…you’ve seen him 100 times
U Film – U San Bernardino County Sun
By Bob Strauss
March, 14 2003
Hugo Weaving takes being the biggest movie star in the world in easygoing, Australian stride.
Hugo who? Simply the only actor who can lay claim to key roles in both of the most popular movie trilogies of the decade: "The Matrix’ and "Lord of the Rings.’ Even fellow Middle-earth denizen Ian McKellen must content himself with only having the not-yet-a-trilogy (and, good as it is, not-quite- "The Matrix’) "X-Men’ series for his second annuity.
Granted, Weaving, 43, may not be the top-billed member of either franchise’s ensembles. But the 6-foot-2, sharp-featured actor lends a striking presence to "Lord’s’ dignified Elf King Elrond.
And as "Matrix’s’ malignant Agent Smith, Weaving has created perhaps the most iconic villain of the computer movie-making age — more so than ever in the first sequel, "Reloaded,’ which opens today.
And do we ever mean more so. But before we get to the century-mark performance Weaving registers in the Wachowski brothers’ science fiction technoganza, a few musings on what it means to be the Jeff Goldblum of his generation.
"It’s a mixed feeling, in a way,’ Weaving quietly intones. "It’s very exciting. They’re both hugely accomplished and, well, just kind of enormous films in every way. And groundbreaking, in their own ways, both of them. They’re probably films that couldn’t have been made five or six years ago — just technically would’ve been impossible.
"So that’s all really exciting, as is developing a character through three films rather than just one. But the other side of it is that I think I’m an actor who likes to work hard for a shorter period of time. And I enjoy working on smaller films, definitely. So for me, they’ve been a little bit of an anomaly in my career. Maybe I’ll stop doing trilogies for awhile.’
Loaded with talent
Fans of Australian cinema enjoyed Weaving’s work for years before he became a fixture of big-budget fantasy productions. He’s earned two Aussie Oscar equivalents for searing performances in "Proof’ and "The Interview,’ and was nominated for a third for the cross-dressing romp "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.’
"Hugo has a strong physical screen presence and vocal strength that I felt made him perfect for both roles,’ says Barrie Osborne, a producer of the first "Matrix’ movie and the Tolkien trilogy, who was initially impressed by Weaving’s "Interview’ performance. "In ‘Matrix’ he was able to use these qualities to subtly project his character as an A.I. agent and, in ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ the calm, centered, otherworldly peace and power of the Elves.’
Adds "Rings’ director Peter Jackson, "Hugo is a director’s dream. It’s not just his talent, it’s also his temperament. He’s a great bloke with a terrific sense of humor. And Elrond was a tough character to play, one of the toughest in the trilogy, because he has to impart so much story exposition. But Hugo managed to find depth and dimension and a real sense of humanity in the character.’
He’s also good at indicating humanity in a toxic computer virus, which is essentially what "Matrix’s’ Agent Smith is.
"He started to develop human characteristics in the first one, to smell and feel emotions,’ Weaving explains. "He’s a sentient program that is programmed to evolve so his emotions are evolving, and he doesn’t like that. I guess the major change to him in this one is that he’s liberated to some extent, he’s unplugged himself. But though in one sense he’s a free agent, he’s really not free because his sole purpose is still to destroy Neo; he has an imperative.’
And now he can replicate himself perfectly. Of course, Weaving isn’t actually playing all 100 Smiths you’ll see fighting Keanu Reeves’ Neo in "Reloaded’s’ most memorable sequence, a blast of martial arts madness that’s been dubbed the Burly Brawl but to which the actor refers less hyperbolically as the park fight.
But in a way he is, thanks to a digital process called Universal Capture, which enabled perfect replicas of Weaving’s sunglass-clad face to be wrapped upon 99 doubles made up of varying degrees of flesh and silicon.
"In the park fight scene, it was myself and 12 stuntmen,’ Weaving explains. "Then the other bodies in that, depending on the shot, they might have been other people or they are fully (computer-generated) Smiths.’
Plenty of face time
To get the information necessary for all of this morphing, five high-definition cameras were trained on Weaving’s face while he went through a variety of expressions. This was then used by CG artists to repeat and manipulate the slightest nuances of skin textures on the 99 Hugo clones."There was an enormous amount of time spent on that,’ Weaving recalls. "And an army of people worked on it. I didn’t know any of them and a lot of them would come up to me and say, ‘I know you back to front. I’ve been working on your face a whole year. I’m sick of you!’"It was pretty interesting to get involved in all that. I was getting facial capture and body capture and vocal capture. From an acting point of view, it was doing things I’d never done before, so it’s all experience. If it was something I had to do for every film, I would find it tedious — because, actually, it is. But to do once for this film, learning this new technology and how it’s used creatively, was pretty fascinating.’
Tedious beats painful any day. Weaving suffered numerous physical injuries making the first "Matrix.’ And although he trained more in preparation for the consecutive sequels’ shoot ("Matrix Revolutions’ will be in theaters this November), it turned out to be not as necessary.
"I wasn’t mentally prepared to do the physical work,’ Weaving says of the 1999 "Matrix’s’ production. "I think, actually, all of us were shocked by the difficulty of the training. We’d learn the fight from beginning to end and it would be fought in-camera, and the whole thing would be shot on a set with us doing the fight.
"This time ’round, for me, there are more CG elements and more stunt elements that I’m not doing. It’s just the nature of playing 100 me’s; it’s not possible for me to do everything. And the fights are more complicated. They involve more jumps, more aerial work. Sometimes they’re physically impossible, and sometimes it would just be not possible for me to do them. As a consequence, I found myself doing less of the fights this time around, which is somewhat bizarre; I thought I’d be doing more.’
Born in Nigeria, Weaving spent his first 16 years moving through various of the British Commonwealth until his computer-worker father settled in Sydney. The love of acting developed in his teens, and he went straight from high school to Australia’s prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Art.
A devoted family man, Weaving and Katrina Greenwood have a 14-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter.
"Holly particularly loves ‘Lord of the Rings’ and Harry seems to really love ‘The Matrix,’ so there you go,’ he says, basking in the greatest glory being the biggest movie star in the world can bestow.