For a movie about the life of Peter Sellers, who could possibly star as the comic genius who played Dr. Strangelove and Inspector Clouseau?
Answer: Geoffrey Rush, the man who played the Marquis de Sade and Leon Trotsky.
In “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” the Academy Award winner gave one of the Cannes Film Festival’s strongest performances playing the tormented title character and his pantheon of comic creations.
The role was so daunting that Rush initially turned the part down.
“I was very frightened of putting myself on the line,” the actor said Friday, before the film’s Cannes debut.
But after shooting the athletic sword-fighting scenes for “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” Rush felt ready to take on another challenge, he said. Then there was the lure of transforming himself, over and over again.
To play Sellers and his characters, Rush spent an average of five hours a day having his hair and makeup done. He had 38 wigs, plus false teeth, noses, chins, lips and cheeks.
“I used to love, in the theater, putting putty on my nose and socks down my tights and transforming myself in some ludicrous way,” said Rush, who played Russian revolutionary Trotsky in “Frida” and the imprisoned de Sade in “Quills.”
The new film, to air on HBO in the United States, is competing for the top prize at Cannes.
Living through moviesWhile Sellers never won an Academy Award despite two nominations, the movie about his life stars two Oscar winners. Besides Rush, there’s Charlize Theron as Britt Ekland, the Swedish actress who became his second wife. Emily Watson plays Sellers’ long-suffering first wife.
The movie follows Sellers’ rise from a radio performer in Britain to his successful career in Hollywood to his retreat to a Swiss chalet.
From the start, it appears that Sellers wasn’t easy to live with. Early in his acting career, he is cast alongside beautiful Sophia Loren. He falls desperately in love (though she doesn’t return his feelings) and decides to tell his wife and young children.
Sellers’ daughter asks if he still loves them. Of course, Sellers responds, “Just not as much as I love Sophia Loren.”
It’s engrossing to watch Rush tackle Sellers’ best roles. In one funny scene, Sellers prepares himself for the “Pink Panther” by shaving his beard into a trim little mustache while locked in an airplane bathroom. He emerges as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau and drives an airline attendant crazy with his antics and French accent.
Sellers played three roles in “Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” including the creepy title character with the misbehaving bionic arm. In one scene, Sellers’ mother comes to visit the set. When he sits down to eat with her, he stays in character as the mad scientist.
That happened in real life, said director Stephen Hopkins.
The movie suggests that Sellers was so good at playing other people that he didn’t have a solid grasp on who he really was. It was a lifelong struggle.
“If you really want to find out about Sellers, you have to watch his movies a lot, because I think that’s the only way he ever really spoke,” Hopkins said. “It’s the only way he could really get out what was inside him.