Geoffrey Rush, Erin Norvill and The Daily Telegraph: The stakes are high in this defamation trial
The stakes are as high as they come.
In one corner, Geoffrey Rush. A household name in Australia and an actor, at 67, still in high-demand.
In another, a young actress — Eryn Jean Norvill — outed as the alleged victim of inappropriate behaviour by Mr Rush, after a newspaper published the allegations.
It is her word against his, and with the drama in Federal Court 18C coming to a close on Friday, the final day of Mr Rush’s defamation case against The Daily Telegraph, it is now up to Justice Michael Wigney which account he accepts.
The court heard Mr Rush had a lot to lose.
The star of films such as The Pirates of the Caribbean and The King’s Speech could demand big dollars, $128,000 a month, according to his lawyers.
He was an actor Hollywood agents said had the same high reputation as greats such as Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood.
The Daily Telegraph story at the centre of the defamation case.
(Supplied: Federal Court of Australia)
But perhaps more importantly, the court heard, Mr Rush was well-respected in the industry; an educator to many young actors and a name that drew financial backers to his films.
His lawyers said that all changed on November 30, 2017 when The Daily Telegraph splashed on its front page a “world exclusive” alleging he acted inappropriately towards a young actress during a Sydney Theatre Production of King Lear.
Mr Rush is suing the newspaper’s publisher, Nationwide News, for the article, and a series of follow-ups.
His barrister Bruce McClintock, SC, told the court there was a significant risk Mr Rush would never work again as a result of the publication.
“He’s scared that in the middle of a play someone will call something out from the audience,” Mr McClintock told the defamation hearing.
The court heard that before the stories Mr Rush averaged $1.5 million a year in earnings, but afterwards his salary dropped to $44,000.
It means if Justice Wigney were to side with a Mr Rush’s legal team a substantial payout could be on the table.
A trial of twists and turns
Mr Rush’s actor wife Jane Menalaus sat beside him in court each day of the three-week trial, taking notes.
Mr Rush holds hands with his wife Jane Menalaus as they walk in to the court for the trial’s final day. (AAP: Peter Rae)
He spent three days in the witness box defending his interactions with Ms Norvill — the young actress later revealed to be the subject of the news articles — as professional and friendly.
At times his evidence was more like a performance, with Rush regaling the court with tales from his career, evoking laughs and chuckles from the public gallery.
Then the questioning became more serious.
He strenuously denied a text message he sent to Ms Norvill telling her he thought of her “more than is socially appropriate” was “testing the water” or had “a sexual motive”.
And the actor said he meant no offence by including an emoji with its tongue hanging out.
He couldn’t recall telling Ms Norvill she looked “scrumptious” but conceded he may have told her she looked “yummy”.
Mr Rush said he often complimented people in the cast to help bring energy into the rehearsal room.
The actor denied deliberately touching Ms Norvill’s breast during a performance and denied making lewd gestures over her when she was lying on stage with her eyes closed.
He was backed up by the shows director Neil Armfield and co-star Robin Nevin, who played The Fool in King Lear.
They said if they had seen Mr Rush do anything inappropriate they would have put a stop to it.
A ‘generational issue’
Ms Norvill, has much at stake too.
She is The Daily Telegraph’s star witness. The newspaper is relying on truth as a defence.
Ms Norvill, who played Mr Rush’s youngest daughter Cordelia in King Lear, never wanted her private complaint to the Sydney Theatre Company to be revealed publicly.
She did not talk to the newspaper and was not mentioned in the stories.
Her evidence was much anticipated.
Actor Eryn Jean Norvill told the court a culture of bullying and harassment existed in her industry. (AAP Image/Petter Rae)
Described by The Telegraph’s barrister Tom Blackburn, SC, as a brave and honest witness who had no motive to lie, Ms Norvill said she felt too scared to report his behaviour because he was an international star.
The court heard she agreed to give evidence to stop Mr Rush repeating his alleged inappropriate behaviour with other women.
Ms Norvill told the court the emoji text message from Mr Rush bothered her, and she heard other cast members laughing at his alleged lewd gestures over her body.
The 34-year-old also told the court Mr Rush tried to follow her into a female toilet at a cast party.
When asked why other cast members did not try to stop Mr Rush’s alleged behaviour, Ms Norvill said it was a generational issue because older cast members like Nevin tolerated it.
Ms Norvill said a culture of bullying and harassment existed in her industry, but Mr Rush’s barrister accused her of telling “disgusting lies”.
The final act in this courtroom drama is yet to come.
Justice Wigney will hand down his decision on the case in early 2019.