Born in Nigeria in 1960, Hugo Weaving travelled extensively with his family until settling permanently in Australia in the mid-’70s. After acquiring a taste for theatre at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital school in Bristol, the lanky globetrotter graduated from NIDA in 1981. Weaving’s big breakthrough role was as English cricketer Douglas Jardine in the Bodyline TV mini series, and since then he’s been an almost permanent fixture on Australian stages and screens. Ten years on, Hugo Weaving won his first AFI acting award as a blind photographer in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof (which also featured an up-and-coming young chap by the name of Russell Crowe).
Remarkably, however, the internationally acclaimed actor has never allowed himself to become pinned-down to playing the same sorts of role, over and over. While quietly calculating in some respects, Hugo Weaving’s career trajectory also reveals a totally fearless approach to his craft. He’s appeared in some real stinkers in his time, but to Hugo Weaving it’s all about the acting job he’s employed to do, and whether it interests him or tickles his curiosity – the commercial outcome is always another matter altogether, and not something Weaving feels he can influence profoundly.
Equally at home playing regal elf Elrond or computer-generated enforcer Agent Smith (in the LOTR and Matrix mega-budget blockbusters) as he is playing a drag queen in Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert, or a sheepdog in Babe, Hugo Weaving has pulled off an astonishing one-two with his most recent pair of Australian film roles. After a second AFI award for his turn as the psychotic drifter Eddie Flemming in The Interview, Peaches saw Weaving reunited with director Craig Monahan. Speaking by phone from the comfort of his home, Weaving is in a decidedly philosophical mood, as he reflects on his life’s most pressing priorities, his career, and Little Fish, his most recent collaboration with The Boys director Rowan Woods.
Little Fish opens on Thursday, September 8.
By TIM STEWART
You’re like a father figure to Cate Blanchet’s character in Little Fish, aren’t you?
Yeah, he is. It’s a pretty interesting relationship actually; he’s an ex rugby league ‘star’ who used to know her father – but her father left when she was very young, so he’s become very friendly with her mother; and then also, later on, when he’s gone away and then come back, and become very friendly with her when she was a 17 year-old girl, has started hanging out with her and her boyfriend, and her brother, and, you know, having pretty wild times together. Their relationship is one that is… he’s sort of a father figure to her, and there’s a great deal of love between the two of them, but there’s no sexual element in their relationship at all. For a start he’s gay, so it’s a kind of really lovely dynamic actually; and he’s a very needy, extremely needy man – because he’s a heroin addict – but has enough kind of life, and spark, in him to keep their relationship on a positive footing. But hanging around him, for her, is very dangerous.
Sounds like it was an interesting contrast to your role in Peaches, then?
Well, you know, you try and find scripts that appeal to you in some way, and yeah, both of those characters are very different, incredibly different people.
You have a prominent presence in the local and international film industry, so I imagine you must get offered a great many scripts from time to time. What’s the trick to finding these nuggets like Alan and Lionel?
I’d just much rather work with someone like Rowan, and when I heard that he was doing another film I was very keen to work with him. We’d bumped into each other; and we were judging the Byron Kennedy Award a couple of years ago, together, and I’d expressed my desire to work with him – which I don’t do very often with directors, to be honest, but that desire seemed to be reciprocated – and when this came up I got to read the script and look at that particular role, so yes: I think I was very lucky to get this role, but by the same token I think he was interested in working with me. I wouldn’t have necessarily cast myself, first up, in this role; there would be a number of other actors I would have thought of before me, so from that point of view I think yeah, I was quite lucky to get to play Lionel.
Why wouldn’t you normally approach a director you admired?
Well I guess I don’t really… I don’t really hang out with that many (laughs) to be honest.
Is it because you think it’s inappropriate?
No, not really – I think if I’ve seen something that I really love, I have, a couple of times, written a letter to the director to say I thought their film was really great. I don’t wanna seem to be fishing for work, because that’s not really the point, but if I get to meet the director I’ll always say how much I liked it. I guess that’s how relationships start – but I tend to spend so much time with my family and probably not a great deal of time hanging out with people in the film industry.
There was a time when it seemed no feature film could be produced in Australia without either you, or Colin Friels, or Ben Mendelson, for example, in the leading roles. You seemed to have overcome that whole permanent fixture thing. Does it all come down to just making the right choices?
I guess so. I don’t actually know specifically, but I’ve always felt that saying ‘no’ is really important; and not crowding yourself out, not just taking the next thing that’s offered, mixing it up with theatre – which I love as well – and I’ve also been, I suppose, lucky enough to do a few things overseas; and I also do work in short films as well, so I think a variety’s the spice of life for me, in a way, and probably also made it easier for different people to see me in different lights. I guess I haven’t just put all my eggs in one basket.
Well those eggs seem to have a long shelf life, because even though you’ve remained highly visible over the years, you’ve also remained on the right side of good taste and avoided being over-exposed at the same time.
(laughs) I guess that’s what I try to do, yeah; I try to get the work that interests me, and I definitely try not do anything which exposes me too much, for a number of different reasons, and most importantly I’m trying to spend a lot of my time with my family, my kids, because they’re much more important to me than a film. You know, if you can balance your life then it’s probably an easier life for you.
So do you find most people take your films a lot more seriously than you do?
Sometimes, yeah… I think when I’m working on something I do take it pretty seriously, and the closer I get to that project starting, probably the more boring I get about it. If I’m at home, I do try and remain the same person with them, but I find my focus becomes increasingly about that particular project. I work very hard on what I do; and I love that – I love working hard – but then when I finish something I really love not working as well, and I love hanging out with my family. Whatever I do, I do entirely and not just half-do one thing or half-do another. I’d rather not work as much during a year, and when I do work on something, really work on it.
Okay, so you while you choose your roles very carefully, how much time do you spend thinking about your work once it’s out there and out of your hands? Do you always move on, or are there certain attachments that linger?
Yeah, I think there are certain things you do that stick with you in your mind, for whatever reason – it may have been seminal moment for you; you might have learned a great deal about a particular thing, or it’s just a particular film or play that you really loved, where everything you hoped for that film or play worked, you know, the whole production worked beyond how you thought it might. So those sort of productions do stay with you. If I think back, over what I’ve done, there’d be, you know, five things that I really think about – in terms of the end product, and also in terms of the experience of doing it, which is very important too, because that’s your life, you know. I’m living a life; and if the experience is really shitty, it’s gonna be hard for me to create something that’s illuminating in some way.
He was a fantastic character, but Agent Smith was probably not the most substantial role you’ve played in your life. Does the incredible popularity of the Matrix trilogy ever come back to haunt you?
No, no… not haunted by it in the least. Obviously for some people, you know, particularly 13 or 14 year-old boys – and older, of course – that was something that, for them, was… the film, you know, and so if they meet me and talk to me about it, it’s something really important to them; but personally, in terms of that character, I actually never really took that character hugely seriously. I enjoyed it, and I really loved meeting Larry and Andy Wachowski and working with them enormously – I’ve just worked with them again recently, which was great – so I have a great deal of affection for them and that project. Having said that it was a long… in the end, by the time we got to shooting the last film we did all want to stop; we wanted it to finish. I’m glad it’s over…(laughs) and I wouldn’t wanna go back there, but it was a good experience and I’m not haunted by it.
You’ve made a lot of people happy, but still there’s got to be only so many times you can hear someone say: ‘mis-ter Anderson!’
Yeah, and also hopefully it’s not something that defines you for the rest of your life, in the way that say, if you did four or five James Bond films, it might be very difficult after that, to come back and be something else. Then again it might not. I think it depends on how focused you are and how much you believe it to be the case. I certainly don’t believe that Agent Smith is the pinnacle of my career (laughs); and I loved playing him, but I also hope that I’m going to be playing many and varied characters for many, many years to come.
You know how some songs can remind you of a certain time or place? Do you have definite associations like that with particular films that you have made?
Yeah, for sure, because it’s not just the end result for me; it’s the making of it, and what’s going on at that time in my life, and how old the children were and what they were doing, where we had to travel to film it, or prepare for it. So, yeah, a lot of the films I’ve done, when I think of them I tend to think of the shoot rather than the end product, and that shoot will always incorporate my partner, Katrina, and my kids, where we were staying, that sort of thing.
Everybody is a beginner at one time or another. When you look back at the way you have developed and grown as an actor, is it something that you were aware of at the time, like a series of discoveries or revelations, or do you think it just happens over time that you gradually get better at it?
That is it exactly – that’s my thing. If you’re not learning and discovering and expanding your mind in some way, then what’s the point of that? (laughs) I have to be doing that. You know, that’s what life is: it’s learning, and coping with change, and expanding your mind and your horizons, and being compassionate to other people and understanding where they’re coming from. I mean, for me, as an actor, that’s really what acting is; it’s all those things, and if you’re not prepared to embrace all of those things then you may as well be dead, I think. I’ve always believed that human beings should become wiser, and more understanding, as they get older. It might not happen; I may get Alzheimer’s, or all sorts of things might happen to me, but theoretically I should be in a process of becoming… um… becoming, I suppose – just ever-changing, otherwise you’re static, and therefore not alive.
Have you ever had a sudden epiphany – like a ‘eureka!’ moment – on the set or stage?
Yeah, but usually those discoveries are things where you go: ‘Oh my God!’ and then you think: ‘But I’ve discovered this before’ (laughs). I find those big discoveries are the ones that keep coming around; and maybe it’s essentially a similar discovery, but it’s got a slightly different spin on it, and so maybe it’s just easier to grasp once and for all, but maybe not. I think our big life lessons keep coming back to us, don’t they?
The ones we haven’t learned properly yet, anyway.
That’s right, yeah.