Optus Net Movies
November 13, 2003
As a blind photographer in Proof with Russell Crowe, as an interrogated suspect in The Interview with Tony Martin, as a drag queen with a son in Priscilla with Guy Pearce, as the immortal half-elf, Elrond in Lord of The Rings (1,2,3), as Agent Smith, the embodiment of evil power with Keanu Reeves in The Matrix (1,2,3) . . . these are the extraordinary milestone roles over the past 12 years that mark the career of Hugo Weaving.
For an actor whose two back to back trilogy of films have been amongst the biggest box office hits around the world, Weaving’s media presence is astoundingly low. Just as he likes it. That’s not to say he isn’t well known: but that’s not the same as being ‘famous’ or being a ‘celebrity’ in today’s media driven world. Weaving prefers the low key to the spotlight, and has managed to stay a private person with a private life, a normal family. Fact is, he’s shy.
It is not so unusual for highly talented creative people to be shy – and to have two personas: as the creator of the outrageous Betty Blokkbuster (among other things) Reg Livermore once pointed out, “there’re are two different me-s; there’s the performer in me and then there’s me.” It could have been Weaving talking. When he walks off the set, he is Hugo, not a star. He takes his two kids, Harry (13) and Holly (10) to the movies (along with his wife Katrina, of course) and enjoys as normal a life as he can get. He doesn’t attract the paparazzi.
Experienced celebrity photographer-around town David Morgan says that’s partly because Weaving “keeps a low profile, he’s married and he’s over 30 and there’s no scandal about his life.” But Morgan, who photographed Weaving with Terence Stamp when Priscilla was at the Cannes Film Festival, also adds that Weaving is “the perfect gentleman and always polite.” (As it happens, during our chat about Weaving, Morgan was one of about 40 paparazzi outside the Sydney Opera House for the Sydney premiere of The Matrix Revolutions, and Hugo Weaving had just caught sight of him. “He made a point of waving and saying hello,” says Morgan. In this context, that’s notable for behaving like a normal person).
I first met Hugo Weaving in the mid 80s on the set of the Australian period drama, The Right Hand Man, in which he plays Ned Devine (no relation whatever to the title character in the English comedy, Waking Ned Devine). Ned drives Cobb & Co’s 75 seat passenger coach, the Leviathan. Weaving co-stars with Rupert Everett, who plays Harry Ironminster, son of a wealthy Lord, but in failing health. Harry needs Ned to do things for him, like race his 4-in hand High Flyer rig for a new record – and to help him and his wife (played by Catherine McClements) have an heir to the family estate.
He took his role very seriously and spent months learning how to drive the enormous Leviathan (drawn by 12 grey horses), and six weeks solid at a gym to build up his physique. Years later he would have to do all that again in spades, when preparing to do his own stunts in The Matrix trilogy. But he didn’t take himself too seriously, ready to meet the demands of publicity with grace, even though he isn’t comfortable with it.
Not long after my visit to The Right Hand Man set, Weaving was back on stage in Les Liaison Dangereuse for the Nimrod’s 1987 production at the Seymour Centre, Christopher Hampton’s stage play that preceded the film. Weaving played the Viscomte de Valmont, the role that John Malkovich played opposite Glenn Close in Stephen Frear’s 1988 film, with Angela Punch McGregor as the Marquise de Merteuil. I was reviewing theatre for The Australian at the time, and I remarked on
Weaving’s Viscomte: “vicious one moment, vulnerable the next, a brilliant, effective characterisation with a finely sharpened edge that matches perfectly with Angela Punch McGregor’s icy sexuality and steel-in-velvet femininity.”
Weaving graduated from NIDA in 1981, and has not been out of work since, starting with a two year contract at the Sydney Theatre Company.
But it was a movie that first stirred his interest in acting; as a child he was taken to see David Lean’s masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia, and the epic grandeur of the human drama in the desert had a big impact. And fittingly enough, it was in a desert setting that his movie career took off internationally, when Weaving played the outrageous yet deeply insecure drag queen Mitzi in Steph Elliott’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). Who can forget Weaving’s rainbow coloured wig, the blue tongue and his miming to I Will Survive. It certainly didn’t prepare audiences for Weaving doing the voices of Rex the male sheepdog in Babe (1 & 2) and Bill Barnacle in The Magic Pudding.
Priscilla producer Al Clark says Weaving “has an unerring instinct for the truthful moment. And for the serious actor he is, he has great playfulness and charm and empathy, which creates a terrific working climate.”
Director Steph Elliott goes further, saying Hugo Weaving is “a very rare and old fashion anomaly. He’s a pro who has never forgotten why he got into the business: to have fun. On our first day of the Priscilla shoot, the opening and closing production numbers were being shot back to back. That’s like seven minutes of screen time, focusing totally on one thing – Hugo’s character, Tick. What he didn’t know, was that we had not cleared the music. We were top and tailing with an Abba number, and we were still negotiating with the bloody Swedes!
“We ran out of time and would have to replace the first track, Abba’s ‘Some Of Us’ with Charlene’s ‘I’ve Been To Paradise But I’ve Never Been to Me’. Hugo looked panicked for about a minute, then locked himself in the make up trailer for what little time he had left. When the slate went up, I went to get him.
“There’s Hugo in drag, standing inches from the mirror, learning the lip sync by staring at his mouth. You see, very silently, he’d learned the greatest comic tool of the film. The elasticity of his lips. When I tapped on the door, he asked for 30 seconds, and he was ready. Hugo just gave it his best shot. And had a damn good time doing it.”
In television, he’s played a variety of characters in programs as diverse as Dirtwater Dynasty, Bordertown, Bangkok Hilton, Bodyline, Seven Deadly Sins and most recently, the acclaimed mini series, After the Deluge (out on DVD in December 2003).
It is a mark of his talent that Weaving can stretch to Agent Smith in the Matrix, where his character is so casually evil he has the confidence to take his time – even when talking – to the noble and humane half-elf Elrond in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. And everything in between, like his (second) AFI Award winning role as Eddie Fleming in The Interview, directed by Craig Monahan. Throughout the length of the film, Weaving has to keep us guessing as to his innocence or otherwise, and even at the end we are unsure. It’s a complex, subtle, riveting performance, a masterclass in acting. Monahan says, “it was important for Hugo to keep the premise that Eddie is an innocent man, right through everything. Secondly, Hugo’s own personality was important, bringing a natural sensitivity and even fragility, which I felt could be good to tap into.”
When Peter Jackson approached him to play Elrond (exactly the right height at 6”2′ or 188 cms), Weaving was beaming: “You want me! to play the lord of the elves?” he asked incredulously with a big grin. “I’m there!” And while he enjoyed getting the ears, the make up and the robe, what he really enjoyed most was the physicality of the armour, the detailed craftsmanship of his sword and the physicality of the battle scenes.
He has always liked playing games as a kid, and he still has a home movie his father took of him playing Cowboy and Indians with his brother. “I played the Indian and I got him,” he says with a chuckle. “That part of filmmaking is definitely childlike playing dress ups. And I think you have to retain an element of being a child as an actor, really. But on the other hand there is a lot more going on, too. You need the childlike quality to keep you going on such a long shoot, and the reality you have to find is absolutely vital, to make something like this work.”
And how do you follow that sort of experience? “Well, you go and do something quite different – like a heist movie . . .which I’d love to do actually.”