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Rush’s challenge: Being Peter Sellers

HBO presents fascinating story of actor

How to play a man who had a thousand faces, but none of them his own?

Such was the challenge facing Geoffrey Rush when he agreed to star in “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” a prismatic, fascinating portrait that debuts at 9 p.m. EST Sunday on HBO.

Sellers, who died in 1980 at 54, is today best remembered as Inspector Clouseau, the fractured French detective from the “Pink Panther” comedies. But in his full output of some 70 features, this British-born child of vaudevillians — who in real life had the bland good looks and ivory smile of a maitre d’ — whipped up a dizzying spectrum of characters, often juggling multiple roles in a single film.

That’s challenge enough for any actor bold enough to take on Sellers in a biopic. But an even weightier problem awaited Rush: how to capture what lurked at Sellers’ core. When stranded off-camera and out of character, Sellers lacked a firm identity to rest on.

“We have a protagonist who has no self-awareness, and cannot for a moment be clear about who he is,” says Stephen Hopkins, who directed “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.”

Amazing, then, that this film does justice to Sellers’ genius, and, thanks to Rush, corrals his mercurial psyche.

It helped that Rush is an admirer.

“Sellers,” he marvels, “was brilliant at creating a combination of very strange elements that would give you an absolutely indelible visual form for his characters.”

Consider, for instance, Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 masterpiece “Dr. Strangelove.” One of Sellers’ three roles was the title character, described by Rush as “the archetypal mad German scientist who also happens to be a sexual deviant dressed in a Beatles suit with sinister tinted glasses and a curly blond wig, in a wheelchair, with a robotic arm that often malfunctioned.

“You see him and you say, ‘I’ve never seen that, before or since.”’

But even more impressive, this performance, like all Sellers’ performances, resulted in a full-bodied person, however outrageous — not a comic stunt.

“He was an actor who managed to play crazy, extreme characters — and ground them,” says Hopkins. “You don’t question Dr. Strangelove when you see him, even though you should.”

Life on- and offstage
Rush gets to briefly portray Sellers as Strangelove. There are also fleeting re-enactments from other Sellers films including “The Mouse That Roared,” “Casino Royale,” “After the Fox, “Being There,” and, of course, Blake Edwards’ “The Pink Pather.”

But they are not the point, Rush says.

“This is not so much about Sellers’ screen life, but everything offstage. It begins in postwar Britain, the ‘boiled cabbage era,’ very drab — he was smack in the middle of that as a celebrity on radio. Then he was a huge film star in swinging London in the ’60s.”

Wild abandon paved the way to his initial, nearly fatal heart attack while on a honeymoon with his second wife, actress Britt Ekland (played by Charlize Theron). His brush with mortality didn’t help the stormy mood swings or reckless behavior.

“This is the portrait of a very troubled soul,” says Rush.

The troubled soul of Sellers-played-by-Rush even turns up impersonating some of the prominent figures in his life, pinch-hitting in key scenes as his mother, Peg (otherwise portrayed in the film by Miriam Margolyes), Stanley Kubrick (played by Stanley Tucci), Blake Edwards (John Lithgow), and his first wife, Anne (Emily Watson). Only through the medium of others, it seems, can he voice any insights concerning himself.

“He was always looking for guidance from powerful figures,” says Hopkins, “whether it was his mother, or Anne, or Kubrick, or Edwards, or Maurice Woodruff” — a charlatan psychic played by Stephen Fry. “Then, as soon as he trusted them and got close to them, he would fight them and repulse them.”

In unguarded momentsWith a further assist from makeup virtuosity, Rush passes from the roly-poly youth of Sellers on British radio’s popular “Goon Show,” on through to his final years — gaunt and infirm from his life of excess.

It was all very daunting when Hopkins asked Rush to come aboard.

Although no stranger to dramatic transformations — he won an Oscar for depicting a concert pianist with a nervous disorder in the 1996 film “Shine,” and delighted moviegoers as mossy-teethed buccaneer Capt. Barbossa in “Pirates of the Caribbean” — Rush found reasons to say no to this role.

“I have a different background than Sellers,” says Rush, 53, a native of Australia. “I look nothing like him, and I have no natural facility for accents” — of which the role required more than three dozen.

But then he was presented with a cache of photographs that helped change his mind. Candid shots, they caught Sellers unguarded and, perhaps as much as possible, disclosing his true self.

“You could see this faraway, melancholy, angry, depressed state going on inside,” recalls Rush, still wondrous at the artistry it fueled. “And I thought, ‘That’s the story. Just try to get some of that right.”’