Hugo Weaving on being Elrond, The Matrix’s evil AI, and a kidnapper convict
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Balancing mega-blockbusters and character-driven independent films, Hugo Weaving musters the high style necessary for a elven lord, an evil computer program, and a malevolent Transformer, all while retaining the subtlety to fuel more small-scale films. His latest, Last Ride, is one of the latter, with Weaving playing an abusive ex-convict who takes his estranged son along as they flee through the Australian outback.
Last Ride (2009)—“Kev”
The A.V. Club: It’s an actor-driven movie, which is always attractive. But what drew you to this part in particular?
Hugo Weaving: That he was such a compromised man. That he was so troubled and really in a bad way, and obviously had everything against him, and his upbringing, and… I mean, if you read the book, you get a sense of—beautiful book, by the way—Kev’s childhood and what he had to struggle with with his father. You feel like it’s a continuum—what’s happening with him and his own son —except even worse. And so it’s the spiral of that. The flashes of time when Kev reveals his love for his son, I found really poignant and quite beautiful. I think it is a love story. It’s certainly a love story in the book; slightly less so in the film. The film’s a little bleaker—well, a lot bleaker, actually, and darker. But it still really is about the particular relationship between these two damaged individuals, and I think that was a thing that interested me in the character. The reason I was interested in the film is because I loved the script, and I’d seen Glendyn [Ivin]’s first short, an absolutely beautiful film called “Cracker Bag,” and that won an award at Cannes. I was really keen to work with him, so it didn’t take much, really.
AVC: You shot Last Ride three or four years ago at this point?
AVC: So it was just after a run of movies you’d done with a substantial amount of bluescreen and makeup and masks. Was it a relief to just go out in the bush with a camera and a small crew and make a movie that way?
HW: That’s actually the norm for me, so the change of pace is the big-budget mask thing, actually. The last few years, I have to say, I haven’t done so many small-budget Australian films, but that’s only been very recently, the last couple of years—since Last Ride, actually. But that, to me, was the more common experience: small crew, in the outback. And that’s the sort of film I love working on. That’s the thing I’ll always try to return to. I’m about to, in another month, do a similar, very low-budget film up in Queensland with an extraordinarily talented young director called Ivan Sen. I really love working with writer-directors on films in this country. Very low-budget, maybe a five- or six-week shoot, and that’s it. I think there’s a great energy that comes with working on films in that way. It’s a real pleasure to go to work when you’re in the most extraordinary surroundings, and working with people who are young and interested and creatively keen. I find it really stimulating, and just beautiful to be out in nature as well. So that’s something I peg as an absolute pleasure. There’s nothing like being on a massive-budget film where you don’t know anything, and there’s a million people, and no one’s communicating. So I generally prefer the smaller-budget film. I find both of them really great for me; they just stretch me in different ways.
AVC: There’s a visually stunning scene where you and your son are driving across this immense salt flat. Is that Lake Gairdner?
AVC: How does it figure into your performance when you know you’re being framed in front of such an astonishing backdrop?
HW: Well, you see, that’s why I love location. You don’t have to do anything. I’ve never seen a film crew taking so many pictures of where they were. [Laughs.] Because it was exquisite. Absolutely exquisite. We were there for a couple of days. And the landscape would change dramatically, as well. You get a slight wind and it would feel like you’re in the Antarctic, and then it would go very still, and suddenly it’d be on a desert island or something. Then it would have this amazing reflective glass effect. There was a couple of inches of water along the salt flat, and everything would be completely reflected. And by the end of the day, if it was getting windy and the salt was flicking up, it would get in your eyes and on your lips and everything. So it’s an absolutely beautiful landscape. It just means you don’t have to… In a way, it permeates your being, and I think locations do that to you. They give you so much and you don’t have to pretend.
The Matrix (1999)/The Matrix Reloaded (2003)/The Matrix Revolutions (2003)—“Agent Smith”
AVC: When you’re making a movie like The Matrix, and the whole trilogy is about a world that doesn’t exist—on a number of levels—what do you feed off in those circumstances?
HW: The good humor of the directors, with The Matrix—very good relationship with them. But on The Matrix, there were only a couple of days that I was working on green-screen. The sets on that were phenomenal, so I was always standing there going, “Well, this set is so real that it feels like this is the world I’m in.” Because the sets were so good, it didn’t feel particularly… And we were on location quite a lot for that. But something like The Hobbit would be more… Working on that last year, there was a definitely a lot more green-screen. There’s much more of a distance between… You see these extraordinary makeup transformations in front of your eyes, yet behind that, there’s a green flat. And so there’s quite a distance, quite a journey to make between… You’re constantly aware that this is a film reality that you need to augment with performance and your imagination, and that’s fine. That’s the world of The Hobbit and of Lord Of The Rings. I mean, again, there are sometimes the most exquisite sets, so it’s not always the case. And other times, you’re on location. But there seems to be more green-screen with that than anything I’ve ever done.
The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001)/The Two Towers (2002)/The Return Of The King (2003)/The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)/The Hobbit: There And Back Again (2013)—“Elrond”
AVC: How different was making the Hobbit movies from doing the Lord Of The Rings trilogy? It’s the same director, and a few of the same cast as well.
HW: Well, tonally, I think the film is slightly different, but the experience didn’t seem radically different, to be honest. If anything, it was slightly more green-screen and slightly less set. But a lot of the same people, both in the crew and some of the cast. Going back and standing with Ian McKellen on the set again 10 years later, we felt very much at home, in a way, and very much like no time had passed at all. A lot of the other cast were different from The Lord Of The Rings, but it felt like a very similar experience. Actually, I was back there just the other day doing some post-production and went onto set, and I was just thinking, “Well, it’s been a year since I’ve been here—10 years, really, since we started—but it feels like the same family group has been making films there for that long.”
AVC: In the trailer, Bag End looks exactly as it does when we see Bilbo living there in the trilogy. Is it the same set?
HW: You know, I’m not sure. I would hesitate to say it was. I would think it wasn’t. But there may be some elements. I would have thought not, but possibly, yeah.
Cloud Atlas (2012)—various undisclosed roles
AVC: Cloud Atlas seems like an enormously complicated project, combining six stories shot by two sets of directors: the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer. How does that work?
HW: That was the most wonderful adventure, really. It was an extraordinary time in Berlin. Absolutely wonderful experience. I think everyone agreed it was like nothing anyone had ever done before, running from one director to another or from one set to another, potentially playing up to, well, I suppose up to six characters in one week. That’s a very unusual experience. And then there’s a lot of downtime because there’s six stories going on and you’re not in every part of every one of those stories. A lot of the English actors would be able to go home for a week or two and then come back, but because I live in Australia and I was in Berlin, I just stayed. So I lived in Berlin for three and a half months, which was actually a dream come true. I loved it. It’s a very special project, and a wonderful, wonderful book, and a really great script adaptation. Something that in the end, after the readthrough—which was really exciting, all the actors there at the beginning of the shoot—I think everyone realized, despite all the preparatory work that had been done, there were certain things which we weren’t going to know about until we jumped in and did it. So we all took a sort of big, brave leap and jumped in and started filming, and it was a really, genuinely exciting adventure. I’m as eager as anyone else to see it. I think it’s a really, really brave, difficult project that could be very exciting to watch. I hope it is. I think everyone really loved working on it.
AVC: How did splitting the stories up work in practical terms?
HW: There were three stories each, basically. Lana and Andy [Wachowski] did three, and Tom did three. Tom’s crew was largely the crew he’s worked with for years, and Lana and Andy’s crew—a lot of the crew were English, and some of them had worked on V For Vendetta and had worked with them in Berlin in the past as well. That was the division of labor: three stories each. Actually, I think initially Tom had wanted to do one particular story and Lana and Andy had wanted to do another one, and they needed to swap because of the way the locations were set up. They ended up not doing one of the stories they particularly wanted to do; they just swapped. They have an incredibly good relationship, Tom and Lana and Andy. It was delightful to first meet Tom on a video-conference Skype with Lana and Andy, who I know very well, and just see immediately that they were literally bouncing off each other and were getting on very, very well. And that was maintained all the way through the shoot. The editing process is something I’m not so sure about. I think that would have been more problematic and difficult, but I suspect, knowing the three of them, that they got on extremely well throughout that and managed to express what they wanted and to fight for the film as they all talked about it in the first place. I don’t envisage there being any problems between the three of them. I think that’s kind of remarkable. A testament to all three of them, actually.
AVC: Going back to small Australian projects, Proof was something of a breakthrough for you, wasn’t it? Not your first movie, but a wonderful introduction to you and director Jocelyn Moorhouse. Did it seem like an important project for you at the time?
HW: It wasn’t my first, you’re right, but it was the first film script I received and I thought, “This is the sort of film I want to be in.” And I just thought, “I really want that role. I really want to be in this film.” And again, it was a first-time filmmaker, and she’d written the script. There’s something about that combination that’s really… Knowing that something’s small-budget, and it’s a writer-director. If the script grabs me and appeals to me, I’m really very keen to work on it. Even if that director hasn’t… They’ve been to film school, but this is their first feature. Sometimes that makes me want to do it more, because I think there’s probably something fantastically fresh and different about them and their approach. So I was very keen when I read that to be involved in that. And went along, met Jocelyn, did the audition, got the role. For me, that was a definite watershed in my fairly early career. I felt, “Ah, this is where I want to be.” Those sort of films come along quite rarely, you know. [Laughs.] I think I’ve done maybe five or six films that I’ve had that sense. I really want to work on those films during my time in Australia. That was the first of those films.
AVC: You had Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert not long after Proof, which put you on the map, but your costar, Russell Crowe, took a few more years to catch on.
HW: He seemed very keen to head over to the States and have a career there, which wasn’t ever my… I wasn’t ever going to go and live there. I can’t remember exactly the dates, but it seemed within three or four years of Proof that he was already working in Hollywood, and working in L.A., and doing films over there. I can’t remember how long it took, but certainly he became a major box-office star, didn’t he?
The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1994)—“Anthony ‘Tick’ Belrose”/“Mitzi Del Bra”
AVC: It’s almost hard to remember how groundbreaking it seemed to have a movie about drag queens in the mid-’90s, characters who were campy, but also short-tempered and dangerous. Was that all in the script? Did you do your own research?
HW: No, the script was there. The writer [Stephan Elliott] is definitely an extraordinary character, and very smart. Can be very caustic, a lot of fun. I had worked with him on a film prior to that [Frauds], and in fact we’d worked on a number of films before that, with him as a runner or a second AD. So no, it was there in the script, but as we grew into characters, then… I mean, Terence [Stamp] and I and Guy [Pearce] were out in drag in the streets of Sydney before the film started, going out to clubs and things to sort of get into character. [Laughs.] And so those sort of things grew as the shoot progressed. We would be adding and changing little bits and pieces, and increasingly wearing the clothes of some of our makeup artists, one of whom was a drag queen himself—Guy’s makeup artist. I sort of started stealing his clothes and wearing them throughout the shoot. So it grew, but a lot of that was in the script, or what was happening on the day. But Stephan was very amenable to that.