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: At 73, Jacki Weaver remains one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood, Australia, or any part of the world for that matter. Transcending genres and budgets, Weaver has a knack for finding charismatic character roles just about anywhere, livening up a movie with her sweet demeanor and bright blue eyes, turning in an instant to icy and threatening—if the part calls for it. But it was only a decade ago that most American audiences had yet to experience the unique joy of seeing Weaver pop up time and again on their screens. Though she’d had a thriving career in Australian theater and film since the ’60s—including a run in some hallmarks of her home country’s cinematic New Wave—her Stateside breakthrough didn’t come until David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom played at Sundance in January 2010. With her intimidating turn as crime family matriarch Janine “Smurf” Cody, Weaver made a chilling impression on moviegoers that translated to a Best Supporting Actress nomination in 2011 at age 64. Two years later, she earned the same honor for her work as Silver Linings Playbook’s sweet but harried Dolores Solitano, purveyor of “crabby snacks and homemades.”
This summer, Jacki Weaver charms again in indie dramedy Stage Mother, a rare lead for the celebrated supporting player. She plays Texan choir director Maybelline, who ventures to San Francisco to attend the funeral of her estranged son. There she learns that her son was not just a successful drag queen, but also the owner of a drag bar on the verge of collapsing in his absence. While Maybelline’s story may follow a familiar fish-out-of-water arc, that was not at all the case for Weaver, long a vocal ally to the LGBTQ+ community, who many would call a gay icon in her own right.
In advance of Stage Mother’s VOD release, Weaver talked to The A.V. Club for a Random Roles interview, revisiting some of her favorite roles both before and after her Hollywood breakthrough. Weaver spoke openly about her “gay icon” status, the many ways that Animal Kingdom changed her life, her love of accents, and why she doesn’t consider herself an Ozploitation star. The full interview is below, and some highlights from our Zoom call with Weaver can be found in the video above.
The A.V. Club: There’s been a sentiment going around the internet for a while that you’re a gay icon, and your role in this new movie Stage Mother seems to solidify that assertion.
Jacki Weaver: Well, in my home country of Australia, it’s been said—not by me, but in newspapers and magazine articles—that I’ve been referred to that more than once [Laughs.]. So, I mean, I’m not in the same league as, say, a Kylie Minogue or a Barbra Streisand, but yeah, I’ve got a few gay fans. And the gay world is very close to my own heart. I’ve sort of been, not just on the periphery, but an active member of it for many years, you know, going back to the ’60s. I’m what you could politely say is, “the smallest fag hag in Australia.” I’m very small; I’m under five feet!
AVC: What a title!
JW: Somebody else said that about me and it’s stuck! I wear it with huge pride.
AVC: Since it plays such a big role in Stage Mother, what about your experience with drag—have you been to a lot of drag shows?
JW: Yeah, I have, I’ve seen a lot of drag. The first one I saw when I was only 15, a beautiful, classic drag show that was quite an institution in Sydney, Australia. It was ’62 when I saw it, and it went for years and years and years. It was very glamorous. It was like Las Vegas, or The Rockettes, or something like that. It wasn’t tacky—it was just the epitome of glamour. And I got fascinated by it then made a lot of friends in that world.
AVC: Knowing all of this, when a project like Stage Mother comes along, did that color your decision to take the part? What interested you most in this project?
JW: That certainly was part of it, but also I liked the character [Maybelline]. I liked the fact that she was a mother who adored her child. And she goes on a journey: She starts off very narrow-minded and knowing nothing. But there’s an arc to her story where she becomes a different person and, ultimately, a happier person, even though she’s gone through loss and tragedy. It’s a story of hope, you know, and we need that right now; things are so dire here at the moment. It’s a story about love and redemption and hope even in the face of tragedy.
AVC: You also have a big show-stopping number, where we get to see you get all glammed up and sing Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.” Were you excited about that opportunity?
JW: Well, I’ve done a lot of that; I’ve done musicals. I did 600 performances of They’re Playing Our Song, and we did the album for it which went gold. And I was in the Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert musical only 12 years ago. So I’ve sung all my life on television and on stage, but I haven’t sung in a while. Oh, and I sang in the TV series Blunt Talk—yeah. But this was the first time I sang in America, and it gives me great pleasure when Americans say to me, “Did someone else do the singing for you? Were you lip-syncing someone else’s voice?” No, it was me; that was all me!
I was dubious about the song choice—that was the choice of [writer] Brad Hennig. Let’s face it, it had to be a gay anthem like that. But I’ve never been keen on that song because it’s one everybody screws up at karaoke. Bonnie Tyler may be a screamer, but she screams in tune at least!
Animal Kingdom (2010)—“Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody”
AVC: In a bit of coincidence, this week marks 10 years since Animal Kingdom hits theaters in the U.S. You’ve been pretty open about how that role changed your life.
JW: Well, it’s true. I mean, David Michôd and Sony Pictures Classics—Tom and Michael [Sony Pictures Classics Co-Presidents Tom Bernard and Michael Barker]—they changed my life, quite literally. I’m using the word correctly here: Literally! Hollywood was never on my agenda, but I loved American films and I’ve been coming to America every year since 1972. Usually only to New York—I have to say I was a snob about L.A., but now I love it! I love America, I love the idea of America, as well as a lot of things about it—but not everything [Laughs]!
So, it was a gift, it was a huge gift. And it speaks to the generosity of Americans, how warmly I was embraced and just the sudden success. It was Sundance that started it off; somebody had come up to me saying, “You’re going to get an Oscar nom” at Sundance. And I thought, “Aww, thanks!”—I thought it was just a fan. Then somebody came up to me after he’d gone and said, “That was Kenneth Turan, who’s one of the greatest film critics in Los Angeles!” So, yeah, it was amazing. I’m a bit gobsmacked, and I’d think it probably wouldn’t have continued, but I did get quite a lot of work from that first round of awards season. Though I didn’t get the Oscar, I’ve got a few others!
But then, because I’ve got a really great manager and a really great agent—Hildy [Gottlieb] at ICM, and Alex [Cole] at Elevate—they’re still with me, and I couldn’t do any of it without them. And then it goes from there; I got a few other films, and then Silver Linings Playbook was the one. Because, when you get one, an old journalist said to me, “Do you know what your second Oscar means?” And I said, “No, what does it mean?” He said, “It means the first one wasn’t a fluke!” And it does make the world of difference. I was at no shortage of offers after the first Oscar nom, but after the second, well, I’ve never really looked back! Like, I can’t do everything I’m offered.
AVC: If Animal Kingdom is the first time many American moviegoers saw your work, were you ever worried it might pigeonhole you into more roles like Smurf? She’s a particular kind of horrifying.
JW: My 58-year career, for the first half of it, because of my physical statement—you know, the baby face and because I’m very small—I used to get the Sally Field roles. You know, the nice girl roles! And I was still playing children into my 30s and very frustrated. So when I was finally getting the womanly roles in my 40s, I had sort of died and gone to heaven. And, well, I digressed there, didn’t I? [Laughs].
You could say I’d been slightly typecast in the past, always playing innocents—I’ve been married [on camera] 19 times. So, no, it was nice to play a villain! And she is a sociopathic set character, I did a bit of research. I’ve got a couple of friends who were psychologists, and she’s kind of loosely based on a real person in Australia, who was a real villain. So, if you juxtapose her with the character in Stage Mother, one’s evil personified who sells out her own grandson, and the other one is someone who absolutely adores her son without condition.
AVC: David Michôd wrote the role in Animal Kingdom with you in mind, correct?
JW: He said he did, which is really flattering and amazing when someone says, “If I can’t [have] her or I don’t, what will I do?” And he sent me the script a long time before—he’d been trying to get that film up for about 10 years. So, to all you young filmmakers out there, don’t give up! [Laughs.]. Bless the independent filmmakers, it’s going to be even harder for them now.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)—“Dolores Solitano”
AVC: The complete opposite of Smurf was Dolores Solitano, who you played in Silver Linings Playbook, Oscar nomination number two. Everyone seems to remember, “crabby snacks and homemades.”
JW: Yeah, I remember people kept asking me about that when we were doing publicity eight years ago. I had really versed myself in what they are, and now I’ve forgotten what they are! They’re something strange… it’s a weird Philadelphian thing. And there’s that other funny thing they eat. Oh, cheese steaks! [Laughs]. But not as bad as poutine—have you ever been to Canada?Sorry, Canadians!
AVC: That movie does have such a specific Philadelphia feel to it and your, your characters do as well. What sort of regional research went into finding out who Dolores was?
JW: Well, it is based on a book, although it differs a bit from the book. She’s an Irish-Italian mother, much like Bradley Cooper’s mother. And he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Philadelphian, so he was always there and [his mother] came on set a few times. At first people on the crew said, “How could you be Bradley’s mother?” Because I’m tiny, he’s big. But when his mother came on set, she was smaller than me! So there you go!
I did have a really good voice coach. And I took to that accent. I’m not good at all American accents, but Philadelphia I had no trouble with. I was taught, if there’s one thing Philadelphians hate, it’s when New York actors go up there and try to pass off a New Yorker accent as a Philadelphian. Because they are different!
I’m not bad at Southern accents, because I’ve done Tennessee Williams. In New York, I’ve done six different Neil Simon plays, so I can do New York, and Arthur Miller! But I’m not good at Chicago—I found that really tricky when I was in Widows—I think my voice coach gave up in despair! And I find Boston [accents] too hard because every Bostonian tells you something different! They all speak differently from each other [Laughs.]. It’s a great accent—you’d think I could do it because I’m Australian and we don’t do the rhotic “R,” and neither do Bostonians—you know, “pahk the cah in the cah pahk.”
AVC: And, speaking of Widows, that’s another instance where you were playing the mother of someone much taller than you are.
JW: Elizabeth Debicki! She’s six-foot-three, and I’m four-feet-eleven and a half, and Steve McQueen could not get us in the same shot unless she was sitting down. But she’s wonderful! What a job [working with her]—another Aussie!
AVC: You starred along two other Aussies in Park Chan-wook’s Stoker—Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowsa—which feels like it never got the attention it deserved.
JW: Yeah, director Park was wonderful. He’s so stylish, it was so very stylish. And Mia was great! So was Nicole and Matthew Goode—what a villain!. I loved making that. We shot in Nashville, so that was fun. That’s a good film! He’s so elegant, director Park, and yet he makes these incredible, bloodthirsty films.
AVC: You’ve spoken before about the fact that you have a hard time watching the horror movies you’re in—was this one you had trouble watching?
JW: Reluctantly, I did. I did watch that, but I thought it was a bit scary. The Grudge I had a problem with, sure. And same with Bird Box—I had a problem watching that. I hate being frightened! I have nightmares! Thankfully when I’m acting, it doesn’t bother me.
Bird Box (2018)—“Cheryl”
AVC: If you weren’t able to watch Bird Box, you might be the only person who hasn’t seen it! When that hit Netflix, it felt like everyone was watching it. Were you surprised with the reaction to the film?
JW: Oh, yeah, I mean, what was it? 83 million people, or something like that? So it’s incredible, but it’s also a testament to Sandra Bullock. She is fabulous, just really, really good at her job. And I became a meme! It was fun doing my death scene. I will admit that, when it comes to fake blood, I’m a bit of 15-year-old boy. I love it! They shot me in the stomach once, and I had a squib and [the fake blood] went everywhere! It was all I could do not to scream with delight, I had to just… die! [Laughs.].
AVC: So was that your favorite death scene then? Or do you have another one?
JW: There was a film called Sister Cities. I thought it was beautiful film and, yeah, I drowned in a bath. But I nearly drowned in it for real!
Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975)—“Minnie”
AVC: Before Animal Kingdom, a lot of your earliest roles are part of this era of the Australian New Wave of cinema—like Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock—and also what’s colloquially referred to as “Ozploitation.” Looking back on that time, did it feel you were part of these movements?
JW: Certainly around the time of Stork—Stork sort of led the way. And it wasn’t “Ozploitation,” it was an adaptation of a popular playwright, who’s now one of the most prolific Australian playrights of all time. He’s written about 70 plays, and he’s like an Australian Neil Simon: David Williamson. [The Coming Of] Stork was his first play, and it was adapted into a film, and that was before the Ozploitation—those were more vulgar. Stork was pretty primitive, true, and it was a saucy and sexy, but it wasn’t in the same league as something like Alvin Purple, for instance. There were a whole lot of films made—there was some system where people were getting loans for films and then turning out garbage [Laughs.]. But, no, I think that and Peterson are sometimes referred to as Ozploitation and I get a bit cross because they’re well-intentioned and not that crappy! The Removalists was not a bad film! And, of course, Picnic At Hanging Rock—that was an amazing experience.
The first film I made was Stork and… well, that’s not quite true! I had a very small part in They’re A Weird Mob. Michael Powell sent me a letter saying, “You’re headed for great things!” And he didn’t tell me it would take 50 years [Laughs]. You know who the great Michael Powell is, one of the greatest British directors of all time. I’ve still got the letter and I gave it to his widow, Thelma Schoonmaker who is, of course Scorsese’s editor, and has been for many years. Oh, I keep digressing—I’m a boring old woman!
AVC: Not at all! We love digressions; that’s how we get the best stories.
JW: So, I had quite an established theater career already went I did Stork. I’d been performing leads on stage from the age of 15, and Stork happened when I was 24. And then the parts got a bit lean for me after a while in movies, but I never wanted for work at all. And that suited me fine; I love working in the theater.
The Disaster Artist (2017)—“Carolyn / ‘Claudette’”
AVC: That’s a huge ensemble, but you stand out as one of the funniest parts of the cast.
JW: Thank you, I loved that. I always tell my friends, “Watch the credits at the end!” Because you see us juxtaposed with the real thing [Tommy Wiseau’s The Room]. It was tricky doing it exactly the way they did it.
AVC: How many times did you have to watch The Room to nail it?
JW: Well, we had the video of our scenes on set. I watched The Room once, and that was all I could bear to watch [Laughs.]. I don’t know that thing about people loving bad stuff—life’s too short! It was so dreadful. I said to my husband, “James Franco’s just given me a tape to watch the worst film of all time.” And my husband said, “It can’t be. I’ve seen so many bad films, it can’t be the worst.” Then we watched it and at the end he said [nods], “It’s the worst film of all time.” And it’s a cult! I think young filmmakers, and young would-be-filmmakers, have made it a cult because they enjoy seeing something that’s so bad they couldn’t possibly do anything worse [Laughs.]. It gives you a sense of superiority.
The Polka King (2017)—“Barb”
AVC: Poms has such a dream ensemble cast: You, Diane Keaton, Pam Grier…
JW: Oh, thank you for saying that! Because it’s got such a bad rap with all the critics, but I think it’s a sweet film. Diane’s really terrific in it—oh, I know what I wondered if you’d mention: The Polka King! Did you ever see that?
AVC: Ooh, yes, definitely!
JW: I thought everyone in that was wonderful: Jenny Slate, Jack Black, and Jason Schwartzman, what a darling! Of course made by Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky—they made that wonderful Infinitely Polar Bear. One of my favorite films that year, wonderful movie. But, yeah, I loved doing that one because she was such a crazy manic woman.
AVC: You and Jason Schwartzman have quite an interesting scene together.
JW: A bed scene! We have a bed scene. There was a woman of 65 getting into bed with Jason Schwartzman. I was so nervous, and he was so calm and the gentleman—he put me at ease. It should have been the other way around! [Laughs].