Guy Pearce rolling with the punches on new TV series Jack Irish
In the dimly lit recesses of the Greyhound Hotel in St Kilda, Guy Pearce's Jack Irish is looking worse for wear.
Dejected about his progress on a case and already bloody and bruised following several related dust-ups, the sometime private eye has been drowning his sorrows. In the process, however, he's become a punching bag for a bigger bloke whom he's imprudently riled. And it's not the first time that Jack will be wounded in the six-part series. Pearce notes with a chuckle that the make-up team had its work cut out keeping track of the injuries: "It was like, 'OK, so it's day four of this bruise and day one of this cut and day six of this bandage'."
Pearce reckons that "Jack cops more than his fair share of beatings" as he goes about his business in a series that sees him trying to find a missing missionary, reluctantly investing in a horse, taking up with an artist, and downing the odd beer at his favoured watering hole, the Prince of Prussia.
As he lurches around this pub in a scene from the penultimate episode, battered, drunk and dishevelled, he's not looking like classic hero material. Which is, of course, part of his charm. As producer Ian Collie notes, the protagonist created by author Peter Temple is "a Jack of all trades": a private investigator, former lawyer, fixer, widower and apprentice cabinetmaker. He's less of a front-foot action man than someone who drifts along, accepts an ostensibly innocuous job and finds that he's at the centre of a maelstrom.
"On some levels, Jack's a bit like a little toy boat that's bobbing around in the ocean," says Pearce. "He gets swept left and right and goes 'Oh, I'm over here now, I'd better deal with that then'."
The series marks the first original Jack Irish production, following a trio of telemovie adaptations of Temple's books: Bad Debts and Black Tide (2012), then Dead Point (2014). Written by showrunner Andrew Knight with Matt Cameron and Andrew Anastasios and incorporating elements of Temple's White Dog, it's a crime story enlivened by the author's trademark laconic tone, conveyed through dialogue that fairly crackles with dry wit.
"Temple loves to put that blowtorch to the underbelly of corruption and greed," says Collie. "It's a favourite theme – how power corrupts the soul. We'd covered a lot of things in the adaptation of the three books: drugs, corrupt developers, corrupt politicians. So we were trying to find an area that felt a bit fresher without treading over similar terrain. White Dog gave us a few ideas, but we were also interested in the whole concept of faith and streams of faith. We also wanted to get Jack out of Fitzroy, that sort of slightly insular world that's his community. We're all part of an international community and the events in Paris brought that home. So religion also came into it, because of terrorism but also a whole sense of anxiety and uncertainty in the world. We thought that was an interesting theme to explore."
The move from telemovies to a series was the result of programming and promotional realities. "It's hard selling telemovies now, even with Guy Pearce attached," says Collie. "Most broadcasters have slots of one hour, not 90 minutes."
Knight adds, "I was a bit reluctant to do a series, but we came up with a good plot and Guy was keen to do a series, not a 13-parter, but a contained series exploring one big theme".
Knight, who also co-writes Rake, says that the underlying theme of Jack Irish is fear, while, with Rake, it's frustration. He mentions that Pearce was involved in the script development, attending writers' meetings, although the actor reckons he didn't contribute much: "We have fun together and, to be honest, I was sort of in awe, watching Andrew and Matt and Andrew pull together the many threads and weave a story," says Pearce. "But that's where I go, 'All right, I'm out of my league now. I'm just here observing the process'. They're really the engine behind it. Occasionally, I'd say things like, 'Yeah, let's put Jack in a red shirt!' "
Having six hours to spin a story allowed the writers to "bump up the regulars", says Knight, and to develop what Collie affectionately calls "Jack's World". This includes his sometime girlfriend, journalist Linda Hillier (Marta Dusseldorp); his sometime employer, horse-racing identity Harry Strang (Roy Billing), and his trusty offsider, Cam Delray (Aaron Pedersen); and cabinetmaker Charlie Taub (David Ritchie).
"I know there's lots of great television out there now and a lot of it isn't about plot, it's about character," says Pearce. "So we're not doing anything that somebody else hasn't done. But so much of this is about the personalities of the characters and how they interact with each other. It's not really a plot-heavy show, even though by the end of it, you kind of go, 'Phwar, a lot happened there'. But you do get some nice details about how each character responds to the plot and then how they respond to each other. I've always liked the writing and that subtle humour that exists in these serious storylines. I really enjoy playing Jack and treading that line. It's satisfying on all sorts of levels. Hopefully, we'll do more."
Jack Irish 8.30pm, Sunday, Choice TV.