Q&A with ''Peter Sellers'' Geoffrey Rush -- The Oscar-winning actor discusses his new HBO biopic about the temperamental comic legend

Geoffrey Rush, Oscar winner for Shine, tried on 40 voices and 38 wigs for his tour de force as sad Pink Panther clown Peter Sellers in HBO’s Dec. 5 biopic, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, which sketches a dark picture of the film genius who once trashed his flat and threatened suicide when his wife made him angry. Rush, however, was all smiles when we met him at his Manhattan hotel room, and he didn’t throw a single piece of furniture.

Sellers died in 1980. Will younger audiences know who he is? You do find there’s a cutoff point around the 40- or 35-year-old mark where people go ”Who?” Or ”Aw, yeah, I’ve seen The Party.” I think that’s still a reefer movie for people.

Yeah, it is! Birdie num-num… It’s a generational thing. I spoke to Peter’s agent, who said ”Never forget” — but people have forgotten? — ‘in the mid-’70s the Pink Panther movies were made for around $3 million, which was a big Hollywood budget at the time, and they made well over $30 million.” Now a film can cost $80 to $100 million, so they’d have to make a thousand million dollars to compare. This is Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, Titanic territory. Sellers was doing that on slapstick comedies about a mad French police inspector.

And he was a monster in real life. Is there something about being an actor that drives people to horrible acts in private? My life doesn’t have the same chaos and pain that Sellers’ did. And I’ve been lucky. Most films I’ve worked on have had large casts, but they’ve been wonderful people. I think the monkey in Pirates of the Caribbean is the most temperamental costar I’ve had. It would throw tantrums like you wouldn’t believe.

With Quills and Shine and this, you’re cornering the market on real-life disturbed geniuses. I can see how people join those dots, but I never think of them in that way. If there’s a link between the characters, [it’s that] they’re all artists. I don’t think of them with a psychiatric reference point. I mean, if I wanted, I could say Pirates, Frida, and The Tailor of Panama are my ”tropical films” [laughs], you know what I mean?

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers
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