The actor Geoffrey Rush has told a defamation trial that he was made to look like a “criminal” by a front-page story headlined “King Leer”, a story he said made him feel “sick to my stomach”.
Rush appeared on the first day of his two-week trial against Sydney’s Daily Telegraph on Monday, saying the stories had sent him into an “emotional spiral”.
“It’s been the worst 11 months of my life,” he said.
“These [articles] are the starting point of that and it only got worse. It kind of concurs with the 47th anniversary of my starting life as a professional actor, and suddenly [it] was dismantling how I felt as a person.”
The Oscar-winning actor, one of Australia’s best-known performers, is suing the newspaper over a series of articles published at the end of November and beginning of December in 2017 that alleged he behaved inappropriately during a 2015 stage production of King Lear.
Rush claims the articles defamed him by portraying him as a “pervert” and “sexual predator”.
In his opening statement Rush’s barrister, Bruce McClintock SC, said the actor would seek to prove the allegations in the stories were false, and that the Telegraph was motivated by “malice” in publishing them.
The Telegraph led its front page with the allegations against Rush story on 30 November with the headline “King Leer” and an image of the actor in character. Rush told the court the image and headline made him look like a criminal.
“Well it polluted or it dirtied the original intention of the image and converted it into what I think looked like a police lineup,” he said. “It made a madman from the theatre look like a criminal in reality.
“It was devastating, my son was home [and] Jane [his wife] was home. I could see how distressed they were which created a great deal of hurt for me. I felt as though someone had poured lead in my head. I went into a kind of, ‘this can’t be happening’, I was numb.”
Rush told the court he had pulled out of a Melbourne Theatre Company production of the Twelfth Night as a result of the claims, saying he had suffered from “sleeplessness” and “poor appetite”.
“And feeling hurt myself about the levels of distress it was creating in my son and daughter and my wife and some close friends as well,” he said.
“I was weak. I was weakening.”
Earlier the court heard that Rush and the woman at the centre of the defamation trial exchanged familiar and “affectionate” emails with one another after the alleged inappropriate behaviour had occurred.
McClintock told the court the actor denied all the allegations made against him, and accused the newspaper of deliberately seeking to “smash and destroy” Rush’s reputation.
He said the Telegraph had been desperate to publish the stories after being “gazumped” by a rival media company over allegations of misbehaviour by other Australian celebrities, including well-known television personality Don Burke.
McClintock told the court Rush had forged a reputation as one of Australia’s best-known actors over an almost 50-year career.
Rush, he said, had been a “household name” and a “national living treasure” with “no scandal attached to his name”.
“As well as giving pleasure to millions, his reputation was stellar. It could not have been higher,” McClintock said.
But the Telegraph and journalist Jonathan Moran, who McClintock described as a “gossip columnist”, had sought to “smash and destroy” Rush’s reputation in a deliberate attempt to link him to the scandal surrounding other disgraced personalities such as Don Burke and Harvey Weinstein.
“There’s no one who could read these articles and think anything other than [that] this was a straight-up, full-blown attack on my client,” McClintock said.
The woman at the centre of the allegations, Eryn-Jean Norvill, has not spoken publicly since the Telegraph published the stories, but in August the federal court heard News would seek to argue truth in its defence on the basis of her statement.
On Monday, McClintock told the court the trial would hear evidence from the director of the Lear production, Neil Armfield, as well as other cast members, that they did not witness any of the alleged inappropriate behaviour.
He said Rush believed his relationship with Norvill to be “professional and cordial”, and read out emails and text messages between the two of them which he said showed “familiarity” and “affection”.
In earlier emails Norvill thanked Rush for a positive reference, and asked him to attend her birthday. McClintock also sent an email sent after the alleged inappropriate behaviour from Norvill to Rush after he had forwarded a positive review to her.
“That was wonderful, thanks for sending through dearest daddy ‘gush’,” she wrote.
Rush appeared calm as he spoke about his early career as a young actor in Brisbane and Paris in the late nineteen seventies, and later in Sydney as a teacher at the acting school Nida where he shared a home in Kensington with “a very young” Mel Gibson.
He talked about how throughout his career he had specialised in playing “the ratbags, the fools, the conmen and the idiots and the drunks”.
He described being “disturbed” when he was presented with a list of questions from the Telegraph just after 5pm on the day before the King Leer story was published, saying he had not been told who was making the allegations.
The actor was swamped by journalists but remained silent as he entered the court wearing a navy suit and dark-blue shirt on Monday morning.
Rush’s lawyers are seeking aggravated damages against the Telegraph, and on Monday McClintock said his client had suffered “real financial hardship” and “the hurt to his feelings”.
He said Rush was earning “many millions of dollars per annum” in the years before the publications, but that in the 10-and-a-half months since the stories were published he had made only $44,000.
McClintock also accused Moran, the author of the articles, of telling “bare-faced lies” in some of the articles complained about.
Moran, who McClintock described as a “gossip columnist” will not appear during the trial.
The trial continues.
(C) Guardian Australia