Sydney Morning Herald
April 3, 2006
Hugo Weaving’s face is on pencil cases and mousepads thanks to a couple of blockbuster trilogies but he is not always recognised in the street. Mark Dapin talks to the actor who prefers life under the radar.
Hugo Weaving wins the AFI Award for best actor in Little Fish last year.
The first time I see Hugo Weaving, it’s by chance. He’s out walking near his home in Paddington, Sydney, when he is stopped by two men with a camera phone. He seems artlessly patient as he waits for them to take his picture, unnaturally calm and still.
The second time I see Hugo Weaving, it’s by design. He’s sitting in the W Sydney hotel (renamed Blue), a disconcertingly spare warehouse conversion in Woolloomooloo. He’s working the press for his new movie, V For Vendetta, in which he plays V, a man who never removes his Guy Fawkes mask.
Stars must be stoked that everyone has a camera in their phones now. "Not really," says Weaving. Often, he says, the people who stop him think he is Sam Neill. "Sam tells me that he gets Hugo Weaving a lot," he says, "so we cop it for each other."
Weaving’s US publicist, Maureen, tops up our soft drinks and laughs generously at our jokes, while she mourns her mobile phone, which has vanished in a taxi. A publicist caught without her mobile phone has lost her most vital means of expression, like an actor trapped behind a mask.
Weaving, however, does not use a mobile phone, drive a car or wear a watch. "I keep thinking I should get a phone," he says, "because everyone’s got one and it becomes increasingly difficult to exist in a society where everyone else has moved ahead and you haven’t. People get really angry: ‘Why can’t I ever get on to you? Why can’t I phone you?’"
He does not particularly want to be contactable all the time. He suggests that if people need to talk to him, they phone him at home. If he’s there, he’ll pick up the phone and if he’s not, he’ll call back.
He doesn’t drive because he suffers from epilepsy. "That was the original reason," says the 45-year-old. "I didn’t get my licence because I wasn’t allowed to. But I haven’t had a seizure for a long time so I could, theoretically, get my licence. But I’m now just so used to not driving, I’m scared of what I’d do."
He does own a watch, he concedes, "because my son has a watch and he got one free with it.
I occasionally wear it but it’s a terrible watch so I generally don’t. I just don’t like things on my wrist."
He says he has "a Luddite quality" – but the original 19th-century Luddites didn’t just spurn new technology, they destroyed it. Did he destroy Maureen’s mobile phone? "Maybe it was me who did it," he says. Then he turns to his publicist and hisses, "Sssssssstay away from me, Maureen!"
Weaving occasionally exercises the actor’s prerogative to lapse into funny voices. His preferred alter ego seems to be a kind of manic Gollum. He was born in Nigeria to English parents – his father, Wallace, was a seismologist at the time – but the family left after one year, moved back to England "and lived in Bedford, then Brighton. Then we came out to Melbourne, then moved to Sydney. From Sydney, we went back to England briefly, then to Johannesburg, then back to England and lived in Beaconsfield and then we went to Bristol."
So, in England he only lived in places beginning…
"… with ‘B’," he says. "Yessss. Lots of Bs. I tried going to London. It didn’t work. It wasn’t Bondon."
He was 13 when he had his first epileptic seizure and has since identified the trigger as stress. "If I was reading and writing and looking from one piece to another – and I had a lot of different papers around me and I was collating information – that used to get me going. My brain would just get overloaded."
His father, then working for a computers firm and his mother, Anne, a former teacher, had long wanted to return to Sydney – and they did, in 1976, when Weaving was 16. "They always said, ‘We will go back and we’ll stay there,’" he says. "And that’s what they did. But as soon as they got back, they split up."
In general conversation, Weaving affects a friendly, understated reserve. It is only when he talks about his parents’ divorce that he allows any emotion to disturb his affable opacity.
"That was obviously … affecting, in a major way. I was very upset. There’s still a part of me that wishes they were happily together. I was 16 when they finally split up and it made me very aware that whoever you choose to be with, whoever you fall in love with, you’re going to have to constantly work at it and deal with problems. I didn’t want to split up at 50. That doesn’t make sense to me."
Weaving started going out with his partner, Katrina Greenwood, "an artist and mother", 25 years ago when he was still an unknown actor. They met when they were small children but did not get to know each other until Greenwood and her then-boyfriend moved into a house where Weaving was living with his then-girlfriend. Greenwood left to study art in the UK and split up with her partner. Weaving’s relationship ended, too, and the pair got together.
They have two children, Harry, 17, and Holly, 13, both still at school. Weaving and Greenwood have never married, which Weaving puts down to "a kind of weird desire not to be the focus of attention.
I didn’t want to go through the actual wedding day.
I didn’t want to make a speech.
When we decided to have kids, that was when we ‘got married’, if you like. But we’ve occasionally talked about the idea of getting married, perhaps when we’re really old.
We’ll have a big party at sixtysomething. Or 70."
It’s a bit odd that a movie star should not want to be "the focus of attention" but Weaving customarily avoids publicity. "He’s not in the fame game at all," says Sydney Theatre Company (STC) artistic director Robyn Nevin, who’s known Weaving since he graduated from NIDA in 1981 and who directed him in Hedda Gabler, which has played in New York. "He has achieved fame because he is very good at what he does. His movies have done very well but he’s a real actor, like Cate Blanchett. They’ve kind of had celebrity status thrust upon them but they don’t enjoy that or give much time to it."
But his friends say his success sits well with him. In Australia, at least, Hugo is the boss. He’s become a one-name guy, like Rove or Russ, which has a lot to do with his talent and a little to do with the paucity of Hugos in his generation.
Actor Angie Milliken says she first met Weaving when they both featured in the STC play The White Devil in 2000. "There was a part of him that hadn’t quite opened up yet. It was like there was something fighting to be released. I’ve seen him really grow, not just as an actor but as a human being and therefore as an actor. He’s a mixture of opposites. His success makes him a larger, more charitable and generous person. At the same time, he has a wild, elusive streak, which is very attractive. He has a wonderful ability to self-deprecate and a lovely kind of silliness, which is almost feminine. But at the same time, he can be incredibly manly and have this great weight."
"His family life is very happy and very stable," says Nevin, "and he gives a lot of time and attention to it. And he makes that very clear. We’ve offered him roles and he has said, ‘No, that’s over the kids’ school holidays. I won’t be available in the holidays.’
I really admire that – although it’s irritating at the time."
Nor does he take on work simply for the money. "He doesn’t want to, he doesn’t need to, he never has," says Nevin. "He selects his projects carefully."
Weaving bowled into the boundaries of the national consciousness as English cricket captain Douglas Jardine in the TV miniseries Bodyline in 1984, then landed parts in some of the best Australian movies of the next 20 years. He was trusting and tormented as the blind photographer in Proof; convincingly camp as Mitzi Del Bra in The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert; and brittle but controlled as the suspect in The Interview. He also gave voice to Rex the sheepdog in the Babe films before he was cast in the two millennial fantasy trilogies, The Matrix and The Lord Of The Rings. The latter three and Priscilla have made him our most bankable star, according to a survey last year of the top-grossing films in Australia, with box-office takings of $270 million.
Last year, his performance as a heroin addict in Little Fish won him even greater respect from his peers. Richard Roxburgh, who was inspired to act when he saw Weaving in NIDA’s touring production of Twelfth Night in 1981, describes Weaving’s ability to "get right inside the heart and soul of a working-class junkie" as "the last outpost of achievement for Hugo". Says Milliken, "After Little Fish, I said to him, ‘Hugo, you can do absolutely anything.’ "
V For Vendetta, the latest screenplay by the Wachowski brothers, is based on a comic strip written by Englishman Alan Moore in the 1980s. Its paranoid vision of a fascist England seemed less fanciful in the days of race riots, British National Party marches and Margaret Thatcher’s destruction of the coal-mining industry. Weaving’s character, V, is an escaped concentration-camp inmate who – like almost everybody in the movies but nobody in real life – murders his former tormentors one by one. V also blows up a number of London landmarks as he tries to incite the population to revolution and the symbol of the rebellion becomes V’s disguise – a smiling Guy Fawkes mask.
It is a mark of Weaving’s skill that it looks as though there is a range of masks with quite different expressions: a sad smirk, a helpless grin, an affectionate twinkle, a paternal beam, a sneer, a gloat. "Angles of the head, different lightings, different lighting states, different movements: that sort of thing had to convey everything," says Weaving. "Because the mask didn’t."
The film, which opened in Australia on Thursday, was supposed to be released globally in November last year but it was rumoured that V’s campaign of destruction was held over because real bombs had killed 56 people on the London Underground and a city bus on July 7.
Critics are going to say the movie is an argument for terrorism, albeit against tyrannical regimes.
"Correct. I suppose you could read it like that."
It’s hard to see another reading. "That goes into the whole thing about, ‘What is terrorism?’" says Weaving. "We say if someone puts bombs on the London tube – that’s a terrorist act. But if someone puts bombs in a train where Hitler’s standing, we probably wouldn’t say that was a terrorist act. Yet that did happen. What V’s doing is more akin to that, than to the guys who bombed the tube."
I describe my own views as "loony left". What are Weaving’s politics? "Probably not far off yours."
He is an ambassador for Voiceless, a charity that works to alleviate animal suffering, and has spoken on platforms for the Arts for Labor organisation. Anne Britton, who knew him when she was secretary of the union Actors Equity in the 1990s, remembers him as someone willing to lend his time to a campaign. "He was always a person who was reliably there," she says, "on the side of the angels."
He lobbied governments to persuade grant-funded Australian producers to use Australian actors, which was "a brave position to take", says Britton, "particularly in a freelance industry, where you can be employed today and unemployed tomorrow."
He was also involved in a fight in 1990 for minimum rates of pay for actors. "By that stage, he would have been earning way above the minimum for a long time," says Britton. "He had a very collegiate view of the performer community."
Global politics have conspired against Weaving lately. He was supposed to star alongside Roxburgh in the so-called "Bali project", a TV miniseries about the 2002 nightclub bombings. Filming should have begun in October last year and Weaving flew to Bali soon after the October 1 suicide bombings. But Indonesian Government permits were revoked due to, according to an AAP report, "political and immigration sensitivities" and the project had to be postponed.
Meanwhile, Weaving, Greenwood and the children move between their house in Sydney’s Paddington and a property on the Williams River, just outside Dungog in NSW – an old dairy farm where Weaving has planted hundreds of eucalypts and wattles.
His younger sister, Anna, lives in Manly and occasionally appears as a cabaret singer in local clubs. His elder brother, Simon, has retired from business to write books and screenplays in Canberra. His mother is a volunteer guide with the Sydney Theatre Company. All his roots are in Australia now but he still feels somehow detached.
"I do feel like I’m not entirely an insider," he says.
"I don’t think I would anywhere. I’m ‘of the world’. There was a time when I thought, ‘Oh, I must go back to England. I feel English.’ Then I went and the longer I was away, the more Australian I felt. Now, I’ve come back here and I don’t feel entirely Australian. But I certainly feel like this is my country. This is where I live and this is where I want to work."
The last time I see Weaving, he is smoking a Marlboro before his photo shoot. He lights his cigarette and offers the pack and momentarily looks like somebody a little less self-contained and slightly more relaxed, a little less bookish and slightly more roguish. In fact, he looks like Sam Neill.