April 9, 2019
Hugo Weaving is happier talking about food than about acting. Photo: Daniel Pockett
If you were ever going to use a phrase as trite as “national treasure”, you’d probably use it describing actor Hugo Weaving. On film or on stage, he is elastic, slipping from one character to the next. In person, he is grand.
He’s made a life from contortion, playing everything from drag queens, computer-generated secret agents and mutated Nazi scientists to war photographers, champion cricket players and small-time American gangsters. He holds himself in a way that makes you sit up just that little bit straighter, hoping he doesn’t notice the effort.
He doesn’t really want to talk about acting, though. What Hugo Weaving wants to talk about is food. He loves to cook, garden and eat out. His favourite restaurant in Sydney right now is that gritty-glamorous pop-up in the Grand Pacific Blue Room, Don Peppino’s (“I’m eating there tonight, actually.”)
Hugo Weaving has had to squeeze into some highly unforgiving costumes over the years, including that of Mitzi Del Bra in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Photo: Supplied
Weaving and his partner have a group of food-loving friends who they regularly cook with, challenging themselves with the likes of Sicilian, Russian, Korean and Iranian dishes. “Our Sicilian meal was so great, we got a bit drunk, and decided we would have to go to Sicily, so we did. We all went to Sicily together.”
His eyes light up when describing his signature dish, a bitter and wild greens pie from the Cornersmith cookbook. “Essentially, it’s just butter and filo, layers of that … leeks, onions, garlic, and all sorts of different wild greens. You mix all that together with feta, and that becomes your filling. Lots of nutmeg, pepper … beautiful. And then you’re just folding, folding your filo on top, rushing it into the oven. I have that with a really simple lovely salad – lots of tomatoes, green salad, and maybe just some new potatoes with tarragon and butter. Something like that. And a nice glass of wine.”
His home kitchen isn’t so much movie-star-glamorous as terrace-house-comfortable. “It’s pretty good, although it’s falling apart. It’s not industrial. It’s not a chef’s kitchen. It’s a nice, long, walk-through with lots of light. I’ve always liked it, but I could have a bigger one. More cupboard space. I mean, it’s a classic terrace house wail, isn’t it?”
We grow whatever we can every year. And if we’re not there when it’s ready, well, the birds get it.
The couple grow a lot of food themselves, out at their Dungog property, north of Sydney. They have hundreds of olive trees about to be harvested, which they’ll pick, press and make into olive oil (“it’s just enough to keep us for a year and then give to friends”). For anyone who dreams of running away and starting a commune, the Weavings’ farm certainly doesn’t weaken the argument. “We’ve got honey, and fruit trees, and lots of citrus. We grow whatever we can every year. And if we’re not there when it’s ready, well, the birds get it.”
They like to support emerging producers, too – local winemakers and most recently, a distiller whose gin received lukewarm reviews. “Didn’t love it, but actually, it was better than the last batch. I think he’s only just started, and so we’ll continue to buy it. And similarly with some of the wines, we’ll do the same thing and hope they keep on keeping on.”
Sometimes it feels like a wrench for him to leave the property to come back to Sydney for work. “I’ve often wanted to stay there the whole year, and really be there throughout the seasons.”
Hugo Weaving’s not exactly a vegetarian, but he’s a vegetable sympathiser. “I had an issue with eating animals as a five-year-old. My son had the same thing [at that age]. He said he didn’t want to eat animals. I said, ‘Well, you don’t have to.’ So he became a vegetarian. And that meant that while we were making food for him, and all eating together, we ended up practically eating vegetarian food at home.”
He grew up in a close-knit family that regularly moved around the world. He was born in west Africa, but spent his early years in Johannesburg during apartheid. “I was politicised at quite a young age. I started to understand what oppressive systems were, and how governments used fear. And to learn that at eight … well, it opened my eyes to the world.”
In the late ’60s, the family moved to England, learning to live within an entirely different system. “It was a great adventure. You have to deal with difficulties, but that’s good. The positives of travelling around the world and learning about people, languages, and places far outweighed any of the negatives, you know?”
His father, a seismologist, didn’t really cook, but he loved making things. “Wine and beer, a beautiful terrine … and marmalade.” It was Weaving’s Belgian mother, a teacher, who did most of the cooking – something she’d learnt from her mother.
“She used to do beautiful stuff. Dad’s mum was not a great cook, though – bad, English, overcooked everything. But we would always have big feasts – classic English Sunday roasts, and things.”
The family left England for Australia in the summer of 1976. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody had been charting at number one for 10 weeks straight. Not long after that, he received a letter from a friend, describing “this thing called punk”. He missed the explosion of the Sex Pistols by about six months.
But Weaving had arrived in Gough Whitlam’s Australia, where university was free and there was money being poured into the arts. He describes the sense of Australian culture as being very strong. “Australian actors were championed back then, so a young actor could come out and could get a lead role in their own country, which doesn’t really happen anymore.”
Weaving has, as a jobbing actor, been pretty lucky. After graduating from the National Institute of Dramatic Arts, he quickly secured an agent and a contract with the Sydney Theatre Company. He’s been working almost solidly ever since, whether that’s on stage, or filming blockbusters.
He’s infuriatingly cool about fame. “It’s just what it is. I don’t really think about it too much.”
And no, he won’t say which annoys him more – fans of The Matrix or Lord of the Rings in full costume.
He’s never really had to watch what he eats, which is lucky for a man who has had to squeeze into some highly unforgiving costumes over the years. “For Priscilla, Queen of the Desert I definitely wanted to be as skinny as I could. There are always technical challenges. Like, you need to go to the gym for months to play this particular role, or lose all that weight, or put it on.”
All of that hard work could easily be undone on set. “Film catering is very good generally. Even the stuff that’s not good is still pretty good. And how they can churn out that much stuff for hundreds people sometimes every lunch and every breakfast … we might be eating three meals a day, often out of the back of van. It’s like, ‘How do you do that?'”
Hugo Weaving stars in the Sydney Theatre Company production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, May 4-June 8.