Australian actor Hugo Weaving has made fascinating choices in his career, from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to The Matrix trilogy. And, he has starred in two of the biggest trilogies in film history – playing elf leader Elrond in The Lord of the Rings films and Agent Smith in The Matrix films. In his new film, The Wolfman, directed by Joe Johnston, he stars as Scotland Yard Inspector Aberline who is assigned to investigate the murder of Lawrence Talbot’s brother.
After reading the script for The Wolfman, Weaving was keen to take the role. “It was a snap decision to play Aberline,” he says. “I read the script and liked it, but I had to make my mind up there and then. It was a completely instinctive decision, but I really like the material and thought Aberline was fascinating.”
Weaving’s character is based on the actual Inspector Frederick George Aberline, who was brought in to head the investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. “He’s an intelligent man who obviously went through a lot during the investigation of the Ripper murders,” Weaving explains. “He’s wise and canny and can be charming, but he’s also incredibly skeptical and doesn’t believe for a minute that anything but a man could be responsible for the murders in Blackmoor.”
MoviesOnline sat down with Hugo Weaving at the L.A. Press Day for The Wolfman. He talked to us about his character, what it’s like to be a part of the Universal monster legacy, and working with Zack Snyder on the upcoming Guardians of Ga’Hoole and hopefully Guillermo del Toro on The Hobbit.
Q: Are you looking forward to coming back for the sequel?
Hugo: I don’t know if there’s going to be a sequel. And I would only choose to do something, anything really, based on a script and the people involved with that script. For me, the first point of departure, as an actor, is responding to a script. As that script isn’t written yet, I can’t answer the question any more than that.
Q: How much input did you have into the look of your character?
Hugo: Aberline is based, pretty loosely, on Detective Inspector Aberline, who headed up the White Chapel murders of 1889, which became known as the Jack the Ripper murders. I thought I’d better do a little bit of research into the real man to see if there was anything pertinent about him that could be used in the film, and there was a little bit, but not a great deal. The most important thing about using Aberline in this film was that it immediately, in the viewers mind, leads you to start thinking about London streets and that whole horror that was Jack the Ripper. It adds a great bit of flavor. But, the one thing I did take from the real Inspector Aberline was the mutton chop whiskers, which was based on a sketch that I had seen of him. So, that was my input into the visual character.
Q: How did you make this character distinct and like a real person?
Hugo: I wasn’t really thinking about making him distinct. Certainly, he is a very distinctive type, and that’s something that you can enjoy. The scene where Aberline walks into the tavern was, for me, a very funny scene on the page. He was surrounded by suspicious villagers who believe in werewolves and he’s a very circumspect man of rational thought and he’s a detective. For me, that was an enjoyable scene.
Q: This is a remake and re-imagination of a film that is part of the Universal monster legacy. What is that like to be a part of?
Hugo: I never really thought about that, to be honest. Unlike Benicio, I didn’t grow up having seen all of these films. They didn’t have that impact on me because I didn’t see them at that particular time. So, in terms of being part of a legacy, it’s something I’m probably not as aware of as Benicio, and possibly a lot of other people. But, I think re-telling this story is a great idea, and setting it in Victorian London was a really great idea. It’s a master stroke. It’s a much more evocative period than the original film. And, the original film now, from my perspective, is a funny old movie that I can’t really take seriously. I think it was ripe to be revisited in a classic way, and set in that period.
Q: Aberline is the force of good, but he’s also the guy that audiences don’t really want to win. Did that affect the way you approached the role at all?
Hugo: No, I don’t think about things like that. Unless you’re playing the villain who’s obviously the villain, and that’s part of your job description, I tend not to see characters in terms of being good or evil. I just think about, “What is it that they’re trying to do?” In a way, Benicio’s character is fighting himself, and so is Aberline, so they’re both actually fighting the same thing. They just don’t know it. His struggle is an internal one, with his own demons, passions and desires, and Aberline is the much more rational one asking, “Who perpetrated these murders, and how are we going to catch the murderer?” I never saw it in terms of them being on opposite sides, really. It’s set up, in the initial meeting, that Aberline probably, being a detective, is going to suspect the brother of the murdered heir to the family estate, of course, because he’s the most likely suspect. But, beyond that, I never really saw them as being in opposition to each other. I think the interesting thing about the genre is that a man is in opposition to himself. That’s what makes Benicio’s character interesting, painful and tragic. It’s an internal struggle. To what extent are we civilized, and to what extent are we animals? Well, we’re animals who have become civilized, so there’s an interesting battle going on in all of us because we are civilized, but we’re also animals.
Q: Would you say that The Matrix transformed your acting career?
Hugo: Yes, in many ways, the first Matrix film was a departure for me, in terms of the choice of films that I had been making. I still, by and large, make low-budget Australian films, and so these bigger budget, mostly American-backed films are a lot of fun for me to do. It enables me to work on a completely different scale. But, yeah, The Matrix was certainly the first film that I had done that had that sort of exposure.
Q: You’ve worked in the fantasy, science fiction and horror genres, that all overlap, in some ways. What have you found interesting about working in those genres?
Hugo: The strength of the science fiction genre, particularly, is that it actually is a way of looking at who we are now by putting us in a future environment, like with V for Vendetta, and enables us to talk about where we are now. You’re talking about things that we’re always interested in. I think all these genres have a particular strength to them because they’re actually deeply interested in very basic human considerations. This horror genre has to do with the extent to which we are civilized, the extent to which we can repress our instincts and how we control those things. And they also talk about the deep-seeded fears that we might hold as individuals and as a society. Fantasies do that as well. In a more fantastic film, you can highlight certain things about who we are now. If a film isn’t really talking about who we are and what our psychologies are, they we’re probably not interested in it. We’re interested in our own natures. So, they all have a similarity, even though the structures of them are quite different.
Q: This character’s manner of speech was similar to Agent Smith from The Matrix. Was that intentional or unintentional?
Hugo: It probably reminded you because it’s the same actor, but I certainly didn’t think about that. One was an English detective and the other one was a strangely constructed character from nowhere, really. If you’re talking about a style of speech, there is a deliberate nature to both of those characters. That’s certainly true. Smith is much more controlling than Aberline. In a way, Smith has something in common with Benicio’s character, in that he ends up being taken over by human feelings that he doesn’t want to have to deal with. But, Aberline was an English copper, really.
Q: Does it get easier to work with CGI, the more you do it?
Hugo: I don’t think there were any CGI elements on this, for me. I was always on location or on a set that was so fantastic it seemed like I was on location anyway. I was always working with other actors, so I didn’t have to make a great suspension of disbelief. I didn’t find it particularly hard. The most CGI I’ve ever done was on The Matrix, and there wasn’t very much on that. There were amazing sets and we were working with other actors and training. But, if I did have to do a lot of green screen in a film, I would find that very wearing. I don’t enjoy that, particularly. It’s a technical requirement that’s something you have to do, but it’s not why you sign up to be an actor, in the first place. There are elements you need to revisit. I would much prefer to be on location or on a set and, with this film, we really were, all the time. It was probably hard for Benicio, from time to time.
Q: You’ve played a lot of characters where the look and costume was very important. Is that a transformative experience for you, or is it simply about what’s on the page and that’s secondary?
Hugo: I think any role that you play, you not so much transform, but I like to think of it as understanding the psychology of another character. I’m not really talking about this film in particular, but acting, in general. And so, a transformation takes place over a period of time, diminishing your own characteristics and augmenting characteristics that you see in someone else, and then the visual impact of a character will come with decisions you’ve made about the way in which they might look. It might have to do with facial hair or costume, or whatever. I enjoy trying to understand what makes people tick, and transformation is also a part of that.
Q: Did you have any scenes cut out of this film?
Hugo: I haven’t seen this film yet, so I don’t know. I’m sure there have been bits and pieces cut, as there always are, but that’s the nature of film. In terms of scenes I did, no. As you may know, we went back last year to do a few pick-ups and re-shoots, so there were new little bits. And some of the things would have been lost from the original shoot, but they were lost because we went and re-shot and picked up bits that we added to them.
Q: How involved were the re-shoots?
Hugo: For me, it was mostly me running around cobbled London streets at night. That was it. I got very sore feet. The main purpose of the re-shoots, as far as I understand, was to beef up the werewolf chase/action sequences. There were a few other scenes that were shot as well, that I wasn’t involved in, which weren’t to do with me. But, it was a process of a few weeks in London, last year.
Q: Were there any special challenges with any of the action sequences for you?
Hugo: The hardest challenge for me probably was playing a character who’s so rational and circumspect, and absolutely does not believe in werewolves because who does? And yet, he has to witness the transformation of a man into a wolf, and so that’s a challenge both for the character and for the actor. But, once Aberline sees that transformation of Talbot into this wolf, the film is propelled into a sequence of action, which is one of the things we went to re-shoot, so there’s no time for either the character or the audience to have too many thoughts about it. You just have to follow the action, as you go along. That was probably the hardest thing. What do you do when you’re confronted with something like that? You can’t think about it.
Q: Can you talk about working with Zack Snyder on Guardians of Ga’Hoole as a voice? What kind of character are you playing and will the voice sound like you?
Hugo: There’s a couple of characters, actually. It was great working with Zack. I’m going to go back there and do another little bit, in a couple of weeks. Doing a voice on an animated film is a long process. They require the voices to be put down first, so they get the timing. They also will shoot you, so that the animators can animate certain thought processes. But, it was a wonderful experience. One of the characters is a narrator figure, and the other one is a conflicted owl who’s working as a jailer of other owls. He’s working under duress, so he does something to sacrifice his own life. One of them sounds a little bit like an Australian junkie, and the other one sounds a little bit like my voice.
Q: What do you have coming up next?
Hugo: I think The Hobbit is being filmed this year, but I don’t know. And then, there’s a production of “Uncle Vanya,” which is a Chekhov play, in Sydney, at the end of the year. Cate Blanchett is the artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, and I work there quite a lot. And, we’re involved in a production with a wonderful cast and a Hungarian theatre director. That’s what I’ll be doing towards the end of the year. Between now and then, though, I suspect The Hobbit might rear its head. Other than that, I’ll be concentrating on steering my daughter through her final year of school.
Q: Does that mean you’ve talked to Guillermo del Toro about The Hobbit?
Hugo: I haven’t talked to anyone about The Hobbit. I’d love to.
Q: You’re just putting that out there then?
Q: There will be a Transformers 3, right?
Hugo: I wouldn’t have a clue.
The Wolfman opens in theaters on February 12th.