The West Australian
May 7, 2014
Hugo Weaving has been playing extreme, audience-dividing characters ever since he first caught our attention in the famed Kennedy-Miller television mini-series Bodyline (1984), in which he impersonated the reviled MCC captain Douglas Jardine.
Whether these characters are sympathetic, such as the shrieking drag artist Mitzi del Bra in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or Elrond Half-elven in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, or the flat-out villains – Agent Smith in The Matrix series, Red Skull in Captain America: First Avenger – they’re generally a world away from an ordinary man.
In recent times, however, we’ve been seeing Weaving playing characters closer to blokes you might meet in everyday life, the polar opposite to the crackpot collection he incarnated in the ill-fated adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
In Oranges and Sunshine he was deeply moving as the psychologically scarred English migrant who endured being taken from his mother and forced to toil for Catholic Church institutions in Australia; he was wonderfully inscrutable as a country cop in Mystery Road; and he communicated a world of hurt as Vic Lang’s reclusive, troubled father in the David Wenham-directed episode of Tim Winton’s The Turning.
“I enjoy playing these colourful, over-the-top characters but they are definitely not me,” Weaving says over the phone from Sydney, where he continues to live despite his flourishing international career.
“So it’s been a gift to have been given the opportunity to play men who are a little closer to me. It presents other challenges – you can’t hide behind a mask and you are forced to draw upon yourself – but it allows you to explore nuances of character.”
His move from the margins to the middle, character-wise, continues with Healing, a modest yet quietly effective Australian drama set on a prison farm that prepares prisoners for going back into society.
Weaving plays Matt Perry, a stern but sympathetic senior officer who puts a tightly wound Iranian inmate named Viktor Khadem (Don Hany) in charge of a program to rehabilitate injured eagles, falcons and owls.
Viktor is coming to the end of a long sentence for murder and doesn’t want to mix with the other prisoners. Matt feels that putting him in charge of the program – in particular, caring for a majestic wedge-tailed eagle with a 2m wing span named Yasmine – will draw Viktor out and, in turn, his strong work ethic will be a good influence on the younger prisoners, who are being preyed upon by opportunistic old hands.
Healing is the third time that Weaving has worked with co-writer and director Craig Monahan, who made a sensational feature film debut in 1998 with The Interview and followed up in 2004 with Peaches.
Apart from the desire to work again with Monahan, with whom he has forged a very productive director-actor relationship, Weaving says he was drawn to Healing because it showed a positive side of the prison system.
“Movies about prisons are almost always about thuggish, unfeeling guards and brutalised prisoners and little hope that anyone will change. Healing celebrates the people who do good work in the system. It shows them as concerned with the welfare of the inmates and the possibility of rehabilitation and a new life.”
The role is arguably the closest Weaving has come to a regular guy in the classic Hollywood mould, a steely, quietly spoken figure who has his own problems at home but heroically stands up for Hany’s Viktor.
“Matt is definitely one of the most subdued characters I’ve played. We don’t learn much about Matt but he has layers. The challenge of a part like this is to communicate what’s not on the page but implied. It’s what great screen acting is all about.”
Monahan was inspired to make Healing after reading an article in The Age in 1998 about a program at Won Wron, a minimum- security facility near Yarram in Victoria, to see if prisoners could rehabilitate injured birds of prey to return to the wild.
Authorities were sceptical at first because it went against what was deemed acceptable work for prisoners. However, it turned out to be a success and, while Won Wron closed in 1994, the raptor rehabilitation program continues elsewhere.
Monahan and his long-time collaborator Alison Nisselle were instantly taken by the story of Won Wron.
They were struck by the notion that taking responsibility for looking after a wild animal had the capacity to change someone’s life. “That always seemed very profound to us,” Monahan told The Age.
Weaving says that Monahan gave him the Healing screenplay while they were filming Peaches, so he has been involved not just in the evolution of the script, providing criticism and feedback, but familiarising himself with the bird program.
“I think I said to him a few years ago ‘Just don’t change your mind on this one’,” Monahan recalls. “And he never has. He’s such a gentleman and a pleasure to work with.”
He is also one of the few actors of the golden generation that gave us Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Heath Ledger and Geoffrey Rush who has consistently worked in Australia on screen and stage despite being an integral part of some of the biggest franchises in movie history and the most cherished cult movies.
The unfalteringly gracious and articulate Weaving embraces his entire oeuvre – he even believes the maligned Cloud Atlas will be properly appreciated in years to come – and is happy to move between the mega-movies and the smaller home-grown projects. And he is excited by his role as Macbeth in an upcoming Sydney Theatre Company production.
“Playing comic-book villains and ordinary Australians each has its pleasure and challenges. You do one and it makes you anxious to do the opposite,” he says.