Actor Geoffrey Rush’s defamation trial against Sydney newspaper kicks off
• Court documents say actress Eryn Jean Norvill complained he had touched her inappropriately during a production in 2015 and 2016, allegations Rush denies
The Daily Telegraph’s “King Leer” front page made Geoffrey Rush look like a “criminal” and made the actor “sick to my stomach”, he told a court on Monday.
Rush appeared in the stand on the first day of his two week defamation trial against The Telegraph on Monday.
The actor is suing the newspaper over a series of articles published at the end of November and beginning of December in 2017 which alleged he behaved inappropriate during a 2015 stage production of King Lear.
The Daily Telegraph led its front page with the allegations against Rush story on November 30 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 line-up,” 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.
On the opening day of Rush’s two-week trial against The Telegraph his barrister, Bruce McClintock SC, 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.
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.
The Telegraph, McClintock said, had been desperate for the story after being “gazumped” by Fairfax Media over the Burke story.
“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.
Rush appeared on the stand briefly before the lunch break on Monday.
He appeared calm as he spoke about his early career as a young actor in Brisbane and Paris in the late 1970s, 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 con men and the idiots and the drunks”.
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 claims the articles defamed him by portraying him as a “pervert” and “sexual predator”. His lawyers argue the newspaper was motivated by “malice” and that the newspaper published the articles “predominantly for the improper motive of harming” Rush.
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 US$44,000.
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.
In his opening submissions 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.
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.