May 11, 2003
He may have starred in two of the benchmark trilogies in film history, but Ocomplicated’ Aussie actor Hugo Weaving tells Jo McCarroll he’s happier making largely anonymous low-budget movies . . . as long as he can afford his veges. There are good guys, there are bad guys and then there are the complicated guys and those are the roles Hugo Weaving tends to choose. But they do tend to be complicated in different ways. In his 20-something year career, Weaving, 42, has played a blind photographer in Proof, a drag queen in size 12 heels in Priscilla, a malevolent sheepdog in Babe (well, he provided the voice, even he couldn’t play a dog), a sex-obsessed real estate agent in Bedrooms and Hallways and an elf lord in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
And of course he portrayed the very, very complicated Agent Smith who declared in The Matrix, with such icy and memorable contempt: "You humans are a . . . virus. A disease that has infested this planet." This time around (the second part of the trilogy, The Matrix Reloaded, opens next week, The Matrix Revolutions in November) things get more complicated still.
"I always thought that in the next film you’d find the real villain behind him," says Weaving of his character. "Because he’s not really the villain, he’s just like a heavy. And you do see what’s behind him. Or at least things get more and more polarised so you see the masculine and feminine forces that are controlling this world where Neo is still on his quest to find out what is the truth."
Ah, The Matrix. The film that – more than any other in history – got sensible people saying things like "polarised masculine and feminine forces" and "what is the truth, really?" A film that came almost out of nowhere – reclusive brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski had made critically-acclaimed lesbian thriller Bound but had never "done" mainstream – to be one of the biggest films of 2000, in terms of box office, critical acclaim and sales of long leather coats.
"I was working in London," says Nigerian-born, British passport-holder Weaving. "And the agency from here rang and said someone was in Australia casting for this futuristic, huge budget, American picture and I said Onah, I’m not really interested’."
But his agents sent a script anyway – which Weaving didn’t read ("I was working, I didn’t have time"). Finally someone in Australia insisted he do just one scene – the scene where Agent Smith first interrogates Neo – on video as an audition.
"So I read one scene for this test and I just thought this character is really good, really funny," Weaving says. "That one scene got me hooked."
Hooked enough that he went through months of training so he could perform those celebrated fight sequences, enduring bumps, bruises and injuries; in the first film Weaving had to have an operation on his leg and Keanu Reeves injured his neck. This time around the fights, and the training, were also a little more . . . complicated.
"We trained for six and a bit months over in the States and then started shooting in San Francisco with a big fight sequence and a big car chase sequence and then we flew to Sydney (where the rest of the film was shot)," says Weaving.
"This time around there were other injuries. Carrie-Anne (Moss who plays cyberbabe Trinity) had a broken leg, Laurence (Fishburne who plays all-knowing Morpheus) scratched his arm, I had a little neck injury. But we all got over them."
While the details of the much-anticipated film are shrouded in secrecy, it’s rumoured that Reeves’ fight sequences are more layered than anything ever seen on screen. Weaving faced a new challenge as an actor – cloning. When Agent Smith breaks out of the matrix his ego expands so body doubles, masks and CGI were used to create a sort of "many-me" effect for Weaving. But will it – can it – live up to the impact of the original? While Matrix 2 and 3 might do the same things better they are still – forgive me – doing the same things.
"Joel Silver (highflying, blockbuster producer credited with reinventing the action film genre) has a good one on this," says Weaving. "He says with the next films we’ve set the bar even higher. To the extent there is no bar. There is no bar any more."
If Matrix 2 and 3 really do, not just raise, but destroy the bar, then Weaving will have been in what most people would agree are two of the most significant film events of the last decade: The Matrix trilogy and, of course, our very own Lord of the Rings.
"The Matrix was a big departure for me, the accidental superstar says. "Usually the things that interest me haven’t been big budget films. I’ve always been more interested in, for want of a better term, small art-house films. Those are the films that I go and see and that I want to do."
Just before he started filming the sequels he made a little Australian film Russian Doll, the budget of which was less than the Matrix spent on catering. Weaving is at a point now where he could easily just accept high paying, high profile roles in Hollywood blockbusters, but he feels an obligation to support the indigenous Australian industry. Not just an obligation, he says, a preference.
"With any country there are particular ways of seeing the world," says Weaving. "And ways of being that are part of that particular country. And those are the ways I see and the way I am and those are the stories I am interested in getting out there.
"I think the world is overburdened with Americana," says Weaving, who has resisted a move to Hollywood. "And I don’t particularly want to be part of it. Because it’s not part of me."
"I suspect if you go about your life as if it’s normal," says Weaving, "which mine is, then probably people will treat you as a human being. Whereas if you go about your life as if it’s something to be guarded or something different then you will be treated differently. If you think your image is who you are then you are in danger."
So that’s why he continues to do the hard yards making little films for less money and keeps popping up in Australian theatre. The only thing that changes, he says, is the money.
"The pay you get in theatre lasts you the length of the run," says Weaving, usually so complicated, but putting this simply. "So there’d be times when we’d be looking under the couch cushions for money to go and buy vegetables. Being in a film like The Matrix is good. I can buy all the vegetables I want."