Inside the Matrix
Some actors would work for free to be in Hollywood's biggest films. Hugo Weaving just put his neck out. Garry Maddox reports.
Hugo Weaving's hair is a mess. His jeans are ripped, his shirt untucked. He is wearing slip-on shoes without socks. He is, in a word, relaxed.
Despite shunning Los Angeles and staying close to his Sydney home, Weaving's profile has soared in recent years thanks to roles in the hit movies The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix.
Mentioning this profile is all it takes to trip him up. When asked about appearing in two of the biggest trilogies in cinema history or - even worse - himself, an awkwardness creeps into his movements. His hands are never still. He draws his knees beneath him, then splays his legs like a gangly six-year-old.
"The celebrity side of it scares me," he says. "I've never been comfortable with it. That's not why I became an actor. The reason I became an actor is because when I was a kid I was putting on clothes and being in little plays and I loved that."
He is, "increasingly unconfident" when it comes to the red carpet premieres, photo sessions, passionate, geeky fans and promotional tours where "you're essentially a puppet and a clothes horse" with your life on a schedule to sell a film.
A constant stream of theatre and film roles over the past 20 years since graduating from NIDA did little to prepare him for his time in the spotlight. "I know it's bizarre, but I feel like a charlatan. I don't like being famous for being famous. I don't want to be a big name just because I'm a big name."
Ask whether he ever dared think "one day I'll be a star" after leaving drama school and he concedes he probably did. He just didn't realise what came with it.
This insecurity is not an act.
Meet Weaving socially and he talks enthusiastically and without ego about acting and filmmakers. Colleagues often refer to the truthfulness of his performances, but that sincerity is discernible off-screen as well.
The 43-year-old is also renowned for his versatility. On screen, he has played starchy English cricket captain Douglas Jardine (in the 1984 mini-series Bodyline), a doomed drug smuggler (Barlow and Chambers: a Long Way From Home), a blind photographer (Proof), a drag queen (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), a suspected murderer (The Interview, 1998), a lusty gay real estate agent (Bedrooms and Hallways), the voice of a noble sheepdog (Babe), a nervy private investigator (Russian Doll), a dignified elf (The Lord of the Rings) and the malevolent Agent Smith in The Matrix.
He is not what you'd call conventionally good-looking, yet he brings a memorable presence to every role, an edge that can be funny or tragic, romantic or evil. His off-screen uncertainties vanish.
Born in Nigeria to British parents, Weaving spent his childhood in South Africa, England and Australia. He discovered drama at Knox Grammar School and continued his training at NIDA.
Weaving is an epileptic. On medication since his first seizure at age 13, he has spoken of the terrifying moment before each fit as possibly his "last few seconds on Earth". "I'm a strong believer that all your lows are also your highs ... that the things that happen to you which are most awful are often the things you learn most from."
Geoffrey Rush, who taught Weaving clowning at drama school and has appeared with him in numerous plays, describes him as one of the great character actors, with the stature of a leading man. "In some ways, he's probably lucky that he's avoided celebrity status because all people tend to write about is where you live and who you live with and what you do in your time off," he says.
"He's a truly seasoned and very diverse actor - you can't really nail him with a couple of quick and easy populist attributes."
Craig Monahan, who is directing Weaving in the romantic drama Peaches in South Australia, notes that the actor often works more than once with filmmakers. He's worked twice with Monahan - winning an AFI award last time around for The Interview - twice with Stavros Kazantzidis (in True Love and Chaos and Russian Doll) and three times each with Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) and Andy and Larry Wachowski (The Matrix).
"I'd work with him again in a second," Monahan says, adding that Weaving is disciplined, prepared and "just a lovely person".
When the original Matrix started filming in Sydney in 1998, Weaving was the sole Australian with a lead role, performing alongside Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss. While he had worked overseas - making the low-budget British comedy Bedrooms and Hallways - there was nothing in Weaving's CV before The Matrix that even faintly resembled a Hollywood blockbuster.
Initially, he didn't bother properly reading The Matrix script because it seemed like "just another sci-fi thing". Then he met the Wachowskis (who had noticed him in Proof), saw the film's storyboards and early art department work, and came to believe the film was going to be special.
So it proved a year later, when The Matrix hit the cinema screen and became a runaway international success. Rather than angle for mega-stardom in Los Angeles, however, Weaving turned down offers of a handful of Hollywood roles - "a number of pretty humourless boring villains".
"I went back to LA for a couple of months to see my agent there and see some people but I'm uncomfortable in LA," he says. "I actually want to work here. There's a part of me which sees so many American stories and so much American culture in the world as it is. I don't want to go over and add to it hugely."
Through The Matrix, he won the role of elf lord Elrond in The Lord of the Rings. "Barrie Osborne, who was producing The Lord of the Rings and had produced The Matrix, rang me and said, 'Do you want to do this thing?' I thought playing an elf would be fun so I jumped on board. But having done two huge trilogies, I'm really keen to get back into some Australian films again."
Weaving says there are many Australian films he has loved in recent years - The Boys, Lantana, Walking on Water and Beneath Clouds. "They're the sort of things I would dearly love to be involved with. And try to get involved with. If I get a job, I think, 'Fantastic, I don't have to go back to Los Angeles.' "
His ideal lifestyle is to mix roles in Australian films and theatre while spending time with his long-time partner, artist Katrina Greenwood, and their two children, Harry, 14, and Holly, nine. "That part of my life is very important - what the kids are doing and how they're going."
Making The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions seemed "endless", he says. "The first one seemed very contained. It was long, but the energy was maintained. But the sequels were really draining on a lot of people. They pushed through it and every day got what they wanted. But it was a much more strenuous battle."
In the sequels, Weaving's Agent Smith has the ability to replicate, which means 100 of him take on Reeves's Neo. The filming required Weaving to be surrounded by 12 actors of the same height and build.
"They'd had all their hair shaved and my hair on and glasses," he says. "They kind of looked vaguely like me. They put me in the centre of the frame and did face replacements on them after the event. Or not, depending on the shot."
While he thinks it works well on screen, he says it was a weird experience. "The strange thing about it really was doing scenes with myself. When we were shooting it, I got to know them all as Rob or Mike or whatever. I just treated them as other people. But halfway through a scene, I'd have to do some dialogue with myself and that was peculiar. You'd be doing it with someone else then have to jump in and do the scene with yourself."
Some actors would work for nothing to be in The Matrix sequels, though Weaving says much of the filming was tedious as it was against a visual-effects blue screen.
"I'd much rather work on an eight-week shoot in Australia with other actors."
For the moment, he has a busy schedule, finishing Peaches, after which he will spend a month overseas promoting The Matrix, doing reshoots for the final instalment of The Lord of the Rings, appearing in a short film based on a Raymond Carver story, then Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing for the Sydney Theatre Company in October.
"Last year and the year before, even though I was doing The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings, I didn't feel very busy, funnily enough. I'd been living back in Sydney and hadn't travelled that much. After that and then a couple of months' summer holidays with the kids, I thought I'd try and jump in and get heavily busy this year."
When he's not acting: "I'm just a dad, really. I hang out with my friends and family and just do whatever families do. I read a lot and I watch films and muck around with the kids."
He also writes. "I've got reams and reams of crap written down," he says. "I was considering trying to write this film script, which is still in a very embryonic stage. There's plenty of time. We'll see whether that ever happens."
Being in two successful film franchises has brought Weaving new fans, some of them fanatics. The letters he gets include "dangerous things like they're wanting to kill themselves unless something happens". Most, however, are from "people who've collected everything to do with Lord of the Rings and they've read the books 5 million times and they know everything about it and they've got everyone's signatures except for mine".
When confronted by this attention, Weaving tries to step away from it. "But often getting involved is easier. If someone talks to you in the street, I'll try to be civil."
The Matrix Rehabilitation
Making the two sequels for The Matrix was a brutal business for the main actors, Weaving says. "There were a lot of injuries again this time around."
Carrie-Anne Moss, who plays Trinity, broke her leg training for a wire stunt. Laurence Fishburne, aka Morpheus, fractured an arm in another training incident. And Weaving put out a disc in his neck while being pulled back on a wire. "I was flying through the air and I had to land on my back," he says of the whiplash-style injury.
While he kept working, doctors advised that Weaving drop particular movements from his repertoire during fight scenes. "I was getting these strange tinglings down my arm and in my fingers."
Keanu Reeves, who plays Neo, managed to avoid the hospital ward. "His skills were fantastic," says Weaving. "He wants to be able to do everything himself and gets really angry if he can't."
The high-action fight scenes that were such a feature of the original Matrix are echoed in its physically demanding sequels. "Training seems to be more dangerous than the actual shoot because you're stretching yourself, seeing what you can do and doing things for the first time and trying to make things work," Weaving says.
Once the cameras started rolling, perfecting scenes became the focus. For one shot, Weaving and Reeves had to hit and kick each other for 93 takes.
The Matrix Reloaded opens on May 15