May 12, 2003
Interview by Paul Fischer in Los Angeles
Hollywood may not exactly be the place to find respected Aussie stage actor Hugo Weaving. Amidst the sheer chaos of promoting one of the year’s most hyped up blockbusters, Weaving says he is tired but is sounding upbeat when we catch up here. He admits that he’d rather be acting than spending three weeks on the road with The Matrix juggernaut, first here in sunny Los Angeles and then the more intense chaos of the Cannes Film Festival.
"Yeah, it’s not really something that I really wanted to do but on the other hand I figured, well look, this will be good, we’re travelling a lot, and it’ll be good to catch up with everyone again."
Even though doing the kind of big-time press that he has to undertake and staying in swanky hotels is somewhat surreal for this down-to-earth acting veteran, who returns to the Matrix as the often bleakly comic Agent Smith.
"But if you’re gonna do it you might as well have a good time with it and I’m looking forward to going to Cannes and all of that madness," Hugo says laughingly.
Yet he initially turned down the opportunity to co-star with Hollywood heavyweight Keanu Reeves in the 1999 original, he says.
"I was making a film in London, was really busy, when my Australian agent called and said that these guys were doing this film which I think she described as a big-budget science fiction thing, and she mentioned there was a script coming my way, and they wanted me to put down a scene on tape and send it to them. I immediately said I don’t want to be tested, I don’t have time, and it didn’t sound like something I wanted to do."
But fortunately for Weaving, his agent persevered.
"So, I kind of really read through the script and I wasn’t sure and then I read the scene with Agent Smith and thought: Well the character is actually really quite cool, very funny and maybe it’s something that I should think twice about, which I did, and then put this scene down. At first I had reservations, but the more I read the script and as soon as I met Larry and Andy, I started to actually think the character was something that would be really fun to play."
Clearly the actor was right. Donned in dark suit and sunglasses, Weaving and company helped make The Matrix one of the most talked about and influential films in a decade, but nobody, least of all Hugo, could have predicted the pop cultural influences that The Matrix would permeate.
"At the time we were filming we were not consciously sitting around and discussing that, but the more I talked to Larry and Andy, the more I read the scripts, and the more I saw what was being done, with the art department, and the more I saw the storyboards and the more I saw films and looking at them, the more I realized the sort of film that we were making, but, not really to the extent to which it would become a popular sort of phenomenon. Then you start seeing more and more ads using Bullet Time or approximations of Bullet Time and you realize that it’s had an enormous impact on the way in which people make films and on the way in which we’d like to see the world."
Weaving was required to adopt a considerable leap of faith before jumping into the next two Matrix extravaganzas. He had to commit before seeing one script but there was something about the whole Matrix phenomenon that proved irresistible for Weaving and his American co-stars.
"I think the story wasn’t complete. There was an enormous amount that had been hinted at in the first film and needed to be explored, that you want to seize on such as the architecture of the Matrix," he says.
But this devoted husband and father of two needed more before committing to such a lengthy film shoot.
"More importantly, working with Larry and Andy was a real delight and we had become very good friends and I loved working with them on the set very much."
That outweighed the actor’s concerns about returning to Matrix territory.
"I was a little bit concerned about repeating a character which I had never done before and wondered what happens when you play the same character in three films and does it make it harder for you to go and do something radically different after that? Maybe it does, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible and they assured me that the character would develop in an interesting way."
It was a huge gamble for Weaving who at the time didn’t even know if the much more expensive sequels would be shot in Sydney or the States.
"In the end it was about Larry and Andy, about the story and about the idea that actually there was a development there in that character and that he did kind of go places."
He does go places, many times over. In one of the most visually arresting moments in the film, dozens of Hugo Weavings are fighting Keanu Reeves. Part Weaving, part CGI effects, Weaving admits that he was constantly laughing both to himself and his co-star, about what a truly funny profession this whole acting lark is.
"I would constantly comment that it’s so weird, being suspended up in the air, and the rain’s pouring down on me, with Keanu looking at me, giggling, think to ourselves: What on earth are we doing? Is this life? So, in a sense it’s a really weird place."
Over 40 films later, Matrix Reloaded and of course The Lord of the Rings trilogy, are the icing on the cake for an actor trying to find his place in this often odd profession for some 30 years. Perhaps being suspended in the air and fighting with Keanu Reeves has as much to do with why the 43-year old Nigerian-born Aussie became an actor in the first place.
"I think it had more to do with that sense of doing something really odd and doing it with other people," Weaving recalls. "Film sets are constantly amusing because you really are creating something that is so very surreal and I kind of like that."
Weaving further admits that his perceptions of acting have certainly changed since starting out way back when. "Initially I probably didn’t even call it acting, but dressing up or something. I mean, as a kid I think you fully imagine the world in which you want to inhabit, so you put some clothes on and just kind of freely imagine this world, and it’s a total imaginary world."
That aspect of it hasn’t changed, says Weaving. "The thing that HAS changed, I suppose, is the understanding of what you want to do with it and also understanding the film industry and the film BUSINESS, which is a constant lesson."
For Hugo, the importance of acting needs to go beyond the business side of it which he detests. For the actor acting "is a wonderful art which I think illuminates humanity." Weaving says that he derives both pleasure and dissatisfaction from acting. "More, because I am less self-cantered about it and less because I find the industry and the business of it sometimes depressing, but in many ways more, because it is less to do with me which I think is a good thing."
It’s Weaving’s loathing of the film business that has precluded him from moving to the States and he’s happy with that decision.
Very much at home in Australia with his wife Katrina and their two children Harry and Holly, the actor refuels his love of acting by returning to the stage as much as possible.
"I am actually doing a play at the end of this year", which is a new production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, for the Sydney Theatre Company.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Hugo continuers to promote Matrix, accompanied by his wife, and then heads to New Zealand for re-shoots on another long-awaited sequel: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. But he laughingly concedes that he has no idea how much of Hugo will end up in the third Rings film.
"I’m not even sure what scenes we’ll be shooting this time. I wasn’t originally in one of the films at all. But just mainly in one and a little bit in three. So, the story line with Elrond and Aragorn and Arwen kind of developed a little bit, but how it’s developed in the third one I am not entirely sure. I haven’t got the scenes I’m going to be doing, but that’s no surprise with Lord of The Rings. There is a tendency to pick your scenes and then get other versions of them and then finally on the day you get another version of them and then as you’re shooting, another version will come through."
In between shooting these Hollywood blockbusters, Weaving found time to remain loyal to the Australian film industry, and completed filming the low-budget drama Peaches, with Jacqueline McKenzie.
But it’s The Matrix and Lord of the Rings for which this reluctant of stars will continue to remain known for. At least, he says smilingly, he has been able to please both of his children.
"I think Holly really loves the fact that I’m in Lord of the Rings while Harry rather likes the fact that I’m in The Matrix." If you can’t please your kids, who CAN you please? "That’s exactly right," concurs a laughing Mr Weaving.