February 22, 2006
Hugo Weaving, often remembered as the Agent Smith from the Matrix, is playing a junkie alongside Cate Blanchett in the movie Little Fish.
Aussie actor Hugo Weaving is gazing intently out the window of a Toronto hotel room, apparently brooding about something.
He hasn’t yet turned around to greet his interviewer, which is an ominous thing. Which Hugo Weaving is about to present himself?
Will it be his ice-cold killer Agent Smith from The Matrix series, plotting digital doom?
Or will it be his kindly elf leader Elrond from The Lord of the Rings, cogitating some conundrum?
Neither of the above. He’s simply going nuts.
"I’m just looking at all these lovely squirrels running around," Weaving says finally, turning and extending his hand.
"We don’t have squirrels in Australia. We’ve got possums."
He flashes an Elrond smile. Or is it a sinister Agent Smith leer?
"But I guess you’re sick of squirrels, aren’t you?"
Who, us? Squirrels rock, especially if they’re cool with Weaving. You don’t want to argue with a man with scary shades who can split himself into dozens of computer images, each bearing lethal weapons.
He gets this a lot whenever he goes out. People think of him as evil Agent Smith more than enchanting Elrond, even though The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings franchises were both global phenomena.
"Lots of people saw The Matrix, and I probably look more like Agent Smith now than like Elrond or anybody else. I try not to wear sunglasses, but I’m not a big sunglasses fan, anyway."
If Weaving has his way, he’ll start getting people asking him if he’s the guy who plays likeable heroin junkie Lionel Dawson in Little Fish, the small-budget Aussie film co-starring Cate Blanchett and Sam Neill that opens in theatres Friday. A hit Down Under, Little Fish had its North American premiere last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, where this interview was conducted.
Lionel is a departure for the lanky Weaving, 45, who is usually impeccably dressed and who prefers non-scary eyeglasses, whether playing a psycho or a saint. A former star soccer player gone to wrack and ruin, Lionel smokes and shoots up without much care for personal hygiene or nutrition fundamentals. He has a complicated relationship with his stepdaughter (Blanchett) and a potentially dangerous one with his employer and lover (Neill).
Lionel wasn’t drawn from anything in Weaving’s personal life. The Nigerian-born actor is happily married to wife Katrina Greenwood and the proud dad of son Harry, 16, and daughter Holly, 12. He talks about wanting to cut down on his work assignments so he can spend more time with his family.
"I probably do have addictions, but maybe I’m not aware of them," Weaving says.
"I have really no knowledge of the world of heroin at all. I was just really ignorant of it. I needed to spend some time with someone who was a long-term user, still using, and so I did. He was just absolutely wonderful, a fantastic man. Extremely generous with his time and knowledgeable about his life."
Weaving’s drug mentor sounds like he’d be worth a documentary. He comes from "a pretty wealthy Italian family in Melbourne" and manages to hold down a day job, despite having been a heroin addict for the past 16 years. The mentor also acts as adviser to the premier of Victoria, an Australian state.
"He’s a delightful man but lives in a pretty squalid little place. And any money he gets will go up his arm."
Weaving’s ability to like a man whose lifestyle he abhors was also the attraction for playing Lionel, a character who is impossible to hate.
"He’s got a lovely spirit, doesn’t he?" Weaving agrees.
"That’s the thing I love about Lionel. You read him (in the script) and you think, `Oh, this guy is kind of gorgeous. He’s got a big heart.’"
Lionel also has a thing for Brad, the drug lord played by Neill, an old pal of Weaving’s.
The two were forced to get even better acquainted, because Lionel and Brad are on-again, off-again lovers.
"I didn’t expect to be kissing him and he certainly didn’t expect to be kissing me. He didn’t enjoy the experience. He said kissing me was `like kissing an Alsatian’s arsehole,’" Weaving says, laughing.
"That was his comment. To which I replied, `How did you know?’"
Weaving is good at finding the humour in awkward circumstances. He even found something to love about Agent Smith.
"When I first read the script for The Matrix, I thought, `Oh, look at this!’ But then I went back and read the character again. And I thought he was very funny. I enjoyed him immediately. And I realized when I met (Matrix creators) Larry and Andy Wachowski how much they had invested into that character, and how much they enjoyed writing him. So I think the three of us enjoyed Agent Smith outside of ourselves, you know? He made us laugh."
Weaving wasn’t chuckling at The Matrix Reloaded or The Matrix Revolutions, the two poorly received sequels. Like most fans of the franchise, he was disappointed.
"I’m not big on the second and third ones, actually. But I think the first is a classic."
He’s also not that big on big movies. He prefers to live and work in Australia, on smaller films where the characters are more important than the computers.
His first worldwide attention came almost by accident, after he co-starred vamping as a transvestite entertainer with Terrence Stamp and Guy Pearce in the small-budget 1994 smash The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
He played a character called Mitzi who wore a wig made of flowers that could give Carmen Miranda a fright. Instead Weaving just terrified his son Harry, who was about 5 at the time.
"I was dressed up in drag for Priscilla, going out on the town one night with Guy and Terrence, and I walked in and Harry was very scared. Much more scared than if he’d seen me as Agent Smith."