Looking back, it feels like so much of who I am as a person was decided by the things I was obsessed with when I was 12 years old.

2002 was a big year for me. Fifth grade moving into sixth grade. My family went to Disney World for the first time — in February! I missed a week of school! — and inexplicably every item of merchandise I bought had Tinkerbell on it. The world was in the middle of a three-year Harry Potter drought, so I escaped reality with other fantasies — Artemis Fowl, The Golden Compass, The Lord of the Rings. For a while there, it got so bad that I was banned from bringing books to school because I chose to slog through the Treebeard chapters of The Two Towers instead of paying attention in math class. No regrets, by the way. I’d still take his shitty songs about the Entwives over pre-algebra any day.

2002 was also the year my grandparents gave us their VHS copy of The Count of Monte Cristo. I remember standing in their kitchen and holding the tape in my hands, intrigued by the red and black design and the sword that sliced between the two men on the cover. “There’s nothing better than a revenge story,” my grandpa said. He wasn’t much of a talker, so I knew to listen whenever he spoke up.

That was one of his most common refrains: There’s nothing better than a revenge story.

Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel), a hapless and trusting second mate on a merchant ship, spends 13 years in prison after his jealous best friend, Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce), conspires with a cadre of other morally bankrupt men to frame Edmond for treason so Fernand can steal his fiancée, Mercedes (Dagmara Domińczyk), for himself. Dantes eventually escapes and reinvents himself as the wealthy and mysterious (read: fabulously extra) Count of Monte Cristo to ruin the lives of the men who wronged him. He almost loses himself to his vengeance, but Dantes’s story ends happily enough — with his enemies dead or imprisoned and the Count himself reunited with Mercedes and the son he didn’t know he had (the most baby Henry Cavill). 

My grandpa was a strange recluse of a man who felt like he’d been wronged throughout his life — justified in some ways, in others not so much. I didn’t know that when I was 12, but in hindsight it’s easy to see why he got so much satisfaction out of The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s the ultimate male fantasy: The good man who never deserved all the shit the world threw at him ends up on top of it. 

I couldn’t relate to that when I was 12 and I definitely can’t relate to it now. It’s enjoyable to watch Dantes dole out his just desserts, but my favorite character in The Count of Monte Cristo has always been the bitter betrayer, Fernand. He’s not especially well written — his motivations are pretty rote, as far as villains go — but Pearce’s performance makes him a distractingly fascinating character. 

Envious of the happiness of a man whose social station is so far below him he can’t even admit it to himself until the object of his jealousy is led away in chains, Fernand really has no business being as interesting as he is. You should be on Dantes’ side from the start, but Pearce has always been the kind of actor who is magnetic in spite of either lacking material or playing the wrong side of a morality play. 

Squirrelly but sympathetic. Dastardly but pathetic. Right on the border between unappealing and pretty damn hot. It’s about as difficult to describe Pearce in this role as it is for me to figure out why I’ve been entranced with Fernand Mondego since I was a pre-teen. He’s gross, but I love him? I definitely don’t want him to win, but at the same time I’m kind of bummed out when he dies? It makes no sense.

With Mondego, The Count of Monte Cristo laid the groundwork for two lifelong obsessions — Guy Pearce and stories where a good brother / best friend is betrayed by a bad one. East of Eden, Star Wars, Thor, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power — the list spans decades of storytelling, and that dynamic will always be my number-one favorite. It started here, with a movie my grandpa handed to me and expected me to see the same way he did. Maybe I did when I was younger, but now I see it differently. 

I can’t remember imprinting on a villain the way I did with Fernand Mondego before I saw The Count of Monte Cristo. I do remember watching Guy Pearce in Iron Man 3 and grinning like a maniac as he dialed his villainy up to 11 and loving every second of it. I also remember watching Man of Steel a few weeks later with a boy and commenting afterward how I was really happy that both Henry Cavill and Guy Pearce had big superhero movies that year, since they’d been in Monte Cristo together.

“Guy Pearce is one of my favorite actors,” I added offhandedly.

I’ll never forget the way the boy stopped in his tracks and stared at me.

“Me, too,” he said.

We got married three years later, and now he’s writing a weekly column about Guy Pearce. Good job, 12-year-old Aly. Your weird obsessions really came through in the end.