International success story Hugo Weaving returns to Australia to play a menacing gangster-come-nightclub crooner in the unconventional crime drama The Tender Hook.
"I wouldn't class myself as a singer," says Hugo Weaving on the Melbourne set of The Tender Hook, which is doubling for between-wars-era Sydney. "I wouldn't have the confidence to sing in front of an audience."
He might not possess the cocky strut of Mick Jagger or the heaven-and-hell wail of Robert Plant, but the world of music and on-stage performance isn't exactly new to Weaving. In Stavros Kazantzidis' 1997 comedy-drama True Love And Chaos, he played a washed-up rock singer with more than a hint of Nick Cave coursing through his frazzled veins. In Andrew Upton's play Riflemind (performed with The Sydney Theatre Company last year, and directed by acclaimed American actor Philip Seymour Hoffman), Weaving was highly effective as a retired rock singer resisting a reformation tour being hustled together by his still hungry-for-fame band.
In The Tender Hook - the debut effort from writer/director Jonathan Ogilvie - Hugo Weaving once again finds himself behind the microphone, but this time his rock moves have been filtered through a jazz age haze. At the centre of a somewhat stylised universe nominally located in 1920s Sydney, Weaving is the quietly threatening McHeath, a true renaissance man. Handsome and charming, he's a boxing promoter, a seller of illegal liquor, a gangster highly possessive over everything that he sees as his own, and a singer with a ready-built captive audience. "McHeath is very much into providing whatever entertainment is required," says Weaving. "He fancies himself as a singer."
Lording it in his own nightclubs, McHeath has his own band, and uses his position to indulge his love of singing. As his main squeeze, Iris (Rose Byrne), looks on, McHeath puts his own jazzy spin on pop classics by the likes of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Weaving's sturdy readings of the out-of-time songs adds to the film's anachronistic flourishes, and also gives the actor a showcase to do something wholly different on screen. "The interesting part was transposing them to 1928 and finding a way for them to suit the music that Chris [Abrahams of sonic pioneers The Necks] had written," says Weaving of seemingly incongruous songs such as "Ballad Of A Thin Man" and "I'm Your Man".
Like the film's other stylistic gambles (characters inserted into digitally coloured archival footage being the main one), the anachronistic songs give The Tender Hook a kick all of its own. Wholly unconventional, it's no surprise that the film has been shuttling around for years as Ogilvie struggled to find financing. Weaving first heard about it in 2003 when he was shooting the quirky comedy-drama Peaches, in which his The Tender Hook co-star Matt Le Nevez also featured. "I understand why it took a long time," Weaving says of the film's protracted and twisted journey to the big screen. "I didn't see the script ten years ago, but I imagine that the long process of getting it into production has been good for the script. It's very rich, and it's a story that is told in many interesting ways. It's not just a love story; it has political elements to it as well. In a funny way, we're kind of telling an allegorical story of Australia."
Weaving famously appeared in the massively successful Lord Of The Rings and Matrix films, and was a late replacement on the ambitious action drama V For Vendetta, as well as doing voice work on big hits such as Happy Feet, Babe and Transformers, where his dulcet tones were used for bad guy Megatron. This success, however, hasn't gone to Weaving's head. "I was very nervous before our first scene, but you won't find a more normal guy," says his co-star Rose Byrne. "He'd never think, for example, that anyone would be nervous about working with him. No strings, no fuss - he's just completely unfazed by his success."
Though Weaving has just completed the big budget horror film The Wolf Man with Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt and Geraldine Chaplin, he is now once again plying his trade locally on the father-son drama The Last Ride for debut feature director Glendyn Ivin.
Unlike his fellow colleagues who have found success overseas, Weaving likes to work regularly within the local film industry. "I want to be working on films here," he told FILMINK while doing press for Peaches in 2004. "I was really excited working on Little Fish, and with the prospect of working on Eucalyptus [which ultimately collapsed when star Russell Crowe failed to commit]. Those are the sorts of films that I'll always be interested in working on, with Australian directors and Australian scripts. It's a small industry, but it's very vibrant. We have a lot of extraordinary talent when you think about it. But no one really talks about that unless it's for being a Hollywood star and being on magazine covers or getting an Oscar. We celebrate all that but we don't really celebrate people for the work that they do. I look at some of the films and I think, 'That's a fantastic film', but it's sort of been swept under the carpet. Do people actually go to see the films? I don't think they do. I don't even think people in the industry go and see the films. I don't think we're very supportive of each other. But I love working in Australia. And if from time to time I get to spread my wings a bit and do something totally different, that's wonderful too."
The Tender Hook is released on September 18.