May 28, 2011
AUDIENCES throughout the world probably know Hugo Weaving best for his fantastical characters.
The Aussie actor has played vicious Agent Smith from The Matrix, wise half-elf Elrond from The Lord of the Rings and the masked vigilante V, from V For Vendetta
But scattered among the myriad characters he has played on stage, television and in film are real-life figures such as sneering England cricket captain Douglas Jardine, executed drug smuggler Geoffrey Chambers and Dame Nellie Melba’s husband, Charles Armstrong.
The three-time AFI Award-winning actor says he is careful to get the facts right, mindful that audiences might make a judgment on those figures based on his performance.
“Any time I played a character who either did walk this earth or still is, I do feel an increased sense of responsibility towards them to try to tell their story in the right way,” he says.
The character he plays in the Australian film Oranges and Sunshine falls somewhere between fact and fiction.
The emotion-charged drama tells the story of a shameful episode in Australian and English history in which thousands of English children were deported after being falsely told they were orphans.
When they arrived on the other side of the world, many found a life of hard labour, institutions and physical and mental abuse, not the sun-drenched existence they were promised.
Weaving plays one such victim, Jack, who was sent away as a child and has grown up deeply damaged. He enlists the help of real-life British social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) to help him find the family he was told didn’t exist.
Jack is an amalgam of several people, but is heavily based on Melbourne resident Harold Haig.
Shipped off from a British orphanage at 11 years old, Haig went on to become secretary of the International Association for Child Migrants, instrumental in drawing an apology for the shocking events from the Australian and the British governments.
For Weaving, who knew only a little of the story through the 1992 miniseries, The Leaving of Liverpool, catching up with Haig was invaluable.
“It isn’t the same man, but meeting him and hearing about his experiences and asking him about certain key moments and emotional problems he had were of crucial importance to my understanding of what the character was going through,” Weaving says.
Weaving, who has two young adult children with wife Katrina Greenwood, also found he needed to look no further than his own background to see the damage caused by children being separated from their families.
His English mother was sent away from her family during World War II, staying with families in Canada and the US until she finally ended up in a children’s home in New York.
While it was done with the best of intentions and she was eventually reunited with her parents, Weaving says her emotional scars endure to this day.
Oranges and Sunshine, directed by Jim Loach, son of British indie veteran Ken Loach, came sandwiched between blockbusters for Weaving.
Since The Matrix established him as an international star, Hollywood has come knocking on his door as a go-to villain in big-budget fare such as The Wolfman and the coming Captain America: The First Avenger, in which he plays nasty Nazi, The Red Skull.
But the Sydney resident has always felt much more at home in smaller films such as Aussie dramas The Last Ride, Little Fish and Proof, in which he has done much of his best work.
“I love working on smaller budget films,” he says. “Communication is much better, planning is a lot better – you have to make every dollar count because you don’t have too many of them, comparatively.
“Less people means you tend to kind of know where you are a little bit more. I am amazed by how a lot of big budget films ever get made.”
Weaving – soon to be heard, but not seen, as Megatron in the third Transformers film – is currently reprising his role as Elrond in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit in New Zealand.
In August, he will take his acclaimed production of Uncle Vanya, with Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh and Jacki Weaver, to Washington DC. After that, he will head to Berlin to reunite with the Wachowski Brothers, directors of the Matrix films, for their big screen version of the acclaimed novel Cloud Atlas, co-starring Academy Award winners Tom Hanks and Halle Berry.
“That’s a project that’s really exciting because all the actors will be playing more than one role,” Weaving says. “I actually have six characters in the same film and they are all different people in six different stories.”
Oranges and Sunshine opens on June 9.