Elissa Blake: How do you feel about taking the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Uncle Vanya to New York in July, after doing so well in Washington?
Hugo Weaving: The Washington trip was really a very happy experience and it was nice to go back and do something – revisit the same play again. Yeah, Washington was great; very well received and we – just sort of quite a seamless transition over there, so hopefully the New York one will be the same.
EB: I’ve printed out a review that [New York Times critic] Ben Brantley wrote because it was fun – it says he really enjoyed the kissing scenes between you and Cate Blanchett.
HW: Yeah. I think he then went and wrote an article about kisses in theatre.
EB: He said you were “like two planets colliding, tumbling onto the floor” –
HW: Yeah (laughs). Cate runs across the stage and jumps into my arms and we collapse onto the bed.
EB: Was that slightly different every night?
HW: Yes. Well, there was one night when I’ve whacked Cate’s head on the back of the bed and drew blood, so each night was a little bit different.
EB: Did you have any injuries?
HW: Yeah, I used to whack my knee on the floor coming off the bed after that, and then be hobbling around, but that was all; it’s all fun.
EB: Did you enjoy playing that scene?
HW: Yeah, that was – like, all of Chekhov – it seems so elusive, some nights so elusive there are such fine things that need to be kept alive and – in order to keep it fresh; discovering things and then losing some moments, then you can’t worry about that, and then sometimes they float back. It’s always changing and lively. So, I always enjoyed the unpredictability of that play and working with Chekhov anyway. I think that’s the thing, I’ve sort of learnt from working with [Hungarian director] Tamas Ascher and working on Chekhov – yeah, just to let it all go a little bit more.
HW: Well, I didn’t really know anything about that until – I don’t know very much about what those awards are. I presume they’re the Washington theatre awards?
HW: So that’s really nice. It’s always lovely – we knew when we were there that the audiences really loved it and it was going very well, and they hadn’t – didn’t expect us to – in that particular period people tend to leave Washington and it’s not – apparently not a theatre time.
EB: Because it’s summer there?
HW: I don’t know if it was very humid, very muggy and generally they don’t – theatre doesn’t do well in that period of time in Washington. But we did very well and we were getting a lot of feedback from audiences and very good reviews. Cate and Andrew [Upton, co-artistic directors of the STC] have taken the STC over there and promoted Sydney theatre on the Washington stage, and Cate’s so gracious, the way she can talk about Sydney theatre and the company with, you know, a whole lot of senators there. She’s a great ambassador and a great voice for Australian theatre. So we knew we’d been well received, and that was lovely; it’s really nice.
EB: Last time we talked about your preparation for Uncle Vanya, so I wonder what kind of preparation you’re doing this time for Valmont, the great seducer in Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereueses?
HW: I’ve just been reading the play – doing lots of reading and re-reading – because, of course, I played this years ago and it’s been kind of strange to come back to it in some ways, and wonderful in other ways.
HW: It was about 25 years ago. I think I was probably 27 then, yeah.
EB: And you’re now near –
HW: I’m now 51.
EB: A whole lot of different life experience to bring to the role.
HW: Yeah. It’s funny, I’ve never been off the book so early. I’m not referring to the book as much as I would be normally at this stage, so there must be some residual memory from 25 years ago. But, no, the work I’ve been doing – I’ve just been reading the play, really, and working my way through it.
EB: Have you been reading any other books around the time or on the topic?
HW: Well, not really. I probably would have done that if we had been setting it in 1789, but we’re not. We’re trying to contemporize it, and that’s a challenge in a different way. So, I’m not trying to reference any particular time – it’s a kind of timeless now. You’re getting a sense of elegance and wealth – European wealth, I suppose, in the set, and contemporary costumes, and so – the difficult thing for us, I think, with this production, is the language. The things they’re talking about – morality and love and friendship and virtue and faith – they have very different meanings now to us, and so to make those work in a contemporary context.
And the way in which Valmont is a seducer in 1780 and Valmont as a seducer now has to be necessarily very different, so it’s just trying to sort of work out what might have worked as seduction then with the sort of sexual relations between men and women then and the power struggle then and what might work now – they’d be very different sort of lines of seduction.
So, it’s making things that Valmont’s saying work now – you actually have to play it in a very different way. It would be slightly less front-on. He’s quite an ardent – he’s an “ardent rake”, if you like, and so – his reputation is such that everyone knows he’s a seducer, so he doesn’t have to pretend he’s not. The idea is that he makes women feel as thought they’re the only one in the room. He absolutely adores you and is so ardently professing his love for you, even though you know he’s reputation, and somehow that actually has a power in itself. But I don’t think that sort of passionate profession of love can work in the same way today, so we were just trying to – or I’m trying to negotiate my way through that, which is challenging and good.
EB: What are your early ideas of what a modern seduction might look like or sound like?
HW: Obviously the words are the same, but some of the physicality that Hampton’s written into it, like “falling to his knees and grasping her hand and kissing her hand” – like, the kissing of the hand and the falling to the knees is very much something which you’re sort of in ‘corset land’ a bit. Sometimes a movement away from someone rather that to them can achieve drawing someone in. But in answer to your question, I don’t know. We’re just sort of working our way through each scene, one scene at a time. And each woman that Valmont has his gaze on – and there are at least three women in the play who he’s seducing in different ways – they all require a different sort of energy and a different sort of attack, if you like.
Finding the language for each particular relationship is important.
EB: What is the essence of this play for you?
HW: I think it’s really delicious language and very seductive, very sexy, and exciting, and the two principal characters are – they’re both Machiavellian and human, but they’re quite monstrous in their own ways, and yet you’re asked to follow – you see them together and you’re asked to follow their machinations and their plans and their intrigues, and the effect that that has on people and the way in which they can think quickly on their feet.
It’s fabulous. I mean, they are fabulously intelligent characters and it’s a beautifully intelligent piece of writing, and it’s funny and it’s witty, but it’s not cold; it’s quite – I mean, they can get cold but it’s quite – I think it’s quite a juicy, exciting, seductive piece of work, and the audience are seduced – or, hopefully, they should be seduced by the – particularly by Valmont and Merteuil, but they’re seduced by the language as well and the power of argument and the power of thrust and parry that happens between all the characters.
EB: Was it part of your research to look at the two films that have been made, or did you stay away?
HW: No, I haven’t looked at either of them. I did – I remember seeing the Malkovich one years ago. It was made after the production that I was in at Nimrod. I remember seeing the film and not actually – I actually didn’t like John Malkovich’s interpretation of it, anyway. I thought he was very snake-like. I mean, that’s not a criticism because that was obviously what he was sort of doing – he was literally doing a serpentine (Weaving sticks his tongue out and waggles it like a snake)
EB: (laughs) Yeah, yeah.
HW: I think he’s a wonderful actor and I just found that particular angle fascinating. But I think there’s another side to the character that’s more interesting and maybe – I found him repellent, actually. I found that character too repellent, and I think he needs to be not repellent.
EB: So if John Malkovich was snake-like, are you being a different animal?
HW: No, I don’t know. I’m just trying to – well, I keep thinking about him like as a river and – a river that is flowing – there’s a fluidity about him and an ability to get past whatever obstacles are in his way. So if there’s suddenly a lot of rocks put in his path, he will flow over and around then, and he also will slow everything down; he has a desire not to hurry, to enjoy – to actually enjoy the sense of someone else. He doesn’t want to batter someone else into loving him, or he doesn’t want to conquer them; he wants to actually get them to come to him, and so he will slow it down. There are times when that river will become very lazy and meandering and other times when it feels like it’s rushing headlong and kind of stopping the other person from being able to do anything because they’re caught up in his – you know, in his power and his emotion, or whatever you like. So I keep thinking of him as a river rather than as an animal.
It’s a rhythmical thing.
EB: Writers have described Valmont in many different ways: “a dissipated womanizer”, “brazenly manipulative”, “devilishly charming”, “sexy as hell”, “rakish” … is he all those things?
HW: Yeah. It’s interesting – there was an article about Hampton in The Australian not that long ago and he was talking about Valmont. He was talking about the difference between Alan Rickman’s Valmont – Alan Rickman first played it when it was first done at the National, and what he brought to it – and what John Malkovich had brought to it and how different they were. He said that John Malkovich was much colder and – but also more childlike, in a way, more impulsive; and Rickman was fantastic with the language and sort of, I suppose, more devilishly sexy, in a way. Hampton said, “well, of course, you can go either way with that”, and I think you can maybe try and synthesise –
EB: Overlap –
HW: — the lot.
EB: So how’s it going in rehearsals? Is this a fun role for you?
HW: Yeah, it is fun. I love rehearsals anyway, but these rehearsals have been good, and they are fun.
EB: And do you feel like what you’re doing is very different to what you did when you were 27?
HW: Yeah, I can’t really remember physically what was going on – I remember that – I think the production would have been very intelligent and clear and pretty quite lean – I think the staging was quite simple. Richard Cottrell directed and Angela Punch McGregor played Merteuil, and Deidre Rubenstein was in it – a lovely cast, actually. But, no, that’s a long time ago and I was very young. I was much too young, really. I’m too old now, actually but –
EB: What age should he be?
HW: I reckon probably late 30s.
EB: I’ve got this interview here with you from back in the day where you were saying that you’re “getting a little bit tired of playing upper-class people who are a little bit nasty” and that you’re starting to get a bit bored with those roles, but you said, with Valmont, “If I was 40, I’d be doing it twice as well because he’s really over the hill. He’s really bored with life” –
HW: He’s really over the hill; he’s 40.
EB: Yeah (laughs).
HW: That’s right. That’s what I thought – I think the boredom thing with him, I felt I was just too young to feel like – as a man who’s been doing this for some time and there’s a sense that there must be something more. He finds the way in which he and Merteuil go about seducing people sort of cold and passionless, and what he wants is passion, what he wants is – and he’s constantly talking about taking time and not wanting to conquer this woman Tourvel, but because she’s virtuous and happily married and because she has strong faith, he doesn’t want to try and change those things, he wants her to –
EB: Come to him?
HW: — he wants the excitement of watching her betray everything that’s most important to her. A great seducer obviously has to choose someone who they feel attracted to in one way or another, and in one way she’s not – she wouldn’t have been considered a society beauty, but she’s a beautiful woman and she’s internally and externally beautiful, but she’s also a bit of – she’s described as being a bit of a prude. But he’s already been, in a way, unconsciously seduced by her before we come to the play, so he’s – in a funny way he already knows that she’s excited by his reputation or his presence, so that’s enough, and the fact that she’s like a difficult target is – because he likes everything – the bigger the challenge, the more the excitement.
But he’s someone who has to go, like a river, to actually put himself into a situation he has to really be in love with the woman, and he can’t – because otherwise the profession – if it’s just a mechanical thing, if it’s just a seduction with the aim of sort of revealing to society that this woman’s being seduced and cast off and made a fool of, then that’s not enough for him anymore.
So, yeah, I think I was aware of that when I was 27 going “well, I actually – I understand this intellectually but I don’t feel like that”, and I think he’s a man who’s kind of come to a place where he wants something else, and he probably unconsciously would like to be in love with someone and just settle down and live in the country with them, but he would never admit that, and he would hate his reputation to be – to lose his reputation. His reputation is as the great seducer, the great lover of all women, and so he’s kind of in a bind, in a trap.
EB: Would you say he’s one of the great lovers in literature, like Casanova or Don Juan?
HW: Yeah, in terms of literature, yeah, he’s one of the great – absolutely one of the great lovers.
EB: So what’s it like working with Justine again?
HW: Really gorgeous. I adore her.
EB: And how is it working with director Sam Strong?
HW: Yeah, lovely. He’s got such a great energy. That’s what I like about Sam. He’s an incredibly positive, open energy. So, feel like everything is permissible and allowed and yet he’s also got a terrific brain and – so it’s a very relaxed, forward-moving – never gets flabby in there; you don’t feel like you lose your energy. It feels like we’re always moving forward, but it’s not – there’s no tension or stress to Sam. I like that a lot, that he’s both positive and forward moving and interested and excited and intelligent. I think it’s kind of a fantastic combination; really kind of clear-headed and wanting to try and nut stuff out with us, you know? So, yeah, it’s good.
And I’ve only seen a couple of productions of his, but one of the things that mark both those productions is the quality of the performances and the intelligent direction, the clarity of the production. I love both The Boys and Speaking in Tongues – I thought, wow, beautiful performances, very rich and nuanced.
So I think he’s great for this material, too, and I think he’s enjoying himself. He was saying today, “Oh, I love rehearsal. I wish I could be in rehearsal forever.”
And I often feel like that, too. It’s like a great laboratory – exciting laboratory of humanity; you’re trying to work out, you know, why people do what they do.
EB: We have very much enjoyed you back on the stage. Do you feel like you’d like to continue doing one a year or just as they come up?
HW: Yeah. It’s something we’re talking about next year, so hopefully that will happen.
EB: At the STC?
HW: And then – look, who knows?
EB: Last time we talked you said that sometimes you feel like you’re falling in and out of love with acting and you’re not sure if you want to keep doing it or not.
EB: Do you still feel that kind of conflict?
HW: Yeah, it’s a cyclical thing. Things seem to go through phases where you’re completely immersed in something and then you get a little bit out of love with it and you maybe want to find something else. But I think that’s good. I think that’s natural and causes you to question who you are and what you’re doing and why. But it’s never been to the stage where I’m absolutely – I’ve never felt “I’m never going to act again”, but I have felt “Oh, I would love to just stop and take some time out and maybe do something else”, but that just causes me to think well, why do I do what I do?
I love being up on the property and planting trees and working the land. Well, not in a particularly productive way but just planting stuff, actually. I think I could very happily do that, but if I seriously decided to chuck in acting and just do that, I think I would get very – I would miss something – a lot.
EB: Yeah. Would you ever consider something hugely radical like taking on this company? There is a vacancy coming up…you’ve done a lot of work with the Sydney Theatre Company.
HW: No, I – no, I wouldn’t. I know how hard it is, I know how amazing Andrew and Cate have been and I know how – there’s two of them and they’ve got a young family and I think they’ve been incredible with this company. I think what they’ve done has been really remarkable. I also know how hard it has been for them personally and how difficult it is for them, for all sorts of reasons, to really do the right thing by the company.
But I wouldn’t have half the ability that – or energy that they have – or desire, actually, because I think if you’re running – this would have to be your life, and I could never – I mean, both of our kids are sort of – well, they’ve left school now, so I suppose you could potentially think, well, you could throw yourself into something like this, but I have no desire. Cate and Andrew said something the other day about maybe it’s time for a director to take on the company again. I think that’s probably right as a next step.
EB: Someone with a directing background rather than an acting –
HW: Yeah, yeah.
EB: So you won’t be applying for the job?
HW: No, I wouldn’t anyway, and I would be hopeless.
HW: Seriously I would. I would be absolutely awful. I haven’t directed anything. I might be quite a good director in some ways, but I’ve never directed anything before and – that wouldn’t be the problem; the problem would be trying to –
EB: Run the company?
HW: I couldn’t deal with all that stuff. It’s not really the artistic side that’s the difficulty, I don’t think. I think the hard thing for Cate and Andrew would be probably everything else, and that’s massive – for anyone –
It’s a massive, massive job. It’s a spectacular company. I love working here, but no, I would never – no.
EB: Tell me about your films coming up. Cloud Atlas looks fascinating, it’s based on the novel by David Mitchell and stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Ben Wishaw among others.
HW: Absolutely, yeah. Well, this is a huge film that’s directed by Lana and Andrew Wachowski, who directed The Matrix and V For Vendetta that I did, and also Thom Tykwer, who’s a German director – he directed a film called Run Lola Run, amongst other films – and you know from the book there’s six separate stories, so – it’s a huge cast. We filmed it in Berlin and Majorca and Glasgow and in Saxony, but mostly in Berlin, and the six stories take place in different time zones, different geographies, but they’re told more like in a mosaic way rather than the way they are in the book, and the actors were playing more than one role, so many of us had one role in each story and it’s like souls reborn through time, which is sort of suggested in the book.
There’s quite a lot of prosthetic changes we were all undergoing, and it was a mad – well, it wasn’t mad, it was wonderful and difficult and challenging and a great script and a wonderful experience.
EB: It sounds like a great project.
HW: Yeah, very difficult to make it work, but everyone knew that when they jumped in; and great, fabulous actors and a very exciting project, but fiendishly difficult; a big adventure.
HW: Well, I was over there with Cate last year – we went for a couple of weeks around the same time just to do a small block. So, yeah, great to go back there again and see everyone. I think they’re still filming – they had a little period off and then went back into it, and they’re still all over there now.
EB: Will there be two Hobbit films?
EB: And will you be in both of those?
EB: Peter Jackson has released a few small videos of how it’s going on and Ian McKellen was saying that they’re all “happy actors cavorting around” (laughs). Did you feel like there was a lot of cavorting?
HW: It’s easy to cavort with Ian. He’s great. Yeah, they’d only really just begun, actually, when I was there, so – the dwarves were – they were getting used to dealing with the full-on preparation for each day, to get into these massive suits, prosthetic was really hard for some of them, I think, to sit in that every day. So that was something they were dealing with, but they were cavorting as much within that as they could, and enjoying themselves; good group of people. And Ian was – it was lovely to sort of see him again. But I was only really there for about three weeks, I think. So we’ll see whether I have to go back for any hiccoughs or not this year, or next year, I don’t know, but I suspect, knowing Peter, that that’s what will happen.
EB: So that whole series, that’s been enjoyable for you to work on that?
HW: Yeah, yeah.
EB: It looks fun. Will there be any more superheroes?
HW: No, I don’t think so.
EB: You’ve finished with that?
EB: So is there anything else on the horizon that you can tell us about? I guess after this play, what happens for you –
HW: After this – after about five weeks we go Uncle Vanya in New York and there’s a film, hopefully, which will be happening in Australia after that, but it just depends on – it’s a film that’s been floating around for a little while, so whether that happens or not I don’t know. Hopefully.
EB: And maybe a stage work next year?
HW: Yeah, with STC, hopefully something next year; and then at the end of this year Cloud Atlas will come out, so I think there’s a big thing planned for that. I don’t normally sort of get interested in press junkets or anything, but it would just be lovely to go back to Berlin and see everyone and I can’t wait to see that because it’s – who knows what it’s going to be like, but it was a pretty interesting project to work on.
EB: Will you have any time to follow the Sydney Swans this year?
HW: I will absolutely. Yeah, the pre-season has started, yeah. So they’ve won – they beat the Kangaroos last week. I don’t know who they’re playing this week, I’m not sure; I can’t remember. But they’ve got a very good team – yeah, good team this year. Exciting.
EB: Feeling hopeful?
HW: Yeah, very much so. I think they’re good – I think they’ll be top five again for sure.
EB: Excellent. So could you share just a few things that are in your life pop culture wise? Like, last time you told me you watch a lot of TV and you were saying that QI was your favourite show last time.
HW: I just don’t watch TV at the moment. I must have been watching a lot of TV when I said that to you last time.
EB: It was just to put your feet up when you come home from the theatre, just to chill out.
HW: No, not watching of TV at the moment at all.
EB: Any films?
HW: I saw Psycho again the other night because my daughter hadn’t seen it for a while and she wanted to watch it, so we watched it together.
But films I’ve seen lately that I’ve loved – I saw Shame; I thought it was beautiful, absolutely beautiful and really sad – and actually great for this play, too. It was about sexual addiction, so there was something in that that was really fabulous to watch for this play.
EB: What about any books you’ve been reading? Do you have a current book that you’re on?
HW: I’m reading Casanova’s diaries and there’s a book called The Art of Seduction which I thought was pretty interesting; I’m sort of dipping in and out of that. But that’s not what I want to read in bed at night. I’m reading Aleksandar Hemon’s books at the moment.
EB: And the tree planting is going well?
HW: We were up at the farm about three weeks ago, just before we started this play. Katrina [Greenwood, his partner] and I were up there for about five or six days and just lots of – planted a whole lot of spotted gums, which is good, and put in another – we planted a walnut tree, actually, which is a bit bizarre because it’s not –
EB: Not native?
HW: Not native, but kind of interesting in that particular spot. And our macadamias are going so well up there, and the fig tree’s going so well, so we thought we may as well put in some other nut trees, so we put a walnut in and a hazelnut tree.
EB: Do you have any flooding up there or is it not affecting you?
HW: We do. No, we flood up there regularly. It doesn’t affect the house; that’s sort of –
EB: It’s high?
HW: — just above the river, but it absolutely – no, we’ve been stuck up there a number of times, not able to get out. The bridge just before our property on the Williams River goes under in a flood – it’s designed to. So we’ve been cut off – I haven’t been able to get back for a couple of things on occasions.
EB: Has that been worrying?
HW: No, it’s great. If you can’t get out, you can’t get out.
EB: Is the fishing good?
HW: I don’t fish, but a lot of the locals do and they won’t tell you where to go because they’ve got their secrets, but apparently it’s very good. I mean, you walk in there and have a swim which – you’re always in there – and there’s got to be a lot of fish in there because you’re immediately getting nibbled by lots of tiny – you know, there’s lots of little fry in there, nibbling you. So where there are little ones, there are big ones. You see them jumping every now and then. But, no, I don’t fish myself.
EB: It sounds very idyllic.
HW: It is, absolutely beautiful. That’s why we bought it, because it was on that river and – it wasn’t so much the house, it was that it was – there’s a beautiful glade on the property down right by the river and it’s like some unbelievable – I don’t know what it is. I couldn’t – when I first went down there, I thought, “This is so beautiful, I can’t believe that it’s here”, and “we could buy this property”, and “how wonderful would it be to come here and” – you know it’s – yeah.
EB: So that’s your work/life balance sorted out really, isn’t it?
HW: Yeah. So if we can get up there – the only – the big problem with doing theatre is that it really plays havoc with your social life –
EB: Your weekends?
HW: You actually – I mean, your rehearsing is much more classically – well, we do 10 to 6, but it’s sort of classic 9 to 5 or 10 to 6, so that’s slightly normal for most people. But the weird thing about doing theatre, once you’re on you think, “Well, I’ve got my days free”, but you don’t really, and you’ve got eight performances a week for ten weeks, that means you basically get one night off a week, and that’s just enough to pffft, you know?
HW: So you can’t really do anything; you can’t see anyone because you’re working every night and –
EB: You can go and see the Swans –
HW: You can if there’s a Saturday afternoon game or Sunday afternoon game, I suppose But if it’s a night game on a Friday night or a Saturday night, no. I can see the Sunday games.
EB: Hugo, I think our work is done. Thank you very much.