July 23, 2014
Hugo Weaving was first exposed to Shakespeare when he was only nine years old and his parents took him and his siblings to a ballet production of Romeo and Juliet. He went home enraptured.
“I just loved it … Mum started telling me about Shakespeare, and she got out the complete works. We turned to Romeo and Juliet – I’ve still got that particular copy of it – and started reading it. And because I knew the story, it wasn’t as foreign and the language wasn’t as crazy as it might have otherwise been,” he says from the foyer of the Sydney Theatre Company overlooking Walsh Bay. It’s a sunny day and the water has a stunning, champagne effervescence.
Weaving, who is playing Macbeth in a new production by the company, sits, somewhat formally, on the lip of a couch. “For weeks and weeks I was playing Romeo and Juliet games with friends,” he adds.
Fast forward 45 years and the Sydney actor is evidently still a Shakespeare fanboy, displaying an impressive knowledge of the historical context from which the works were written. He talks of a late-1500s Elizabethan London that was radically changing: religion was splintering, a rising middle class, education reform, science, and an explosion of creativity and conversation, that found its home in the theatre.
“There was a strong belief, a humanist belief, in the ability of individuals to make a difference, and I think that’s where Macbeth sits,” he says. “He’s a self-made man, but the tragedy is that he’s caught between two worlds: a belief in supernatural prophecy, a fatalistic prophecy, but at the same time he wants to be able to challenge those prophecies and go, ‘I can make my own way in life’.”
Unlike Shakespeare’s more Machiavellian characters such as Richard III or Othello’s Iago, Macbeth is tormented by his evil-doing. “He’s a man with an incredible amount of imagination and conscience,” says Weaving. “He can’t just put it in the past. Macbeth is more like Hamlet in that way; he’s someone whose brain is constantly churning and he’s allowing you to churn with him.”
If Macbeth is the “reluctant murderer”, then Weaving – it could be said – is the “reluctant Hollywood star”. He views the commercial movie machine with a high degree of suspicion. And though, with his appearance in blockbusters like the Marvel superhero flick Captain America and Lord of the Rings franchise, he’s been known to dance with the devil, Weaving has a stronger constitution than Macbeth when it comes to resisting the “dark side”.
The actor is keenly aware he lives in an era in which, piled on top of media interviews, an actor’s promotional obligations to a movie now include social media engagement and fan meet-and-greets. “When we were a week into the shoot of Captain America we flew over to San Diego for Comic Con. I didn’t particularly want to go, but I went, and it was a bit of an eye opener, but it’s so not where I’m at. It cemented in my mind exactly what I didn’t want to do with film and exactly what I wasn’t interested in doing,” he says.
Weaving is highly critical of “fan-driven” forms of movie making, at the heart of which lie huge profit margins. “[The studios] will put a whole lot of names out to get the fan feedback and then cast accordingly. It’s very democratic in that way, but it’s also entirely driven by what’s going to make them money. I’m not sure about being driven by populism as a concept – I think it’s very dangerous because you spend enough money on something to make it popular, it becomes popular, then you use the popularity of the thing to sell other things.
“The fans are being used by the companies. And the fans are happy to be used. You get a young actor who’s given a gift, like some jewellery, and then takes a photo of themselves on Instagram, gets thousands and thousands of hits and they’ll say thanks so and so forth for the necklace. Who’s using whom? It’s free advertising. Actors are just commodities, and when you work with these big studios you’re selling their product. So you have to be careful that you’re not being used.”
With such strong words, it’s surprising Weaving did a film like Captain America at all. But he provides, with a grin, reasoning that’s appropriately frivolous, for that sort of movie. “I thought it would be fun to play a Nazi who thought Hitler was really lame, somebody who’s a sort of uber-villain. And I learned a lot working with Marvel on Captain America, but it’s not something I would like to be engaged with again.”
And appearances in films like The Matrix prove the actor is able to put one foot in both critical and commercial success. “[The Wachowskis] are very political filmmakers, and of all the studios Warner Brothers are probably the most interesting,” says Weaving.
And for every multimillion dollar Hollywood film there are 20 low-budget films being made in Australia, a few of which feature Weaving and the actor describes, frustratingly, as “going to a big pile of films, in the corner of a room, that no one is seeing”. Sandwiched between cultural cringe and an influx of foreign cultural imports, Australian creatives struggle to find support to tell local stories. Recent cuts to the budgets of the ABC and SBS are just the latest example of how the arts are valued.
“This is a complete other conversation really, but of course I do find it appalling the way the ABC has been attacked by this present government, stacking the appointees to the board so it’s become a political thing. You’re actually saying ‘if you say this on the ABC news we’re going to cut your budget’, which is essentially what Tony Abbott did. That’s fascistic.
“Having an independent ABC and having a strong arts and cultural community is really important. Because there’s more to life than economics; the economy – I don’t know why it’s the be-all and end-all of everything, to quote Shakespeare.”