(Cool) Shite on the Tube
August 3, 2009
For fans of Australian cinema, the rise of Hugo Weaving has been bittersweet; of course we’re happy for his success, but by and large Hollywood doesn’t make the sort of films that he excels in, and he knows it.
Outside the multiplexes where he can be heard gleefully killing Optimus Prime, Weaving brings a totally different kind of evil to life in the Australian film, Last Ride, opening this week.
“I live here and I want to live here – and I want to work with people over here,” Weaving says quietly and passionately.
As a formidable actor more than a decade of experience before he played Agent Smith in the Matrix series, Weaving is a great catch for any first-time director, but he’s an actor who is driven by challenge, rather than the opportunities of his new-found status as a ‘star’.
“Sometimes you might be offered something for the wrong reason. I think you have to be mindful of that, that you’re being asked for the right reasons… that someone really wants to work with you because of what you’ve done, rather than what you might represent to the production,” he says.
“I try to choose material I think is challenging for me, that I respond to on a gut level and work with people I genuinely respect and admire and am interested by – those are my criteria.”
Superficially, Last Ride is the story of small-minded, small-time crook, Kev (Weaving), who takes his 10 year old son ‘Chook’ (Tom Russell) on an unscheduled trip to the Flinders Ranges, trying to avoid the consequences of his crimes.
As a lead character, Kev is almost beyond flawed, with virtually no redeeming features, other than a love of his son, but even that supposedly ‘natural’ human response is overwhelmed by poor impulse control and a violent temper.
Given that Weaving is a man of keen intelligence and sensitivity, Kev is in some sense the anti-Hugo.
“The whole idea of intelligence was a really interesting one for this film,” Weaving says. “What kind of intelligence does Kev have? He’s a survivor to some extent – but there’s something about him… He’s his own worst enemy and self-destructing – but there’s a certain intelligence in him, which I found fascinating. You have to kind of measure his brain in a completely different way.”
In preparing for the shoot, Ivin had conducted interviews with a variety of Australian ‘characters’, the sort that you’d normally find alone in a pub, channelling their rage into the bottom of a middy. Weaving says these tapes were enormously useful as tool for working his way into Kev, and reaching a point where his violence, cruelty and “different way” brain made sense internally.
“You spend time with someone like that and hopefully, those sounds and inflections come through by osmosis if you like… rather than a conscious or technical decisions,” Weaving says.
“I never want to be in a situation when I’m judging a character, because then I can’t understand them or empathise with them. But at the same time… he’s the sort of man that if I met, I would be scared of him and want to walk away. So I understand that he’s a scary character, but I always had sympathy for his plight and situation.”
While talking to Weaving, it’s clear that he’s a man who is serious about acting as a skill, one that he continues to develop at a time when he could easily just put on the pointy ears and the dress, pontificate in Middle Earth for a bit and wait for the cheque to clear. With Last Ride, it’s clear he relishes the opportunity to do contemplative and hard-driven character work of a kind not normally associated with the box-office ‘smashes’ he’s been doing lately.
“Well, that’s true, by and large… but not always,” he laughs gently. “The sort of work I’d do for Last Ride is much more complex, I suppose, and therefore more rewarding. It’s not always the way, but generally that’s true.”
At its heart, Last Ride is a father and son story that explores the kinds of cruelty that can only take place in a relationship that is bound by unconditional love. Weaving’s on-screen son ‘Chook’ is performed by Tom Russell – chosen by director Glendyn Ivin specifically for his natural and unaffected approach to acting.
“He’s delightful,” Weaving says. “Just spending time with him, because he’s a lovely kid. But it was challenging as well, because he is an actor, but on the other hand, he has a very different experience of what being an actor is, and what the process is.
“I was obliged to swing with him, because he just wasn’t interested in talking ad nauseum the way I am, about the process, or the way I might do with an actor who’s had a similar experience as I had… so I just couldn’t go there,” he laughs.
“We did talk about the characters in a very minimal way – it was more to do with just hanging out with him – establishing a kind of easy and friendly relationship. That’s something that just sort of happened, so that side of it was pretty great.”
In another sense, Weaving’s co-star is the South Australian outback, as the father and son head into the bleak, unforgiving and yet sometimes stark beauty of the Flinders Ranges, which Weaving says reflects his character’s inner conflict.
“I think all films need to have a sense of identity, even if thematically, they speak to a broader audience or have universal themes – and I think Last Ride does – it could have been made anywhere in the world, really, but it’s in a very specific part of Australia, with very particular Australian types and characters, with specific and unique complexities,” he says.
“To me the film has a very strong sense of being ‘of’ this country – and yet, it does have broader resonances. I think that makes for a very powerful experience and certainly for people seeing it overseas. It’s actually what they’re interested in (from Australian film), seeing the difference between their culture and ours.
“For us, it’s a much better reflection of who we are…”
But is it really? The predominance of outback settings in Australian film is overwhelming, especially given that about 90% of Australians live in cities and hardly anyone lives in the areas that get the screen-time, because in modern terms they’re uninhabitable.
“It’s a vast country we live in, absolutely vast, and we are an urbanised society, living on the fringes of this continent. I think there’s a great mystery in that vastness, that sits in the heart of our physical environment. That’s somehow a great place for all sorts of things, whether it’s spirituality, fear or to do with loneliness… or a mixture of all of those things.”