August 29, 2015
Hugo Weaving likes playing faceless villains, he once told an American journalist, because it means people are less likely to recognise him in real life. It’s a good tactic but one that certainly isn’t working for him in sleepy Busselton, Western Australia, where he’s in town to be honoured with the title of “screen legend” at the city’s annual CinefestOz festival – home to Australia’s richest film prize.
Over the course of five days, Weaving is repeatedly invited up to the mic – at opening ceremonies, screenings and lunches – and regularly stopped on the street by industry peers slapping him on the back or by local cinema-goers keen to take a selfie with him.
“It’s lovely to be here and a little embarrassing, but at the same time I appreciate it,” says Weaving, folding his 6’2” (188cm) frame into a chair at Busselton’s only hipster coffee outlet. “I do feel honoured but it’s hard to say that.”
This is not luvvie dissembling. Known to the world for his roles in the Matrix, Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, this modest, intensely private man has also been the linchpin in dozens of smaller Australian independent films, as Luke Buckmaster’s rewatching film blog reminds us on a weekly basis. It’s only a shame so few people have seen them.
“I could name 10 films I’ve done where I’ve thought: what a shame they didn’t catch on,” says Weaving, singling out Rowan Woods’ dark Sydney drama Little Fish with Cate Blanchett, as well as Last Ride, Glendyn Ivin’s 2009 film about a father and son on the run across Australia. “Not because I’m in them,” he stresses, “but because they are great works and they express something about who we are.”
His latest outing, The Dressmaker, which premieres at Toronto film festival this month, does not seem destined to disappear. A classic revenge Western dressed up in Dior, it stars Kate Winslet as the titular seamstress who returns from self-imposed exodus in Europe to her small “white-sliced” hometown and its smaller-minded residents. Liam Hemsworth, Judy Davis, Barry Otto, Shane Jacobson and Sarah Snook also feature – a who’s who of established and emerging Aussie talent.
“It’s certainly an ensemble piece,” says Weaving, adding that the days when everyone was on set had a “reunion” vibe to them. The film also reunites him with director Jocelyn Moorhouse, at least professionally – the two have been friends since Moorhouse directed Weaving opposite a young Russell Crowe in her excellent 1991 film, Proof. “There is a sort of subterranean element to my relationship with Joss,” he says. “Proof was a long time ago but then there was the whole Eucalyptus saga. Or tragedy – whatever you want to call it.”
He’s referring to the 2005 Australian film that never was, adapted by Moorhouse from the Miles Franklin-winning novel by Murray Bail and set to star Nicole Kidman, Crowe and Weaving, until Fox cancelled production just three days into filming due to “creative differences” between Crowe and Moorhouse. Reports at the time suggested the differences were all Crowe’s. “The whole film going down was just really sad,” is all Weaving will say. “It was one of the greatest scripts I’ve ever read, just fantastic work from Joss. Fox ended up owning it and I don’t know whether she has ever got it back.”
The incident almost wiped Moorhouse out, Weaving adds, but she is back on confident form with The Dressmaker: “Joss has got such an eye for detail and specific sense of humour. There’s a surface expression to what she says and then something beneath that’s a little darker. I’m kind of interested in that.”
“I’m just re-reading his four early novellas, these absolutely beautiful little stories, all different, all difficult, and I’d love to bring to them to the stage. Put two on one night, two the next, mix and match them a bit, possibly on the same set. They are just extraordinary pieces of work. He’s exhausting and wonderful at the same time.”
Whether Weaving gets to realise this project any time soon is another matter. He has been a fixture of Sydney Theatre Company under artistic directors Andrew Upton and (until 2013) Cate Blanchett. But Upton is leaving in late 2015, to be replaced by British theatre-maker Jonathan Church. Does it feel like the end of an era for what, in its regular use of the same actors, began to feel like a rep company?
“It was a very fertile time,” says Weaving. “One thing leads to another and I loved that sense of exploration as a company, of moving forward as a unit.” He praises Upton for his openness and democracy in the rehearsal room, and Blanchett for her poise. “Cate’s extraordinary. She’s in hyperspace in terms of her profile – much more so me. But she manages to maintain her sanity, sometimes barely. I know it’s difficult.”
Is it easier to maintain a private life in Australia than in Hollywood? “Probably, says Weaving. “Possibly, a bit, yes, maybe. You’ve got to actively find that space for yourself. You’ve got to actively disappear. This industry is so vast that once you’re a part of it, you can easily lose yourself and the trade-off isn’t necessarily a great thing for your soul, you know.”
He hasn’t met Church but says “it will be a big change, a bit shift”, adding his hope that Church will nurture acting and directing talent, not just shows. It echoes Weaving’s stance on cinema. “Film is the great artistic medium and yet we don’t see it as that,” he says. “We don’t allow it to be everything it could be.”
At a meeting of Chinese and Australian film producers during CinefestOz, Screen Australia showed a promo reel in which big name Australian actors – Blanchett and Joel Edgerton among them – sung to camera the praises of those working behind it. This is more than a sell, says Weaving, citing veteran Australian producers Jan Chapman, David Jowsey and Vincent Sheehan, and cinematographers Donald McAlpine (Moulin Rouge) and Stefan Duscio, whose work on Michael Petroni’s thriller Backtrack could scoop it the festival’s $100,000 prize.
“The industry exists here,” he insists. “Just because films aren’t seen doesn’t mean they don’t exist; doesn’t mean they’re not good. That’s always the tragedy for me. I get so …”. He tails off only to pick up again. “What do we have to do to mature to the extent that we choose to watch and look at our own culture? Why don’t we do that?”
The fault doesn’t necessarily lie with Australian audiences, he says. It comes “from the top”, by which I’m guessing Weaving means government. “Yes,” he says – coupled with a US-dominated industry that makes it hard for any other market to break through internationally. “I’m not into free markets. I think they are just an excuse for destroying things, an excuse to make massive profits at the expense of cultures and people.”
Weaving has never been shy of criticising the Abbott government, voicing his concerns about ongoing cuts to the ABC in 2014, and recently adding his face to the stepped-up campaign for Australian marriage equality. “It’s less about the marriage bit for me” – Weaving and his partner since 1984, artist Katrina Greenwood, have two children but have never tied the knot – “and more about equality. Just because I don’t need to marry, doesn’t mean other people can’t.”
Conversation steers to the UK, where Weaving grew up, and its ramped-up rhetoric on immigration. “Now we’ve got Abbott lecturing the Europeans about what to do: “Turn back the boats.” You think, oh man! This is insane the world we live in.” Culturally, Weaving still feels the influence of his British upbringing. “My childhood and heritage and the stories I grew up with, well, I accept I’m not the purest Australian,” he says. “At the same time, I go back there and I don’t really feel English. We’re all a mixture of all the influences that made us.”
Should the government be protecting Australian film talent with production quotas, as some in the industry have suggested? Weaving sees a bigger picture. When it comes to policy, everything is connected, he says: “Protecting your culture, protecting your environment, protecting your land, protecting your stories, protecting who you are, protecting your thoughts – it’s all crucial.”
And he still doesn’t know what the fix is. “If it were obvious it would have been done. In terms of the skilled practitioners making the films, they are here. And they’ll keep on doing what they do in the hope that somehow, at the end, when the tap’s turned on, something comes out. At the moment, we’ve got rainfall, but it’s not coming out of the tap.”