Time Pacific (NO. 33)
By MICHAEL FITZGERALD
August 21, 2000
He might be one of Australia’s cultural torchbearers, but actor Hugo Weaving can’t quite see his connection with the Olympics.
"We’ll be on at the same time; that’s about the only link I can see, actually," he says, stoking up on a plate of penne before dashing off for fencing practice in preparation for his role in John Webster’s avenger’s tragedy, The White Devil.
But press the play’s director, Gale Edwards, and you soon comprehend the Herculean effort involved: "five intense weeks in a [rehearsal] room every day bashing it out"; grappling with language "more difficult than Shakespeare."
The Olympic Arts Festival’s Sydney Theatre Company production is being marketed as " The Godfather meets Dynasty meets Reservoir Dogs," and even Edwards’ description of Weaving’s lead role as the Duke of Brachiano is exhausting: "He’s a lover, a poet, a dashing soldier, a killer, a politician, a dangerous thinker, a debauchee …"
Weaving, 40, likes a stretch. A consummate chameleon, he’s a master of cinematic ambivalence (his doubting-trusting blind photographer in Proof; his innocent-guilty police suspect in The Interview). And malevolence (in Babe, his was the voice of the antagonistic sheepdog Rex; as a sex-obsessed real estate agent in the comedy Bedrooms and Hallways, he was the embodiment of avarice and lust).
But halfway through a conversation, you find yourself beguiled by his blue-eyed candor and straight-up charm. At NIDA, where he graduated in 1981, " he was the boy most likely to succeed," recalls Edwards, a former classmate. "And very loved. Because he has a very sunny, positive, outgoing personality. "
So much so that you quickly forget that his 1.88-m frame once balanced on size 12 high heels and answered to the name of Mitzi in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, or that as Agent Smith in The Matrix he declared, with chilling contempt, "You humans are a … virus. A disease that has infested this planet."
Andy and Larry Wachowski’s 1999 hit movie made Weaving a star–and a $9.45 action doll. As Keanu Reeves’ sunglassed nemesis, he also had a rare opportunity to upstage the special effects.
Royal Shakespeare Company director Edwards says Weaving "handles classical language along with the best in the world," and in Matrix, it is his voice you remember: it warbles like a sound loop with a computer virus. For the actor, inspiration was close at hand. "When [Larry] leaves a message on my answering machine it’s so funny," says Weaving, "because he speaks slowly and formally"–here he drops a few octaves–"and very, very low." Set to reprise his Agent Smith character in a sequel due to shoot in San Francisco and Sydney later this year, Weaving had better get used to the messages. "The script arrived yesterday," he says.
If Weaving’s voice is a finely honed instrument, his face is as changeable as a hall of mirrors, with a mouth and eyebrows that can curve and arch from modesty to superciliousness in a tick.
Recently he spent time in New Zealand playing Elrond, lord of Rivendell, opposite Cate Blanchett’s Lady Galadriel in Peter Jackson’s film of Lord of the Rings. "Both Galadriel and Elrond have been around for thousands and thousands of years, and they look like this," Weaving says, framing his face with an elegant hand. With effects like that, no wonder Hollywood comes to him.
"National boundaries seem to be disappearing," he says of the global acting trade, "and within the film industry, the studios are probably more powerful than some nations."
From his Sydney perch, Weaving has the freedom to pick and choose. He just earned his first coproduction credit for the Bondi-filmed romantic comedy Russian Doll, in which he plays a private investigator in therapy. And after a four-year hiatus, he’s returned to the stage with obvious relish.
For the O.A.F.’s theater program, maestro Schofield chose epic works like The White Devil "to echo the big nature of Australia as a continent." At its helm is Hugo. "To lead 30 people in the room by example is a phenomenal thing," says Edwards of her star.
Offstage, Weaving seems less inclined to lead. "I think more about my kids and my partner and where we’re heading as a family rather than where I’m going as an actor," he says. But then Weaving plays ambivalence to perfection.