April 9, 2015
Hugo Weaving says he sometimes weighs up not working at all but admits that, after a small break following his turn in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, he’ll be looking for some more film roles but doesn’t yet know what they’ll be.
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: For decades now, Hugo Weaving has been one of Australia’s most recognisable actors, revered by audiences, critics and his peers. He’s carved out a highly successful career, juggling both theatre and film, occasionally huge commercial successes like The Matrix and Lord of the Rings trilogy, but more often plays and smaller films, always notable for Weaving’s compelling presence.
This year the actor has an enormously exhausting theatrical workload, starring in two plays by Samuel Beckett. Right now, he’s appearing in a Sydney Theatre Company production of Endgame, and after that, he’s off to London to appear in Waiting for Godot.
Hugo Weaving and I met for a chat on stage in Sydney.
Hugo, lovely to have you on the program.
HUGO WEAVING, ACTOR: Thank you, Leigh.
LEIGH SALES: We’ve made you sit in a chair that you have to sit in for two hours every night. I’m sorry about that. It’s not the world’s most comfortable-looking chair.
HUGO WEAVING: No, that’s alright. I’m normally strapped into it, so it’s a bit – I’m a bit more free here.
LEIGH SALES: Is it a particular challenge when you have your range of movement and your physicality restricted in a role like that?
HUGO WEAVING: Yeah, hugely. The biggest restriction for Ham is that he’s blind and so I have these glasses which we painted. They’re normally sunglasses, but we’ve painted the glasses out so they’re white. I’m looking into the back of like a white wall right in front of my eyes. So the hardest thing for me is I don’t have any visual reference points either on stage or with the audience, so it’s very hard when telling, say, a long story that Ham does tell to – when you don’t have visual reference points, you find yourself disappearing into your own head and it’s quite odd. It’s like I’m in a dreamscape or something.
LEIGH SALES: Is it harder to make a connection with an audience when you don’t have the ability to be making eye contact?
HUGO WEAVING: Yeah, I find that very hard, in rehearsal, just trying to work out is this best for me to be blind? Should I close my eyes? Should I not be able to see? Or should I be able to see a little bit? But now on stage with the lights I just can’t see a thing anyway, so it doesn’t matter.
LEIGH SALES: (Laughs) I hope this isn’t a completely ignorant question, but in a play like, say, Waiting for Godot that is decades old and it’s been done many, many times, lots of people have seen it, is there something new that can be found in a play like that still or is that even a worthwhile thing to be contemplating?
HUGO WEAVING: If in 300 years Godot’s still being performed – if we’re all still around on this planet – then I would say that those performers, those actors in those roles will bring life to it for the audience. So famously said Godot’s where nothing happens twice and Endgame, nothing happens once. So nothing really happens, but the life is – the interest for anyone, for a performer and someone watching the play is in the relationships themselves, so I think that’s the thing that’s always going to be there.
LEIGH SALES: Does the crew on a film fulfil the same purpose that an audience does in theatre? Does it deliver any energy to the performance?
HUGO WEAVING: Yeah, they can do. A very tight-knit crew who are all working together on something they all want to be working on can be very supportive and very helpful. The difference being the camera, of course, and that’s kind of where your audience lie and yet you can’t be too aware of that camera, you know. You need to be free and open and existing within the world you’re creating in front of the gaze of the camera. But, yes, a crew can be very, very supportive.
LEIGH SALES: When you’re doing a play in front of an audience, you every night can gauge what their reaction is and you can adapt to your performance if you feel that something hasn’t worked or not. How do you then, when you’re doing a film, get a sense of whether or not something can work? Like, say for example when you did Agent Smith in The Matrix and he had a distinctive manner of speaking. How did you know that would work and that it just wouldn’t seem silly?
HUGO WEAVING: I didn’t – I suppose we prepped for – we were training – physically training for four months, so I sort of prepped that whole voice. And I did want him to sound artificial, sort of like a sort of newsreader in a way. And he was a construct, so I thought he needed to be a constructed person, not particularly human and yet the humanity within him was coming out and I thought that was funny. And the humour that the directors – writer-directors and myself found, that was the key to trusting that that voice was right because we found that amusing.
LEIGH SALES: Will you keep doing a combination of theatre and film?
HUGO WEAVING: Um, I don’t know. Probably. I sort of want to take a little break from theatre actually after we go to London with Godot. I’ve been doing a lot of theatre the last three years. So I might have maybe a year out at least and see what films pop up. But, yeah, I don’t – who knows?
LEIGH SALES: Is acting a useful life skill? Like, for example, if you’re going to a party and you don’t know anyone there, can you call on your skill as an actor and think, “OK, I’m going to act like a confident person”?
HUGO WEAVING: I wish. (Laughs)
LEIGH SALES: (Laughs)
HUGO WEAVING: No – oh, I don’t know. I do think acting is a wonderful holistic exercise. I do think acting is very good for your health, but I don’t know that it arms me with the ability to be confident in a party, no.
LEIGH SALES: If you have a scene that calls on your character to be – say, to react in a manner that is both frustrated and shocked and also saddened, all in the one moment, in a craft sense, how do you actually work out what that looks like? How do you draw on that’s what that face looks like or that’s what that body would look like in that moment?
HUGO WEAVING: Yeah, I certainly wouldn’t think about it from the outside, I wouldn’t think about face and body. I would think about the particular things that someone has said to me and the effect that might have on my thought patterns and the way I’m feeling and the face and then maybe the face and the body might do something of its own accord. So, otherwise you are just acting, otherwise you are pulling faces. So, whatever the impulse from the other actor or whatever they’ve said or whatever’s happened is the thing that will create a feeling inside that is hopefully honest.
LEIGH SALES: What if they’re not a very good actor and so it’s hard for you to evoke a legitimate response?
HUGO WEAVING: Well I suppose then you imagine and you create and, I mean, acting is pretending, of course, and so I suppose you just have to pretend a bit better.
LEIGH SALES: Are you good at switching off and taking a break? Once you’re done – you know, you said you’re going to take a break after Waiting for Godot?
HUGO WEAVING: Oh, look, I’m torn. Sometimes I think I’d just like to stop working altogether and disappear up to the farm and grow vegetables and plant trees. Really, that would – I’d be very happy. But on the other hand, the reality of that, probably I would want to come back and do another play or another film, so who knows?
LEIGH SALES: Well I hope you do after your break in London. Thank you very much Hugo Weaving for joining us.
HUGO WEAVING: Thank you. Thanks, Leigh, very much.