March 4, 2004
From Elf to dentist, Hugo Weaving is a man of many parts, writes Des Partridge.
HUGO Weaving wasn’t with other actors from the Lord of the Rings trilogy when 11 Oscars rained down on the final instalment, The Return of the King, in Los Angeles. The Australian, who was prominent in the Matrix series as arch villain Agent Smith and who played the half-elf Elrond in The Lord of the Rings, is currently giving himself some time off to spend with
his family in Sydney.
But he’s broken into his holiday away from "the business" to talk about a film somewhat smaller in scale than The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix, South Australian director Rolf de Heer’s adaptation of Latin-American writer Luis Sepulveda’s short novel The Old Man Who Read Love Stories.
The dual Australian Film Institute Best Actor award-winner (for The Interview, 1998, and Proof, 1991) co-stars alongside Richard
Dreyfuss, Timothy Spall and Cathy Tyson in the French-Australian co-production made by de Heer on location in the steamy tropical jungle of French Guiana in the northeast of South America.
The film’s Australian release has been delayed for more than three years by a business wrangle now resolved. "It’s good that things have been sorted out, and that it’s finally coming out," Weaving says.
The film, shown at the Brisbane International Film Festival in July 2001, screened at last year’s Adelaide International Film Festival,
with de Heer’s hometown audience declaring the film the most popular of the festival.
He was in Los Angeles working on the first Matrix film when de Heer rang him with the offer of a role. "I’d been in Los Angeles for about a month, and I was ready to get out of there. I read the script immediately it was sent to me and knew I wanted to do it," Weaving recalls.
He plays a dentist of dubious skill who becomes a friend of the story’s central character, 60-year-old Antonio Bolivar (Dreyfuss),
who lives deep in the Amazon jungle.
"It was a spectacular place to work, but it was fairly rough and extremely hot out there," says Weaving of the location near the
French Guiana capital of Cayenne.
Weaving says he was reassured to find that the Oscar-winning Dreyfuss was a "really delightful" person who had a fund of good stories to help pass the time on set. "There was nothing Hollywood or larger-than-life about him at all," Weaving says.
Weaving had some help in preparing for his first screen role as a dentist – he sought advice from his own dentist in Sydney’s
"The actor I had to extract teeth from actually had no teeth of his own so it was a fairly simple assignment for the props people to fit
him with teeth I could pull," he says.
"It also helped that I was playing a dentist who would not have had much more than a bottle of rum to use as an anaesthetic, so I didn’t have to be too refined in my technique."
The film’s drama comes from efforts by Bolivar and others (including the dentist) to hunt down a jaguar suspected of having killed local residents.
The jaguar used in the film had been reared from a cub by a Cayenne zookeeper who kept the animal as a pet at her home.
"I visited her, and the jaguar put his paws on my shoulders and stared me straight in the eyes. I had to be very relaxed," he says.
Weaving is interested in all areas of film production, and the former Film Commission member has a view on what’s needed to lift the
quality of Australian-made features. He says not enough is being done to develop scripts to a suitable standard, and that too many films are being financed simply because distribution deals are in place.
"I’d also like to see more money made available to film directors so that they can do re-shooting where necessary," he says.
"You might not have had such acclaimed Lord of the Rings films if Peter Jackson wasn’t able to spend time on re-shoots. There should be a few days available to a director to do this to improve a film.
"Editing is also something we should be looking at, because we’re stuck in rigid time frames that don’t always mean we’re getting the best results."