Stage advice from actor Hugo Weaving
Twenty years after The Matrix gave him a career in America, Hugo Weaving is back at the Sydney studio where the film was shot, only this time Weaving’s rehearsing a play instead of swinging on wires. The other day he took a phone call from one of the Wachowski sisters, who directed The Matrix, marvelling at the serendipity, and Weaving keeps bumping into crew he’s worked with over the course of a screen career that’s now almost four decades old. Weaving is at Fox Studios because the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) has temporarily decamped to a row of shopfront offices here while the company’s home at The Wharf is under renovation. Tucking into a salad beneath one of the lot’s outdoor pavilions, he admits to experiencing a kind of cognitive dissonance, as if two mistresses – local theatre and Hollywood blockbusters – have accidentally been introduced.
Best known for playing non-humans – an ethereal elf in The Lord of the Rings and sentient AI in The Matrix – in person Weaving is an altogether earthier figure, with a bushy beard, a leonine mane and at least two shirt buttons raffishly undone. The actor is five weeks into rehearsals for a new production of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and by early afternoon, when we meet, he’s already sticky with sweat. “We just did a run and I’m exhausted,” he concedes.
Weaving’s first gig after graduating from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in 1981 was a two-year contract with the STC, and he’s worked with the company almost every year since. The length of his stage credits makes it all the more astonishing that this production marks the first time he’s appeared in a play written by Tennessee Williams. “Never. Hardly ever done any Miller, Williams, O’Neill,” he says. “Very few American plays. Most of my theatre has been European: Chekhov, Shakespeare, Beckett.”
He attributes this to his “Eurocentric” upbringing. The son of an English seismologist who worked for an oil company, Weaving spent his childhood being carted around the world, from Nigeria to Australia to South Africa to England. He was sent to private schools in England from ages nine to 16 before returning to finish his education in Sydney, where he’d briefly attended primary school. It was in England that his interest in cinema and theatre developed.
“The principal at the school I went to would screen films every Saturday night,” he recalls. “And they were great films. I can’t believe he was showing 13-year-old boys Lindsay Anderson’s if...., for example, in 1972.” It was in this film that Stanley Kubrick saw a young Malcolm McDowell, says Weaving, who was playing a teenager who plots an insurrection at his posh boarding school, and cast McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. His headmaster was, I suggest, asking for trouble. “Yes, but that’s how cool he was! They’d be projected on a screen in the dining room, so I had a really interesting film education from that age. And I was staying with my grandmother on Sundays, because our parents had moved to another part of England, and I used to watch BBC2 on Sunday night. They’d always show great films, and most of the ones I liked were European: Italian, Russian, French, German. Or English.”
Like his fellow NIDA grad Cate Blanchett, Weaving has the kind of voice filmmakers instinctively want to attach to a sneering, often continental, villain. His career-defining performance in The Matrix is more baroque than you remember: individual words might be clipped, but he has an extraordinary capacity to put space between them, elongating lines almost to breaking point. It’s as though he’s sloshing them about in his mouth, savouring the taste; as with all good villains, his amusement is unmistakable.
The assortment of moustache-twirlers he’s played range from Red Skull in Captain America to Megatron, the wickedest of the Transformers in a series he admits he’s never seen. The actor’s size – the space he occupies both in the popular imagination and, at 6'2", quite literally – made him the natural choice for the title role in Macbeth a few years ago. That production marked the first time Weaving worked with the man now leading the STC, Kip Williams, and he describes the young director, with whom he reunites for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as “probably the great theatre-maker in the country”.
“He’s enabling,” Weaving says. “And he’s one of the most brilliant visual theatre-makers; I could watch his productions just [to see how he’s] moving furniture around. When we did Macbeth he was probably more micromanagerial, trying to control everything during rehearsal. He still does all that work, but he’s increasingly relaxed about the ability of the show – with a good team – to grow into something bigger than all of us. And he has a very strong understanding of why he’s doing a play. It’s not just because it’s the latest thing, or to get bums on seats. And if you don’t have that very strong reason to do something, you don’t really have a great theatre company.”
Weaving himself was drawn to the role of Big Daddy, a cotton baron in the Mississippi Delta with terminal cancer, because he was moved by the sheer sadness of his situation. Made famous by Burl Ives both on stage and in the 1958 film starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, Big Daddy is a man delivered from certain death, or so he thinks. In what seems to be a particularly cruel failure of nerve, his family – his two sons, Brick and Gooper, and their wives, as well as five monstrous grandchildren – is in fact lying to him about his diagnosis.
“He’s a nervous wreck, because he’s been sitting on this terrible pain for three years, not saying a thing,” says Weaving. “And then suddenly he gets a reprieve, seemingly, and with the reprieve comes all this talking. He’s trying to tell everyone that he’s back in the driver’s seat – and actually it’s all a horrible illusion.” It’s a great role, the actor says, because the lie that Big Daddy thinks is the truth enables him to express so much that’s been bottled up. “He’s the patriarch, but he’s also like a very sad baby clown.”
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is unique in the Williams pantheon in that there are three separate versions of it. Elia Kazan, the director of the first production, convinced the playwright to beef up the part of Big Daddy, who was originally offstage for the duration of the third act, before the play premiered on Broadway in 1955. The film is something else entirely, superbly performed (not least by Australia’s own Judith Anderson) but ultimately a little tidy. It concludes with Big Daddy and Brick, his favourite, patching up their differences, and it downplays the latter’s sexual confusion. “It’s very Hollywood, really,” says Weaving. “It robs all the characters of a great deal of pain.”
This latest production goes back to the unedited text, first staged two decades after the play’s debut, and the subject of an illuminating, even-handed essay by the playwright about the pressures as well as the virtues of collaboration. Kip Williams has opted to locate the play in the present day, though the set – sleekly modernist furnishings that are almost deco, on a stage without walls – neatly gestures towards the previous century. The width of the Roslyn Packer Theatre allows the director to array the squabbling members of the Pollitt family on either side of the stage, literalising the distance between them. Big Daddy’s imminent demise turbocharges the battle for his estate, which in turn throws the marriage between Brick and Maggie – and especially their state of childlessness – into stark relief.
For Weaving, the intricate latticework of resentment that makes up the play ensures that each performance is a delicate balancing act. “Every character is quite childlike,” he says. “So all that childish emotion that comes out of adults in moments of stress needs to be there. But at the same time it’s technically very precise: the punctuation, the musicality. It has a heightened, operatic quality, but it needs to feel very real. So you need to have great technical facility in order to support the emotional distress of it. And that’s so elusive.”
The STC’s production sees him square off with frequent castmate Pamela Rabe as Big Mama and, in a metatextual twist, with his own son, 30-year-old Harry Greenwood, as Brick. Rabe worked with Greenwood a few years ago on The Glass Menagerie at Belvoir, but Weaving never has, and he’s quick to point out that Williams approached him about casting Greenwood, rather than the other way around. “When I was reading it, I thought Harry would be really good in the role. But I didn’t say anything,” he says – twice, for emphasis. “I certainly didn’t want to be the one suggesting that. For two reasons: one, I didn’t want Harry to feel any pressure from me. And two, I didn’t want any sense of nepotism. I just don’t think that’s right.”
Brick is a tricky role. His unwavering state of lassitude makes him fairly monotone. A former football player mourning the death of Skipper, a teammate with whom he shared a “deep, true friendship”, he evinces no interest in his wife, physical or otherwise. Played by Zahra Newman here with great originality and humour, Maggie is a tragic figure, in love with a “godlike being” who pays her no mind. Brick’s slow-motion suicide by alcohol is usually attributed to his repressed homosexuality, and this production cheekily includes footage of Mike Pence on a TV. But one of the play’s strengths, as Weaving points out, is that it retains a whisker of ambiguity.
“There’s a strong sense that Skipper’s absolutely in love with Brick,” he says. “Whether Brick is in love with Skipper is something you can read both ways, but it’s very clear that there’s a whole heap of denial there.” He’s very closed off for somebody who isn’t hiding something. “That’s right. He’s probably a gay man in a straight construct. But he’s the still-point. Brick’s the sun that everyone revolves around.”
Watching his son follow in his footsteps – graduating from NIDA and into a busy career on stage and screen – must be gratifying, I say. The two each worked on Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge – “he gets spiflicated at the end; Mel was going, ‘I’ve got a great death for Harry!’ ” – although they shared no scenes. But Weaving’s pride is inflected with an awareness of how much the industry has changed. His own screen career began shortly after drama school, when he was enlisted to play Douglas Jardine in the classic mini-series Bodyline. Other work for George Miller’s production company Kennedy Miller followed, as well as film roles in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof and Stephan Elliott’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which both premiered at Cannes.
“The film industry here was really interesting,” Weaving says. “I feel sad now that we don’t have… Kids come out of NIDA, and the imperative for them seems to be to go to LA. And you think, why have we got a national school for our actors if we’re not as a nation championing our own culture?” Nowadays, he says, the kind of lead roles that launched Mel and Russell and Nicole, the ones that showed international producers what they could do, don’t exist – so “there aren’t going to be those people anymore”.
Weaving puts this down to the ephemeral nature of casting – who has “value” and who doesn’t, a fiction agreed upon if ever one existed. “Everything becomes about the bottom dollar,” he says. “A lot of Australian films are now put together by American agencies. There are two lead roles in an Australian film, decent budget, so who gets to play them? A couple of young English actors nobody’s ever heard of – except they’ve just done this film or that film and they’re the next big thing. They get the role instead of someone upcoming here. So young actors think, ‘Oh, I’m not going to hang around here, I’m definitely going to LA.’ ”
It’s a shame, I say. “It’s more than a shame,” Weaving counters. “It’s an absolute tragedy. And that’s our culture. That’s our film culture. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with [working overseas]. I work overseas. But I’m lucky enough to have established something here, so I can work here. I don’t think young actors can anymore. I think they have to go overseas. And it’s terrible.”
Weaving will next be seen as an Australian war photographer in Hearts and Bones, premiering at the Sydney Film Festival next month. In it Weaving develops a friendship with a South Sudanese man whose war-stricken village he photographed more than a decade earlier. Sporting an unbuttoned shirt that’s tucked into jeans – one that looks suspiciously as if it came from the actor’s drawer, rather than the wardrobe department – the character has neither the costume nor the accent that usually obscure our view of the man himself. That kind of nakedness must be bracing for an actor, and satisfying, too. But only occasionally.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 18, 2019 as "Stage advice". Subscribe here.