The Sydney Morning Herald
by James Waites
June 10, 1994
EVEN a leading actor as unassuming and modest as Hugo Weaving gets a kick out of being in a movie that hits the big time at Cannes. While Proof (1991) and Frauds (1993), both starring Weaving, were well regarded at the annual film festival, it was Stephan Elliott’s drag extravaganza Priscilla, Queen of the Desert which this year supplied Weaving with all those thrills that come from eruptions of both popular and critical acclaim.
"It’s not that I was mugged in the street," says Weaving, "because only so many people could get into the midnight screening, and anyway in the film I’m in drag so they wouldn’t have been able to recognise me."
Still, the round of parties for the Priscilla delegation for once allowed Weaving to soak up a little of the hype.
Fortunately, the drag aspect of these proceedings was left to a group of professionals who, with supporting roles in the film, were taken to Cannes to personify Australia’s authority in this field. The drags, including Sydney’s number one in the field, Cindy Pastel, put on one special show that attracted so much press attention Weaving feared for the performers in the crush.
The drag queens were also called in to tickle fancies at a party thrown for the film by investors at the Polygram villa and again, says Weaving, the response was "extraordinary and overwhelming". Watching them play around with the formalities of the occasion, camping it up with moguls, made Weaving realise the extent to which drag is simply one version of old-fashioned clowning – provocative and anarchic at heart. "You just have to find your own drag. Drags can get away with things just as well as Lear’s Fool."
For Weaving, his part in Priscilla, playing Antony Belrose or "Tick", drag name Mitzi del Bra, was a gift. "You just don’t get roles like that." And it has made Weaving think through again what it means to be "who you think you are" when in fact "the boundaries are endless".
Weaving has been living happily with his partner, Katrina, for 11 years and they have two children. The film role, he says, was incredibly liberating. "To tap into that side of personality, to allow yourself to express a part of yourself that society normally doesn’t let you – not in a flamboyant, bitchy way, that’s just not how men operate. With the help of a fantastic make-up artist, you’ve suddenly got all this licence."
Weaving is an actor of quiet, effective surprises. A calm surface, articulate and civilised, gives way to groundswells of passion when least expected and to outstanding dramatic effect. Handsome, intelligent and with a gift for the spoken word, Weaving has performed in 17 major stage productions, 10 television films or series, including The Bangkok Hilton, Barlow and Chambers and The Bodyline Series, and nine feature films.
Of the many plays, Weaving has succeeded particularly in a range of classic roles, including Shakespeare’s Oberon, Petruchio, Benedict, Brutus and Hotspur; Philip Madras in Granville Barker’s Madras House; Elyot in Private Lives; and Valmont in Christopher Hampton’s stage version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. All are characters with a sophisticated veneer, challenged mostly from within by a muddied conscience or pumping heart. "Talkative, charming, high-energy sexual beings," admits an almost embarrassed Weaving, quickly adding he is "quite the opposite" in real life.
At 34, Weaving has hardly been out of work since graduating from NIDA in 1981. Stage work has been augmented by films in the past few years, including For Love Alone, The Right Hand Man, Wendy Cracked a Walnut and, among the most successful of the new wave of Australian films, Proof and now Priscilla.
If anything, says Weaving, "the struggle has been against type, against predictability", which is why he also accepted the role of an unwashed tramp in That Eye, The Sky, Burning House Theatre Company’s inaugural production and surprise hit of this year’s Sydney Festival. Later this month, Weaving opens in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Tom Stoppard’s acclaimed new play Arcadia, at the Sydney Opera House, directed by Gale Edwards and co-starring Linda Cropper.
It’s back to Weaving’s core work, in this instance a role "too good to turn down" as Bernard, a modern-day Byronic scholar. As well, he has "always wanted to work with Gale", admired by many in the industry as an actor’s director.
Set in a grand English home, but in two juxtaposing time frames (1809 and the present), the play begins with Septimus Hodge, a young tutor teaching maths and poetry to 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly. Nearly two centuries later, their scribblings catalyse an impassioned battle between Bernard Nightingale(Weaving) and Hannah Jarvis (Cropper), an important garden historian. Inhabiting these two time frames, Arcadia is described as "a gripping literary detective story, a charming period romance and a lively scientific treatise".
The play, says Weaving, "is about truth – what that might be. It’s about chaos theory, the surface of things and the thirst for knowledge."
Born in Nigeria in 1960 to English parents, Weaving’s childhood was "the best one could wish for". With an older brother, Simon, and younger sister, Anna, growing up was spent largely on the move. Working for an international computer firm, Weaving’s father brought the family to Melbourne for a few years when Hugo was two. They later spent time in Johannesburg, then went back to England for six years, before returning to Australia, this time to Sydney, where the aspiring actor finished his schooling at Knox College on the North Shore.
With no steady environment or social group, the family was "close, if not hugely demonstrative". They shared "much common experience of so many fantastic places". From this, says Weaving, he learnt to appreciate the commonality of all human beings, "that people all round the world have the same feelings".
If growing up in the midst of different cultures has given Weaving a broadly humanist perspective, there were also several key experiences which helped unlock the door to a creative future.
The desire to act, he says, came less from a passionate ambition than from"a nurturing of a particular side of myself". While living in Johannesburg, between the ages of six and 10, he and his siblings were often taken to concerts and the theatre by their parents. Most memorable for Hugo was a ballet production of Romeo and Juliet set to the music of Prokofiev. This led to various forms of play, dressing up and a desire to "read Shakespeare’s stories". David Lean’s music for the film Lawrence of Arabia also made a mark. "Music has been an important factor in my connecting with all sorts of things, why I get stirred."
Which makes Weaving wonder if he should, perhaps, have become a musician. He also suggests that it’s the musicality in great scripts that draws him in -"as if the director is actually a conductor, and the actor an instrument riding the particular energy of the scene. Energy is the most important thing in the theatre, and that energy equals music."
You begin to sense why Weaving has emerged as an actor with a reputation for depth, in control of his resources, committed to pushing the play forward, not just his own role. "You can’t do it with a mediocre script," he says.
This leaves Weaving facing a dilemma when it comes to the film assignments he is increasingly drawn to. Put together artificially out of tiny grabs of footage, a film is shot in circumstances quite at odds with the symphonic environment of a good stage production. Where being on stage requires consummate control, in front of a camera "it’s like being a bit of seaweed in the ocean. Film is more to do with surrendering." By that, Weaving means surrendering to the will of the director, who is ultimately responsible for putting all these pieces together.
Among Weaving’s most accomplished surrenderings was his performance as the blind photographer in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s excellent 1991 film, Proof, for which he won an AFI award for best leading actor. Among the core themes of Proof, the "natural truth" of photographic documentation is challenged. It’s in this film, too, that cinema audiences first experienced Weaving’s darker side. His character, Martin, is no simplistic reading of a blind person as victim. Martin is as able to turn nasty as his female antagonist, played by Genevieve Picot, and the deeply sourced emotional outbursts are palpably shocking.
THIS darker side is revealed again in director Stephan Elliott’s debut fea ture, Frauds, to be released in late July. ln Frauds, a decent, seemingly well-adjusted middle-class husband (Weaving) and his insurance assessor (Phil Collins) are drawn into the ultimate battle of male egos. This war of macho attrition, through childishly vengeful practical jokes and games, scales the heights of comic absurdity, as both Collins and Weaving fight it out literally to the edge of death on a remarkable fun-fair set.
Frauds was invited into the official competition at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and though well-received on the night its extremist vision put most potential distributors off. And it bombed in England.
Elliott is an inspired director and has a gift for casting. In search of an actor to play an aging transsexual in Priscilla, he offered the part to Terence Stamp, whom Elliott later described as "one of the most beautiful men in the world now transformed into an attractive older woman". And again Elliott cast Weaving "against type", this time as one of the two tawdry drag queens who travel with Stamp’s transsexual across the Australian desert in Priscilla, their beaten-up old bus.
Also starring in the film as the other drag queen is television soap stud Guy Pearce, and Bill Hunter appears as a mechanic who helps them out when the bus breaks down. The definition of hard-boiled Australian manliness on film, Hunter is a screen veteran much admired by other actors, and while on the set of Priscilla, Weaving came to appreciate that good film acting demands "so much less structure, playing each scene as it comes". ln film, "there’s no place for Stanislavsky," says Weaving. "You decide who you are and just play that."
Deciding who someone really is lies at the heart of Arcadia‘s thematic concerns. Weaving’s character, Bernard, is convinced from the discovery of documents found in the old house that he has fresh insights into Byron’s private life.
Indeed, Arcadia would force any actor into thinking through views he or she might hold on life’s meaning and purpose. Something of a theatrical wizard, Stoppard is also regarded as perhaps the most intellectually brilliant of today’s playwrights. If Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead thrust him into the spotlight of modern theatre with its study of life as a devastating series of games of chance among bit players, Stoppard goes a step further into the heart of today’s scientific/philosophical debates about the place of humans in the landscape of space/time since Darwin’s and Einstein’s theories have had to give way to the even more complex, circuitous patterns outlined in chaos theory.
Young Thomasina in the play is very bright and chances upon what she calls"the new geometry of irregular forms" as might be found in the pattern of a leaf. Her tutor, Septimus Hodge, realises she is on to something, but neither has the mathematics to prove the theory.The play handles these matters deftly, with wit, and there is enough illicit sex going on around the gardens of the estate to fix one leg of the play firmly in the genre of middle-class comedy of manners.
Being Stoppard’s play, this is all done very knowingly, and Weaving’s character, Bernard, is perhaps the most knowing of all. He is like most of us: modern, urbane and not past fudging the available data to get out of it what he wants. Hannah, the garden historian, ups the stakes and the gamble for reputations, for a place in history, is on.
For Weaving, these most recent acting experiences are setting him apart from the genial good-looker who once won roles because he could hold a good English accent. He seeks no place in history for himself; challenging assignments are enough. To go forth brandishing an ego is not his way, and in any case "your strengths are only the other side of your weaknesses. I’m not into blowing my own trumpet to get ahead. Acting to me is much more than just, ‘Look at me, look at me!’ "