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Geoffrey Rush On His Synesthesia

An Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy, and a "bonus": colorful impressions

Photo by his daughter, Angelica Rush.
Source: Photo by his daughter, Angelica Rush.

He’s played everyone from the Marquis de Sade to Inspector Javert to Captain Hector Barbossa, but who is Geoffrey Rush, the man himself? And what is his sensorium like?

I had a rare glimpse into the workings of his phenomenal mind for an hour last night as the respected actor got on the phone between film roles from his home in Melbourne, Australia, and talked about his inner life as a synesthete. Synesthesia is a matter of the mind, and not just the brain, he said, in a highlight of our talk, which also included his love of the synesthetic Disney film, “Fantasia,” and how neuroscientist and synesthesia expert Dr. V.S. Ramachandran has influenced his life. I’ve heard how humble he is in real life and so it was not a surprise, though it was sweet and very much appreciated, when he apologized for the late hour given our time difference in New York City and how long it’s taken to finally talk. This is part one of a two-part interview.

Were you aware of your synesthesia as a child?

GR: I’ve been mentally going through a kind of timeline because I don’t think I knew about the phenomenon until I was in my 40s. For me it started, in retrospect, when I was in infant school in the first two years. I remember when we were doing the alphabet, and we were being taught in those days in the the Queensland school system in the ‘50s. It was very pedantic and you’d go through each letter and the teacher would say “A says ‘ah’ ‘” and “B says ‘buh’,” and so forth. I would say them. We’d have to repeat in unison. And I’d go ‘buh’ and I’d hear the sound and I was aware that I was making that sound with my lips. And that it had color. It had a sort of mental landscape shape that I could see. I couldn’t draw it for you; it’s just something that was all part and parcel of that particular experience. And I loved this. I have to admit, there was kind of a pleasure principal involved.

I really loved going to school and I loved that very early period. The teacher would write “ch” and say, "That’s ‘chuh’ and how many words can you think of? Batch, hatch, chicken, etc." And again that had a more complex shape as more of the mouth was involved in making it and just the tongue is doing that and there’s breath coming out etc., and many years later of course when I got into acting and was working with different dialect coaches, I had an understanding of a much more empirical, scientific approach to phonetics. I see it even now. It probably isn’t as vivid as it was when I was a child. I think it probably fades, perhaps it fades or you become used to it.

My kids (Angelica, born in 1992, and James, born in 1995) always joke and my daughter will hear a truck going ‘round the corner, and she’ll say "Dad, what color was that?" She thinks it’s hilarious. And I describe to her, it’s a shape, and it’s got purple in it, and it’s got lots of colors because it’s an engine and it’s got layers.

Again when I was in school, in the very early days, we would learn the days of the week. And for some reason the days of the week just instantly had strong color associations. Monday for me is kind of a pale blue, and I kind of imagine the day like that. Tuesday is acid green, Wednesday is a deep purple-y darkish color. Friday’s got maroon and Saturday is white and Sunday is sort of pale yellow.

Do you have any other forms?

GR: At the same time, I don’t know of any research around it, the sense of a number line and the days of the week. I can say to my wife [fellow actor Jane Menelaus], “That play opened on Tuesday, May the 8th back in 1982.” I can remember it had a position in my mind where 1982 is and where May is within that. It’s a kind of series of hills and dales so if someone says King Charlamagne lived in 800 A.D., there is a very definite place where I see that. And it’s always been a kind of very strong mental template in my mind as to where numbers exist. And the weird thing is, and I’m sure this has to do with very early childhood learning…the numbers 1 to 12 all go from their position on the clock and then from 12 onward they go upward through hills and dales up until 100 and that goes round the clock until 112 and then it keeps going. It sounds batty and a bit complicated but that’s how my mind sees it. So when I look back at 2010, it’s sort of back a bit but down around the corner on the clock. It didn’t help me with mathematics. My mother was a very swift mental arithmetic person. She left school at 15 due to the war, but she was always very good at mathematics. She would be so fast. I’ve never talked with her about that as to how you place numbers…but perhaps she sees a table of some form in her head, carrying a number and all that sort of stuff.

I explain that Geoffrey is experiencing “spatial sequence synesthesia” a form I don’t happen to have but I am envious of it. I tell him my joke is “the grass is always purple-r in the synesthesia world as we don’t have the same forms and sometimes envy each other’s.” He laughs heartily. And how about more synesthesia experiences as an adult?

GR: When I was around 20 and I started working professionally, I had a musical director friend who was in the Queensland Theater Company and he told me about Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s color scale. I can’t remember the precision of it, I’ve got a funny feeling that C Major, there are no black notes, it’s a white chord. I remember we were doing “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” – I was playing Snoopy. He said this song is a bit low for you, I’m going to take it up a semitone. Because D flat, he said, rather than D always just sounds brighter. I think Rimsky-Korsakov had a color sense, he must have been synesthetic. You hear it. The moment you shift the same music into a different key it just has a sort of happier feel, a brighter feel…or a more moody feel and they play around with that.

Have there been any other artistic influences on your synesthesia?

GR: Around about that same time, when I was about 21, I saw “Fantasia,” and I suddenly went, wow, they’re talking to me. If you remember in the film they started with the conductor coming out and the orchestra was just lit with color…and then they were watching colors and I thought that was pretty interesting. And then a progressive piece of music came up. They did the opening movement from Beethoven’s Fifth. And suddenly the animators had little strips, little wisps of things that would race through the screen, echoing the frenzy of the strings. That started to capture the sorts of shapes that I’m seeing when I listen to music.

Also in “Fantasia,” which was brilliant, they brought out a demonstration where they had a single vibrating string of sound, it was vertical… And I remember with the bass bassoon he was playing a scale that went lower and lower and these big sorts of cow pats or big donuts were sort of squashing down on each other. They were almost a rich maroon red color and I thought, that’s exactly it, that’s so right! And they did a drum solo and the beam of the string of sound went into the most jagged dynamic colors all over the place. I thought that’s as close of an actual representation that I can imagine and that it’s sort of close to what I was experiencing when I listen to music…I found that film quite a revelation.

I first heard an orchestra when I was nine. We went to the town hall in Brisbane and they played the suite from "Carmen.” It nearly blew my head off.