June 2, 2011
The offer of oranges and sunshine – like peaches and cream – holds a promise of simple, wholesome goodness. This was one of the pictures painted for the 130,000 young working-class British children deported to Australia as supposed orphans in the 1940s and ‘50s. While the children may have arrived in a land rich with fruit and bathed in the sun’s golden glow, their fate was hardly all oranges and sunshine. In one of his latest roles, Hugo Weaving put himself in the shoes of a man who lived the nightmare of abuse that was a reality for a stolen generation of children. Starring as Jack in Oranges and Sunshine, due for release in Australia in June, Hugo expertly shares a story that will no doubt trigger tears, raise eyebrows and spark heated community debate.
Hugo Weaving may be one of Australia’s most renowned veteran actors and have starred in blockbuster series like The Matrix, Lord of the Rings and Transformers, but there is no hint of blockbuster bravado about him. Rather, he makes no secret of the fact he prefers working on smaller Australian films rather than big budget international flicks where, he jokes: “… I don’t know what’s going on”.
Ever the actor’s chameleon, Hugo is of a rare breed that can leap between themes and genres, epics and indies, without losing his audience or his integrity. Hugo plays a lost soul in Oranges and Sunshine, inspired by the best-selling book, Empty Cradles, by Margaret Humphreys.
The film is due for release in Australia in June and Hugo is interested to see how it will be greeted by the community and by the people upon who it is based – most are in their 60s and 70s and many still live in Australia. The issue of child migrants has already prompted formal apologies from both the Australian and British governments in 2009 and 2010 respectively, so there’s little chance the film will slide by unnoticed.
“It certainly feels like a story that has to be told and should be talked about,” Hugo starts. “And it feels like it highlights the fact that these things just keep happening in world history – these terrible injustices that happen to the most vulnerable and innocent people, in the case little children, in the name of progress, or whatever, by institutions and governments.”
Professionally, Hugo cherished working with British actress Emily Watson and first-time feature director Jim Loach – son of veteran filmmaker and activist Ken Loach – who was quoted as saying: “We all loved Hugo Weaving’s work: his capacity for gentleness, compassion and vulnerability.”
While Hugo can empathise with the children of this story, his childhood was quite the opposite; his family unit was tight although their sense of home was fluid. Born in Nigeria in 1960, Hugo and his family moved every two years or so between England, South Africa and Australia until they settled in Sydney when Hugo was 16.
“My childhood changed so much; the constant was the family,” he explains. “We were always moving to a different country, a different school, a different house … And I feel very lucky to have had the childhood I had because it was very exciting. The thing I learnt was that, wherever you go in the world, people are fundamentally the same even though they might speak a different language and have a different culture. Fundamentally, we’re all very similar and I guess that’s a good lesson for anyone really, but certainly for an actor.”
Hugo’s childhood dreams fluttered from being a fireman to a sailor and in his early teens he wanted to be a writer. Asked if he still has any of those early scribbles, he laughs. “Yes,” he says. “I’m sure they are stashed somewhere but you’re not getting your hands on them!”
By the time he was 16 he was emotionally involved with the idea of acting. His parents had exposed him to music, art and theatre from a young age and he recalls some standout creative influences while living in South Africa from six to nine years of age.
“My parents took me to a ballet of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and I was really amazed by that. I loved the music, and was interested in the story. Mum said it was based on a play by Shakespeare, so I wanted to read it. I can remember as an eight-year-old trying to read Romeo and Juliet,” Hugo laughs at his innocence. “Because I knew the story, I kind of got captivated by the language in it in a weird way and wanted to act out those stories.”
Hugo listened to his intuitive desire to act and went straight from high school into auditions for the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). He was accepted after three callbacks and graduated in 1981.
One of his first major hits was Bangkok Hilton opposite Nicole Kidman in 1989 and he won his first industry award, a Best Actor Australian Film Institute Award, for the low-budget Proof in 1991. Many gems have followed, but the Australian films Hugo counts as achievements are Little Fish (2005), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), and Last Ride (2009). Hugo also loved working with the Wachowski Brothers on The Matrix.
Though he is loath to give advice to young actors, Hugo shares some wise words his first agent told him when he was 22. “He said, ‘You gotta learn to say no to jobs’,” Hugo says, noting that is the constant dilemma for actors – whether to accept every job that’s offered or to be more discerning. They were wise words at the time. And I instinctively felt they were true anyway.”
His biggest career challenge has been self-doubt, but he’s found it can be a positive. “Sometimes these doubts – as you think, ‘I don’t know if this is what I want to do anymore’ – for whatever reason, sometimes those things actually spur you into reappraising everything and starting afresh with a much more invigorated outlook. Sometimes those challenges have actually ended up being great spurs.”
He acknowledges that acting is a tough gig – there’s the waiting around, the auditioning, the suspense of the offer, the knockbacks. “It’s not the loveliest profession,” he laughs at the understatement. “I know so many people who went through NIDA with me who I thought the world of, who within four years of leaving NIDA weren’t working anymore. It’s not fair. The world’s not fair and the industry’s not particularly fair … but that hasn’t stopped me. I just keep on trying to maintain an interest in it all.”
Asked what he still wants to achieve with his work, Hugo notes he and his partner Katrina Greenwood are at a new phase of their lives. “Both our kids have just left school, so it’s probably a natural question mark in the sky of where I’m at at the moment. We’re just reappraising what we’re up to as a family, and what Katrina, my partner, and I are up to.”
One thing Hugo is sure of is that he wants to keep working as an actor for many years to come. “I’ve just worked with Ian McKellan – he’s in his seventies. He’s such a lively mind and such a relaxed physical creature so I would hope that I would be as enquiring and youthful as Ian in another 20 years. And still working in theatre and film but probably increasingly refocus again on Australian film – the sort of film that’s always interested me.”