In 1936, Britain’s King Edward VIII gave up his throne to marry the woman he loved, the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson.
Depending upon your point of view, this was either one of the most romantic moments of the 20th century or an act of supreme selfishness and foolishness.
For actor Guy Pearce, born in Britain but raised in Australia from the age of 3, portraying Edward VIII in “The King’s Speech” allowed him to explore both sides of the monarch’s personality.
“An English actor might have been a bit more fearful about being so raw with this character and possibly irritating that famous royal family that lives down the road,” Pearce, 43, said in a phone interview from Los Angeles.
“But I’d already been shipped out to Australia. They couldn’t ship me any farther.”
Edward VIII, whose given name was David, is a supporting character in “The King’s Speech,” which garnered the most nominations for Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards and is a leading candidate for the best picture Oscar.
The film’s main focus is on his younger brother, the stuttering Albert (Colin Firth), who became King George VI and whose daughter Elizabeth is the current queen.
But in just a few key scenes, Pearce presents a rich portrait of a spoiled man who cannot reconcile his inherited duties with his own desires.
“In many ways he’s the ultimate romantic, a man who for love gave up this great position,” Pearce said.
“One of the things my research revealed was that David never wanted to be king. He resented being in the royal family, where every thought and action must be viewed through the prism of being a responsible royal. For him that was a grave injustice.
“He was a very sensitive person, very bright, but felt he was completely missing out on the pleasures of normal life. Really, he spent the whole second half of his life seeking pleasure.”
Pearce, whose screen roles have ranged from a drag queen (“The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) to a straight-laced ‘50s police detective (“L.A. Confidential”) to a man with short-term memory loss (“Memento”), said that there’s always a special challenge to playing a historic character (he has portrayed magician Harry Houdini, artist Andy Warhol and actor Errol Flynn).
“I was lucky in that there is quite a bit of newsreel footage of David, from both during his brief reign and the years after. All of his speeches were recorded, and that was a great resource.
“When I’m building a character I like to start with the voice, the intonations and accents. Those tell me a lot about somebody. They give me a handle, a place to start.”
Pearce was particularly interested in how the relationship with Simpson revealed the monarch’s interior life.
“One thing he enjoyed about Wallis Simpson was that she was confident enough to boss him around. She was irreverent, ballsy, very sexually aware.
“She had lived and experienced things that other women might not have.
“He enjoyed being the boy, being taken care of. Being responsible for an entire empire is a pretty hefty burden. So to enjoy sexual pleasure with a woman while maintaining the frivolity of being a boy, that was the ultimate with him.”
Guests at dinner parties hosted by the king were horrified when Simpson called him playful but condescending names, Pearce learned.
“I really think there was an element of sado-masochism to the relationship. The more she treated him like a naughty child, the more he enjoyed it.”
After the abdication, the couple were more or less exiled from the royal fold, both because his family disapproved of David’s new wife and because before leaving, he squirreled away a fortune for his personal use.
“I think David felt terrible about that for the rest of his life,” Pearce said. “He was a rather sad figure.”
As for himself, Pearce has grown quite skilled at keeping his private life out of the spotlight. He’s married and lives in Australia — and that’s about all he’ll admit to.
“One of the joys of acting is delving into many aspects of human life. There’s an endless supply of characters out there who are far more interesting than I am.
“After all, there’s plenty of time to find myself later in life.”
Expect “The King’s Speech” to be a major player at the Golden Globe Awards, airing at 8 p.m. EST Sunday on NBC.