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It helps, when you’re a movie star, to be what they call “movie star handsome.”

But don’t tell that to Guy Pearce. A leading man, oft-employed as a dashing cad (“The King’s Speech”) or chiseled villain (“Iron Man 3”), he still thinks of himself as a character actor.

“Vanity goes out the window,” he said. Especially in his latest film, “The Rover.” He plays a man whose car is stolen in a post-apocalyptic Australia. The power grid is down. Water is at a premium. So bathing, shaving or wearing anything other than stained and torn shorts is not an option.

“With a film like this, to maintain the integrity of the character, I really let myself go,” Pearce, 46, said with a chuckle. “We get to be vain enough on the red carpet. I let that go, in between red carpets, anyway. You get far enough out in the desert, it doesn’t matter.”

His character in the film seems cruel, monomaniacal and ruthless. All he wants is that stolen car. He doesn’t care who he has to shoot or make an alliance with to get it back.

“The most interesting characters, to me, are the ones that let me swim around in that middle ground, where you might feel the urge to like or root for somebody, but they won’t let you. Not right away. You root for them, but you don’t know why, exactly. This mystery man may be redeemable. But you can’t figure him out.”

Pearce is winning some of the best reviews in years for the film, for “a performance of pure controlled ferocity,” as Kenneth Turan wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

“You know so little about this guy for so much of the film,” Pearce said. “You get little hints, here and there, about who he is or was. And you kind of get why he has to get this car back. It’s a tough ask, to ask the audience to go all the way with you, to commit to the character, from beginning to end in this movie. I hope they buy in.”

Pearce, born in Britain and reared in Australia, was the “L.A. Confidential” star who didn’t turn into Russell Crowe. He had his shot, but 2002’s “The Time Machine” and other Hollywood efforts didn’t make him a superstar.

He had his dark years – drug addictions that he has spoken of, after he found the wherewithal to quit. And then he found his niche – leading roles in offbeat thrillers, such as “Memento,” chewy supporting roles in “Traitor,” “The Hurt Locker,” or “Factory Girl” where he did a spot-on impersonation of Andy Warhol.

But co-starring in “The Rover” with Robert Pattinson of “Twilight” gave him a taste of what he missed.

“I don’t know if I’d be able to handle it as well as him,” Pearce said of Pattinson. “I’m certainly glad I avoided that, but I was never in a position where it was going to get that out of hand, for me. Some people naturally resonate a kind of energy that draws the crazy fans, and lots of them. Rob has that magnetism and invites that sort of enthusiasm.

“But if you shoot deep enough in the Australian desert, they can’t find you. Rob got mobbed by the locals. There weren’t many of them. It was nice to see him enjoy the remoteness, the privacy and freedom that being that far away from the mobs gave him.”

Something about Australia has always suggested “end of days” in the movies. From “On the Beach” to “The Road Warrior,” the Outback has been a favorite vision of what the world will look like if the environment, the economy and civilization break down.

“The landscape, with its vast, barren open spaces, says the end is coming, or has already arrived, doesn’t it?” Pearce said. “When we think of civilization ending, life reaching some sort of environmental extreme, we think the deserts of Australia.”

But it’s not just the landscape. Many of those “end times” films originated in Australia. Might something in the national character be at work?

“Maybe we feel we’re pretty tough down there, and maybe we figure we’ll be the last ones standing when it all goes wrong,” Pearce said, laughing. “We do love our cars, love the long, empty roads. We’ve held out down there for a couple of hundred years OK. We’ll survive. And we’ll have our cars with us.”