As actors go, Geoffrey Rush must be among the bravest. The Australian actor, 53, has dared to interpret controversial historical figures from Leon Trotsky to the Marquis de Sade to Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I's spymaster. His portrayal of mentally ill pianist David Helfgott in the 1996 movie Shine won him an Oscar, which Rush collected in front of the musician himself. But when Rush was asked to play the legendary British comedian Peter Sellers, he says, "enormous waves of fear rippled through my body." He refused.
In saying no to The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Rush was walking away from a plum role as the man who wove the fabric of British comedy. The Goon Show, the groundbreaking 1950s radio series in which Sellers starred along with Michael Bentine, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe, inspired Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and the ensemble lunacy of Monty Python and even now, it is said, reduces Prince Charles to tears of laughter. Sellers' films ranged from acute social satires such as I'm All Right Jack and Being There to brilliant turns in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, and as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau in Blake Edwards' Pink Panther series. But Rush worried that audiences would scorn his impersonation of the great impersonator. Sellers had "a fairly well-documented life," Rush says. The too-daunting task: "To create some vocal and physical identification with his persona," he says, while "not simply 'doing' him."
The producers kept up the pressure, but Rush who by now was having great galloping fun as the ghost buccaneer on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean ignored their pleas. Only when he looked through a batch of off-screen Sellers photos did Rush begin to waver. Each image revealed the profound dissonance between a complex, troubled man and his cheerful creations. "That's when I stopped seeing him as the icon," Rush remembers. "I could see inside him, the melancholy in the eyes, the distracted air, something that was fundamentally human." So Rush finally signed up.
When TIME visited England's Shepperton studios last year, Rush had burrowed even deeper. The makeup people had added a few layers of epidermis (the movie spans four decades, requiring 34 different looks for 28 different characters), and his prosthetic proboscis was threatening to melt in an early summer heat wave. But Rush's inner transformation appeared more durable. One minute, he was stalking po-faced across the set, and the next, he'd turned his charm on, hamming it up with karate chops during a photo shoot, just as the mercurial Sellers might have done. Like the photos that convinced Rush to take the role, Rush's performance contrasts Sellers' public face with a private life distorted by insecurity, rage and dysfunction menacing his wives and children, insulting those he worked with, and erupting into wild tantrums. To dramatize this, the film, which opens in Britain Oct. 1, uses an inspired conceit: just as Sellers often played several roles in a single movie (such as the ineffectual American President, the British R.A.F. group captain and the nuclear maniac title character in Dr. Strangelove), the biopic employs fantasy sequences in which Rush as Sellers impersonates his pushy mum (Miriam Margolyes), his wives Anne (Emily Watson) and Britt Ekland (Charlize Theron) and even Edwards (John Lithgow) and Kubrick (Stanley Tucci). It's a clever device to depict a man who criticized himself as "a person who has no real value of his own."