March 29, 2012
IT’S cocktail hour on an Indian summer day and I’m waiting for Hugo Weaving in the cool chrome-and-leather bar of the Sydney Dance Company cafe.
He’s running late so I cradle a crisp sauvignon blanc and sweat on some last-minute questions for one of Australia’s most successful actors. As I sip and scribble, a pigeon swoops into the bar and starts pecking crumbs from the floor. I notice it is lame in one leg and muse on the coincidence: I’m here to talk to Weaving about a new production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, in which he plays the arch-seducer the Vicomte de Valmont, an emotional cripple if ever there were one.
Suddenly the pigeon flaps off, startled. Heads turn as Weaving hulks into the room, wearing faded jeans, an open-neck check shirt and looking at least a decade younger than his 51 years. It’s always surprising to see how hunky he is. He may still walk the streets in relative anonymity but up close he is all star. He flashes a smile, the blue eyes alive, extends a firm hand and then . . . arrrggghhh!
Fortunately, at that moment I awake from the recurring nightmare known as the celebrity interview. I pull myself together and head upstairs to meet Weaving in a small, quiet room in the Sydney Theatre Company offices. (The bit about the pigeon is true, though.)
Weaving is one of our most successful actors, at home in small-budget Australian films such as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Little Fish and Last Ride or Hollywood extravaganzas such as the Matrix and Lord of the Rings franchises.
He has been at it for 30 years — he graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art in 1981 — and has been a star for about half that time (the first Matrix film was in 1999). But a celebrity? Well, you won’t find him tweeting on Twitter, where Russell Crowe provides daily updates on his diet and exercise regime. (Unleash hamstrings!) Indeed, when I mention Weaving’s involvement with the Sydney animal welfare group Voiceless, he seems a bit embarrassed. He believes in the cause — his vegetarian kids switched him on to it — but he worries that people will see him as just another high-wattage, low-commitment spokesmodel.
And, anyway, Weaving has more immediate problems on his mind as he prepares for the STC’s contemporary interpretation of Dangerous Liaisons, as we’ve called it since John Malkovich preened and prowled through Stephen Frears’s Oscar-nominated 1988 film version. For starters, does he keep the beard? It’s a trim one, and looks good on him, but would a modern ladies’ man have that much facial hair?
“I did think I’d just go for a moustache,” he confides, “but then that would just announce oneself as a seducer. I guess I’ll just have to ask the women in the cast how I look best.”
Weaving seems so troubled by this ticklish problem that I refrain from observing that the role of Valmont seems to attract ugly-sexy actors: Malkovich, Alan Rickman in the original Royal Shakespeare Company production in 1985, Colin Firth (OK, plain-sexy) in Milos Forman’s 1989 film adaptation.
Somewhat surprisingly, Weaving declares that Malkovich, while “a wonderful actor”, stuffed up the role: “I remember seeing it and thinking, Oh, no, that’s not it’,” he says. “He was very snaky, announced himself as a villain and just stayed there. I didn’t find him attractive and didn’t understand why any woman would.”
And that is the key to playing Valmont, especially in an Australian production set in the present day, half a world and more than 200 years away from the decadent French aristocratic milieu of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 novel, with its emphasis on women’s non-liberation, on which Christopher Hampton’s 1985 play for the RSC is based. In the traditional setting, the Valmont actor faces a different tonsorial challenge: keeping his wig on. How, in this day and age, to be irresistible to women, lots of women?
Valmont and his rival and ex-lover, the Marquise de Merteuil, (Pamela Rabe has the role) manipulate all around them, using sex to humiliate and degrade.
Their main targets are the virtuous Madame de Tourvel and a young engaged couple, Cecile de Volanges and the Chevalier Danceny (played in Frears’s film by the then relatively unknown Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves). It’s a sizzling story of aristocratic intrigue, seduction, revenge and human cruelty, and it sold like hot baguettes in 1782.
That the story endures is no surprise. You could set a version today in the Oval Office, say, or the boardroom of a business empire. “These are hideously appealing creatures,” Weaving says of the main characters. “They have lots of money and probably too much time on their hands. There’s an indolence there, and a selfishness too.”
Weaving has played Valmont before, for Sydney’s Nimrod Theatre in 1987: he was 27 and in a relatively new relationship. He’s still in it: he and his partner, Katrina, live in Sydney’s eastern suburbs with their two children, Harry, 23, and Holly, 19. Harry, Weaving says, has been accepted into NIDA and wants to act.
So, how does a man who has been with the same woman for 25 years get into the skin of a real sleazebag? Weaving pauses for a long time. “Well, I have to work out intellectually what makes him attractive to women,” he says.
“He’s a rake, and I think the thing about a rake is that his appeal to any woman is that when he’s with her, she’s the only woman in the world.
“The power of his passion and his declared love is so strong that it’s utterly flattering.”
Weaving says he will play the role differently from 25 years ago. “I thought I was much too young to do it, but it was such a great opportunity, such a fantastic role, such an interesting character.
“My approach back then, the way I played the character, was as someone controlled and calculating. Now that I’m older — possibly too old! — my comprehension of him is much better. He is a man who is bored with a certain way of life and a certain way of doing things. What he actually wants is to fall in love in a way.”
Yes, but he’s still a bastard, right? “Oh yes,” Weaving says with a laugh. “He’s utterly charming but completely untrustworthy.”
Weaving has a busy stage schedule ahead of him. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a 10-week run, and then he’s off to New York for another reprise of the STC’s acclaimed 2010 production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, alongside Cate Blanchett.
Weaving was born in Nigeria to English parents. The family moved between England, Australia and South Africa before settling in Australia when Hugo was 16. It’s probably this upbringing that gave him his beautiful voice (which he cheerfully puts to work in film projects as varied as Babe and Transformers) and his good manners. He’s charming and unassuming, one of those people (some would say rare people) who give actors a good name.
He started acting in school plays and remains passionate about the theatre. “I love researching a play and building characters and situations with a group of people, creating a world that has a strong sense of reality. I’m interested in human psychology and what makes people tick.”
He says he enjoys the linear nature of live performance, unlike film, where scenes are shot out of sequence. “I love the charge that comes with doing it live; once it starts there’s a momentum and flow, and you’re part of something else.”
Weaving says he thinks the Australian film industry is “pretty healthy” and he ticks off a list of “extraordinarily talented” directors, singling out Ivan Sen and last year’s film Toomelah for special mention. “Apart from working in the theatre, what I love doing most are films like Little Fish or Last Ride,” he says. “They are filmed in Australia, with wonderful directors and scripts, a small crew, small cast, a six or seven-week intense shooting experience.
“Those sort of films are a real joy. I feel so lucky to be working as an actor with that sort of material. It’s challenging for me, and I hope interesting for people to watch.”
Weaving acknowledges that such films are rarely knockouts at the box office, but that’s life and there are other projects that help pay the bills. His next potential blockbuster is the film adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, directed by German filmmaker Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski brothers of Matrix fame. Mitchell’s epic story is a difficult one to film, given its multiple story-lines, geographies and time periods, but the producers have spared little expense on the cast, with Weaving’s co-stars including Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon and Jim Broadbent. The film, a German-American co-production, was shot mainly in Berlin with a reported $100 million-plus budget.
“Yes it’s full of terrific actors,” Weaving says, “and there are all these great German actors playing small roles. I’d go to the theatre in Berlin and see this genius of an actor, Martin Wuttke, doing this incredible performance of (Brecht’s) Arturo . . . and then next day he’s on the set, playing this tiny role.”
While Weaving would be prefer to be remembered for the sweet little fish of his career rather than the loopy leviathans such as, oh, V for Vendetta, he’s not about to sweat it: “Look, every now and then it’s really fun to do something massive and kind of mad and completely unnaturalistic. You know it’s good for you.”
Good for him, indeed.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Christopher Hampton, directed by Sam Strong, is at Sydney Theatre Company from Saturday to June 9.