September 6, 1998
The brow furrows. He speaks slowly, rubbing his hands together. So convincing is Hugo Weaving in his latest role, it’s hard not to be reminded by his real-life mannerisms and gestures of a suspected serial killer.
It’s not that you confuse the actor with the character. But so much of The Interview revolves around a formal question-and-answer session that, with tape whirring between us in a stark office in South Melbourne, it’s easy to see Weaving as Eddie Fleming, being quizzed by Detective Sergeant Steele (Tony Martin) and Detective Senior Constable Wayne Prior (Aaron Jeffery).
Weaving researched the role extensively. The Sydney-based actor studied Victoria Police videos of sessions with suspected killers. In some, guilt or innocence was obvious. In others, he was not so sure.
”Watching those tapes was absolutely vital," Weaving says, "because I knew that in some of the tapes, some of the people had since been convicted of the murder."
He met detectives and discussed sessions in which they had sought to win the alleged perpetrator’s confidence. He read up on the nature of evil. But the videos were particularly instructive. "Seeing the thought processes and seeing some brilliant pieces of acting which don’t seem like acting. They just seem totally and utterly natural. That was a bit of an eye-opener for me."
In the film, Weaving’s character is arrested in connection with a vehicle theft and the disappearance of a country salesman. He toys with his interrogators and the audience. One moment, we see him as an innocent, harassed victim; the next, he seems to be a callous killer. The film leaves an element of doubt. Director Craig Monahan removed the original ending in which, says Weaving, "it becomes clear the sort of person he is".
Monahan, who is completing a masters degree in Australian film history at Deakin University, also wrote, directed and produced the 1990 television documentary Animated. He took more than eight years to write the script for The Interview. Eddie was unambiguously innocent in the earliest draft, says Weaving, but the character evolved.
"What was important to me was that, as a human being, Eddie Fleming was the sort of person who would keep a part of himself from himself. He felt totally justified in saying, ‘Well, I am innocent’ … You look back on the character and you think, well this man’s quite sick."
Monahan has said: "With Hugo, you realise that there’s a genuine sensitivity as part of his personality … It allows him to have a fragile quality which I think comes through very, very well."
Weaving appreciated the care with which Monahan approached filming. The director allowed for six weeks’ rehearsal and encouraged both Weaving and Martin to help shape their characters. The preparation was less hasty than on other projects. "They’ll say, ‘We’ve got two weeks’ rehearsal’," Weaving says, "but the two weeks will be immediately prior to the shoot and you’ll end up having two or three days. Everyone is getting their hair cut and colored and costumes and everyone wants to talk to the director. It’s a mad period when nothing is really done."
At 38, Weaving has some misgivings about the vocation and particularly about its impact on his partner and their nine-year-old son and daughter, 5. "I think it can be very disruptive and I never wanted it to be," he says. "Last year I was away for a long time and I don’t want to do that again."
There are other difficulties.
"You work on something and then it’s gone. You’re very close to a number of people, you’re working very intently on a particular idea or emotion, and then the next day you have a party and that’s the end of it and you’re at home.
"I find that part of acting very difficult. To constantly adjust to slipping in and out of this make-believe world that needs to be as real as possible. The real world sometimes seems less real than the fake one. I find that bizarre."
Weaving’s parents met in the drama society at Bristol University and toured England with an amateur theatrical group. Hugo was born in Nigeria; the family moved on before he was a year old. He began his schooling in Melbourne, then found himself in Sydney aged five or six. Next came Johannesburg, South Africa, until he was nine. Then back to England, moving from place to place. He was 16 when the family returned to Australia. "We moved around everywhere together," he says. "Just two years and two years and two years. Always moving."
He had an early love of theatre. "I didn’t think of it in terms of a profession," he says. "It was just something that I enjoyed doing. Dressing up and pretending, I suppose. I was into it in a big way from the age of about nine or 10. I remember being taken to see some films and theatre and ballet around that age in South Africa that captured my imagination. It was more fulfilling to be involved in that sort of thing than anything else."
Perhaps because his was an unsettled childhood, he could sympathise with Douglas Jardine, the English cricket captain and villain in the Bodyline mini-series, one of his first memorable roles.
"The villains that I prefer playing are the ones where there’s a natural contradiction," Weaving says. "Maybe he (Jardine) was a patrician and maybe he was from a wealthy background. That’s certainly the way he was portrayed by some of the writers and the media. But I always found him quite a fascinating man and the fact that he was sent away from home at the age of four or five to boarding school in England from India on his own … I immediately felt sorry for him.
"If I can feel sorry for someone – if I can empathise with them – then obviously it helps enormously."
Because Eddie Fleming was not based on any particular person, Weaving could delve into the character just so far. We know there’s been some trauma but we never know what it was.
Weaving says, "I decided with Eddie to stop asking myself what it was in Goulburn that had happened to him all those years back, which is the question that Steele asks a couple of times – ‘We hear you had some dealings with police. What was it?’
"Eddie breaks down and gets really upset and then a bit later on Steele alludes to that again and it’s the only time that Eddie says absolutely nothing. He just sits there. It’s like five or six seconds of nothing. I figured that whatever had happened was so hideous it was better for me not to remember it. I didn’t think it would be a good idea to invent something. I invented all sorts of things and … I had some rough idea and then I blotted it out."
After graduating from the National Institute of Dramatic Art, Weaving worked in contemporary productions for the Sydney Theatre Company, travelling to the US in the mid-1980s with its production of David Williamson’s The Perfectionist. He has played the lead character Jonathan Crow in For Love Alone and the co-lead in Right Hand Man. He co-starred with Victoria Longley in Dirtwater Dynasty, a mini-series, and film roles include The Adventures Of Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert (1994), for which he was nominated for an AFI best actor award.
Before filming his AFI-award-winning portrayal of a blind photographer in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof, Weaving spent a good deal of time with blind people, one in particular who "seemed psychologically right for the character". He’d video himself at home "doing technical things with my eyes which would make it seem that I had the right look".
A recent appearance was as an alcoholic musician in the road movie, True Love And Chaos. "It got some great reviews," he says. "But it was one of those films that disappeared after three or four weeks on the screen and I think it’s a fantastically underrated or unseen film by a very talented film-maker, Stavros Efthymiou."
Weaving has a small part in Strange Planet, the second feature from Emma-Kate Croghan, who won international acclaim for her debut, Love And Other Catastrophes, and he is also recording one of the voices for an animated film of Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding.
For all his success, Weaving is determined not to follow other actors overseas. "I don’t like LA," he says. "I think it’s a hideous place. I love New York. But I don’t really want to live there. By and large the films I like watching are not Hollywood films.
"I think the industry here is now very strong even if it is small. I think you can have a career here and and do interesting work and still make a living. I don’t think it necessarily was possible even five or six years ago."