Hugo Weaving: "The Red Carpet is Not for Me" (03mar04)
The Daily Telegraph - London
March 3, 2004
Hugo Weaving, star of The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings trilogies, is one of the most bankable stars in the film industry. But while his co-stars and countrymen celebrated at last weekend's Oscars ceremony, he was determined to stay well away from Hollywood.
'It's a tough one," says Hugo Weaving. "If it came down to a fight, I'm not sure who'd win." He is debating the fighting prowess of his two best-known screen incarnations: Agent Smith, the indestructible, suit-and-sunglasses-wearing baddie from The Matrix films, and the noble Elrond, the elf king from The Lord of the Rings. He's not talking about the characters themselves, but the plastic action figures that have sold in their thousands all over the world.
"Elrond," he observes, "slashes his sword up and down if you squeeze his little legs together." Agent Smith, on the other hand, simply wields a pistol at the end of an outstretched arm.
"Elrond's got the movable pieces. And he's also bigger," Weaving says, after due consideration. "Smith, on the other hand, has got a gun. But then, Elrond's immortal..."
Whatever the fighting capabilities of his miniature plastic alter-egos, Weaving's place in action film history is assured. He is part of a wave of Australian actors who have made a huge impact in Hollywood recently, including Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts, Cate Blanchett and Russell Crowe. Over the past five years, the 43-year-old actor has starred in six of the most profitable films of all time - The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix trilogies. Last year, films that starred Weaving made pounds 1.2 billion worldwide, making him, according to some reports, "the most bankable star in Hollywood".
Quirkily handsome, he is dressed informally in faded jeans and a blue T-shirt, his shoulder-length hair swept back from an expansive forehead, and he sports a thick beard. The spectacular back-to-back success of The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings films, has not, he insists, changed him at all.
"The money's been good, but I still take the kids to school in the morning and do a big supermarket shop on Mondays. I choose not to have a publicist or a bodyguard or a personal assistant. Some actors live in such incredibly rarefied worlds that they forget how to take responsibility for themselves."
Weaving abhors the Hollywood movie-making machine and categorically rules out a move to Los Angeles. He is passionate about supporting Australia's film industry and disapproves of America's cultural dominance.
"There's too much crap being made in Hollywood. The film world is full of garbage," he says. "I don't want to live in a world where all the films come out of Los Angeles."
As an actor with a global profile, he knows he has to play the game - attending premieres and so on - but it is something he does with deep reluctance. Even though The Return of the King swept the board at Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, winning 11 Oscars, Weaving, unlike many of his co-stars, did not attend.
"The whole red carpet thing, that's a side of the industry I cannot bear. Everything has to be sold, everything has to be hyped, money becomes the key. You end up becoming a product yourself. I don't want that. I just want to be an actor who's also a human being."
Weaving is polite to a fault, attentive and down-to-earth. He doesn't give interviews but, after two-and-a-quarter hours, he is still happily chatting away.
He lives with his wife, artist Katrina Greenwood, in one of Sydney's smartest suburbs. His children, Harry, 15, and Holly, 11, go to a local school and remain unfazed by their father's celebrity.
There may be no skeletons in his cupboard, but there is a sword under his couch, which he was given on completion of the The Lord of the Rings series. "They presented all the actors with gifts at the end: a helmet, a dress, or whatever. I got a sword. I've no idea what I'm going to do with it. It will probably stay under the couch for ever. But it could be handy if there's a burglary."
Like the sword, its owner will stay in Sydney for the foreseeable future. Weaving's desire to remain rooted in Australia is born out of a childhood marked by regular upheaval. His father's job as a seismologist with an oil company meant a change of country every few years.
Hugo Wallace Weaving was born in Nigeria in 1960. Soon afterwards, the family moved to England and, at the age of 10 (after spells in Melbourne and Sydney), he was sent as a boarder to the Downs, a private school outside Bristol.
"It was like a prep school version of the Lindsay Anderson film If," he says. "When I see that film, it brings back all these memories. I was a prefect at the age of 13 and I remember wandering around at night, turning the lights out in the dormitories and listening to seven-year-old boys crying with their teddies. "Rugby was compulsory. We played every single day, in snow, sleet or hail. I loved it, though."
Weaving's interest in acting was encouraged by a young English teacher at his next school, Queen Elizabeth Hospital School, also in Bristol. He made his stage debut as a 15-year-old in a compilation of skits called A Victorian Evening. A year later, his family moved back to Sydney, and Weaving finished off his schooling at a posh local grammar school. At the time, he felt "entirely English" and came in for the usual "whingeing Pom" jibes from his classmates.
He soon lost his English accent, enrolled at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, and spent most of the Eighties appearing in plays and television mini-series in Australia. In 1994, he landed the role of an insecure drag queen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, alongside Terence Stamp, which brought him to an international audience for the first time. But the phone call that propelled him into the big league came in 1998, when he was asked to audition for the part of Agent Smith, Keanu Reeves's snarling, computer-generated nemesis in the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix.
"I was working in London and my agent rang from Sydney to tell me about this new film. He said it was a big-budget, science fiction thing. I said I really wasn't interested; it didn't sound like my kind of film at all. Then I saw Bound, the Wachowskis' previous film, which I really liked, so I got the script and thought the character was pretty interesting. Then I flew to LA to meet Larry and Andy [Wachowski] and I thought they were great."
Months of gruelling training followed, and the fight scenes with Reeves left Weaving bloodied and bruised. He sustained a serious hip injury that almost required surgery. "Initially, Keanu and I would train as if it were a ballet, practising our punches. But when it came down to it, we had to make contact. From time to time, I would really hit Keanu or he would hit me."
Weaving was disconcerted when he arrived on the set of the third Matrix film to find hundreds of Agent Smith mannequins littering the sound stage, all dressed in identical black suits, white shirts and sunglasses.
"There were rows and rows of them. One time, I looked down and there was my head in a bucket. It was bizarre."
Weaving's Matrix role led directly to his involvement in the The Lord of the Rings project. He received a call in early 2000 from Barry Osborne, who had produced the first Matrix film and was working on the adaptation of Tolkien's epic fantasy in New Zealand. "I remembered Elrond from reading The Hobbit as a kid, so I said: 'That sounds fantastic, I'd love to be involved'."
For the next three years, he flew back and forth over the Tasman Sea, dropping in for a few weeks' filming amid New Zealand's lakes and mountains before heading back to his family.
While the highlights of the trilogy for most cinema-goers were the epic battle scenes and spectacular scenery, Weaving's abiding memory is of the disposable latex ears he wore as Elrond.
"They were stored in a fridge because they tended to droop a bit in warm weather. At the end of each day's filming, I just ripped them off and chucked them away."
Lunchtimes on the set, when the cast and crew stopped for a break, were surreal. "Ian McKellen would have a big snood tied around his beard, to keep it clean while he ate, and then there'd be an orc across the table, wearing a hideous face mask, sipping his lunch through a straw. It was very funny."
Weaving's biggest challenge of all was learning to speak elvish. "It was a nightmare. There would be all these elves sitting around, practising their lines. From time to time, you'd hear someone go: 'Oh f--- it, f---ing hell', because they couldn't get it right."
Playing Elrond was "limited in its appeal to an actor", he admits. For the most part, the role required Weaving to glide around the mythical palace of Rivendell wearing flowing cloaks, looking serene and delivering words of wisdom.
"I found playing Elrond quite hard," he says. He yearned for a more robust action-hero role, like Aragorn, played by Viggo Mortensen. The elves were a bit too squeaky clean for his liking.
Weaving's latest project is Peaches, a low-budget, coming-of-age story about a young girl growing up in a peach-growing town in south Australia after her parents are killed in a car crash.
There are other films in the pipeline, and perhaps a return to theatre in Sydney. But this year, his priority is to restore the former dairy farm that he and his wife bought recently in the lush hill country three hours' drive north of Sydney. The 60-acre property includes patches of rainforest, a fast-flowing river and "a number of exquisite glades". A bit like Rivendell? "Better than Rivendell," he says, with a smile.
If he decides to sign up to another Hollywood blockbuster, Weaving knows he will have to wrestle with the fact that he is now, in his own words, "a commodity".
"It's something I object to hugely," he says. "I try to stay true to what I believe in. If that means the offers dry up, then so be it."
With that, he grins, shakes my hand warmly, and wanders off. Elrond may be immortal, and Agent Smith may be indestructible, but Hugo Weaving has to pick the kids up from school.