictures ("The Hurt Locker"), he's rarely gotten the chance to play the swaggering action star.
With "Lockout," due in theaters Friday, April 13, he makes up for lost time. Newly buff and about 50 pounds heavier thanks to a regimen of "protein powder, lots of Serbian meat and weight-lifting," Pearce plays Agent Snow, an irreverent wise-cracker and tough guy.
"When I first met with the directors, they told me they wanted a leading guy who (the audience) could laugh at and laugh with," recalls Pearce, who was born in England and raised in Australia. "Snow kind of thinks he's pretty funny, but he's probably more troubled than he gives himself credit for or allows himself to be. And so he masks that with humor and being a smart aleck. I liked that."
Part sci-fi thriller and part blood-and-thunder actioner, "Lockout" has an international flavor. It was shot in Serbia, produced and co-written by the prolific French moviemaker Luc Besson ("Taken," "La Femme Nikita") and directed by the Irish team of Stephen St. Leger and James Mather.
When the movie begins, Snow is dispatched to MS One, a prison where the president's daughter (Maggie Grace) is being held hostage. The twist is that the prison is located on a floating space station where the world's 500 baddest criminals are kept in an artificial sleep.
As it turns out, one of Snow's best buddies is an inmate, and Snow is venturing into deep space as much to rescue him as to bring back the president's daughter.
"I enjoyed where Snow's head was at," says Pearce. "I loved the fact that he (could have cared less) about the president's daughter, he's just there for his buddy. I thought that was quite funny."
Pearce's Agent Snow has been compared to Bruce Willis in the "Die Hard" movies and Kurt Russell in "Escape From New York" and "Escape From Los Angeles." But the actor insists he didn't pattern Snow after any other action heroes.
"I'm sure subconsciously all those Bruce Willis-type characters sit somewhere in (my) psyche. But I find it best not to sort of delve back into that stuff too much otherwise it feels like you're sort of a plagiarist. I'm always struggling to try and feel original in what I'm doing."
Although he's only 44 years old, Pearce began acting in 1976. "I started my working life when I was 8 instead of 18," he notes.
Pearce became interested in acting around the same time his father — New Zealand-born air force test pilot Stuart Pearce — died in a plane crash. As a youngster, Guy began landing roles in theater productions. He also entered his share of amateur bodybuilding contests, eventually netting the title of Junior Mr. Victoria when he was 16. Two years later, he became a regular on the popular Aussie soap "Neighbours."
Since enjoying his film breakthrough in 1994 with "Priscilla," Pearce has rarely been without a job — or two or three. He's equally at home toplining movies ("Memento," "Death Defying Acts") or playing supporting roles ("Bedtime Stories," "Rules of Engagement," "Factory Girl.")
The actor isn't allowed to say much about his next film, "Alien" director Ridley Scott's much-anticipated, shrouded-in-secrecy outer-space thriller "Prometheus." The film, which co-stars Charlize Theron, Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender, is due in theaters in June.
While there's been some speculation online that "Prometheus" is an "Alien" prequel, Pearce insists that's not strictly the case. "You can connect the dots to the ‘Alien' films, but ‘Prometheus' is a standalone movie," he says, noting that his character Peter Weyland might be related to Charles Bishop Weyland from the original "Alien" series.
"The ideas and themes in the film actually far outweigh any of the ‘Alien' films. It's not an ‘Alien' prequel; it's something far grander."
After "Prometheus" opens, Pearce's career is a big question mark — and that's just the way he likes it.
"I really thrive on maintaining an openness to the universe and seeing what it brings me," he says. "I find that surprise is what keeps me going. Maybe that's kind of immature and maybe that's a part of me that needs to change. But at the same time, I don't think so. Spontaneity is where I find inspiration."