There's a lot of law-breaking going on in the aptly titled "Lawless," and not only by a trio of brothers running a Prohibition-era moonshine trade.

Worst of them all, in fact, is Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, a vile government agent who easily ranks among the scariest bad guys on the screen this year -- not only for his cruel demeanor, but also for the fact that he could not care less about being an officer whose job is to protect people. Expertly played by acclaimed actor Guy Pearce, Rakes is a lawless law enforcement officer whose sole existence is to intimidate, extort and hold sway over law breakers for personal gain.

"There's a twisted sense of morality where he's supposed to be on the side of the law, but he's consequently using that to his benefit," Pearce told me in recent interview. "His view of the world is criminal, really. The majority of people who join law enforcement are doing it for good, moral reasons, but then there are the few who get through, where you go, 'Whoa, hold on a second. What's this guy doing here?'"

Opening in theaters Wednesday nationwide, "Lawless" is based on "The Wettest County in the World," the bestselling novel by Matt Bondurant, whose grandfathers and grand-uncles ran a massive moonshine operation in the mountains of southern Virginia. Directed by John Hillcoat, "Lawless" stars Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Jason Clarke as the Bondurant brothers, as well as Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska and Gary Oldman.

While the Bondurants were based on real-life brothers, Pearce said Rakes came mostly from the imagination of the film's screenwriter Nick Cave.

"Charlie came from Nick Cave's head and is really the greatest difference between the script and the book.
He's referenced in the book and obviously had a big effect on their lives, but he doesn't quite have the personality in the book that Charlie Rakes in the film does," Pearce explained. "Nick and John Hillcoat really wanted to create somebody from the outside who comes in bringing a very particular attitude that enables the audience to feel this bond between the brothers and the townsfolk as family. When Charlie comes in, he looks at them as folks to be squashed. "

Pearce said it was important to him that Cave -- a noted musician who also collaborated with him and Hillcoat on the 2005 crime drama "The Proposition" -- painted a clear picture of who Rakes was in the script.

"I feel I do my best work when it's all there on the page, and I feel that the character is very vivid as I read the
script and I'm not having to create stuff and trying to cobble together something. If I have to do that, then I don't entirely trust what I'm doing," Pearce said. "If I feel like somebody has handed me a wonderful description of somebody, and I go, 'Ah ha. I know exactly what you're talking about,' then I'm off and running."

Ultimately, Pearce said the wrinkles he added to the character were few.

"There were certain elements that I added, like this big, giant part down the middle of his hair, but the script said that he was quite fixated on dying his hair black every couple of days, and that he had a very big ego and vanity about him -- and a real disdain for people around him," Pearce added. "I really got the sense about him that you could almost smell a bad smell about this guy constantly."

The Studio Quandary
Distributed by indie film champion The Weinstein Co., "Lawless" is being released on the heels of LaBeouf's highly publicized rant about his ill-will for the studio system, and how he plans on working exclusively in independent films from now on.

While not as vocal about the creative difficulties of working within the studio system, Pearce, 44, acknowledged that there's a distinct difference between studio and independent films.

"I won't generalize, because there are some classic, brilliant studio films that have been made in the past, but I think for the most part, there is too much committee filmmaking going on, and I think that's the problem," Pearce observed. "They employ a director, and the director says, 'I'm going to do this,' and they'll say, 'Yep, great, you made that last independent film and it was fantastic. By all means go and do that.' But when the director starts making it, a guy will step in and say, 'Well, I'm not so sure about this, and we might lose $20 million if you do that,' so you end up cutting corners, and things become safe."

"When it's all done by committee, it doesn't feel as organic," Pearce added. "It seems like artistry isn't as respected as when you do an independent film."

That's not to say Pearce doesn't believe artistry can't exist on the studio level. You just need to find work with directors who have an enormous amount of clout, like Ridley Scott (whom the actor just worked with on "Prometheus") and Pearce's former "Memento" director Christopher Nolan -- who avoided being overlorded on "Inception" and "The Dark Knight Rises" after he delivered "The Dark Knight."

"If you work with a director who has great strengths and great power -- or maybe if you work with a director who doesn't have a lot of experience but has a very clear vision and a great ability to articulate what he wants -- then he'll get to make a great film," Pearce said. "There have been great directors who have made great studio films, but have had to really stand their ground. Some people have a stronger personality to do with that stuff than others."

On the personal level, Pearce, who mostly does independent films, said he'll be happy to work in both the indie and studio worlds as long as he can feel that very sense of direction.

"I think the difficulty for me, personally, in working in the studio system is that you're never quite sure who's in charge, so you're never quite get a clear picture of what it is you're doing and you really struggle to know what movie it is you're in," Pearce said. "I'm the kind of actor who really needs to feel a solid ground, and I really need to know where the boundaries are and where. I need to trust -- and feel trusted by -- the director."