Weaving his way to stardom
Hugo Weaving's face is far better known than his name, but that's all about to change with roles in two of the most successful movie franchises in history.
In The Matrix Reloaded, our hero Neo receives several gifts, including an earpiece attached to a coiled wire. This telex was the piece of equipment that connected Neo's arch-nemesis to the Matrix - a computer-generated synthetic world - and its arrival can mean just one thing: Agent Smith unplugged!
Smith is played by Australian actor Hugo Weaving, who also plays Elrond in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Weaving's face is far better known than his name, but that may be changing.
By early next year, after the release of The Matrix Revolutions in November and the Ring's epic finale, Return of the King in December, the combined box office grosses of Weaving's movies could challenge Harrison Ford's.
In The Matrix, Agent Smith was the embodiment of the machines' determination to control their vast operating system. As the movie's hero, Keanu Reeves wore Neo's rectitude bolt-upright, as if his cassock had come back from the cleaners too heavily starched. As created by writer-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski, Agent Smith was the perfect foil for an actor who was a bit of a stiff.
Smith is a piece of software who has become liberated from the Matrix. He is a program so far past his use-by date that new agents - Neo calls them "upgrades" - have been dispatched from the Mainframe to take over for him. In Reloaded, Agent Smith has even begun to have human feelings such as anger and ego.
"He's changing quite a lot," Weaving says. "His ego grew to such an extent that he couldn't bear not to hide out in the Matrix and kill Neo."
And he's not particularly fussy how he does it. For reasons that aren't completely clear, in Reloaded Smith has developed the nasty habit of sticking his hand into people's chest cavities. This turns out to be far more annoying than having a finger repeatedly poked in your chest, and leaves his victims - among them Neo - looking like hot fudge sundaes.
"I don't know, technically, quite how that happens," Weaving says. "To me, he's become like a computer virus. And I think that's actually what's happening. He's taking over other programs."
Before taking over the character, Weaving had to come up with just the right user interface. He spent a lot of time getting Smith's voice just right. "I wanted him to sound kind of human, but not really," he says, "like a news-reader." Weaving says he borrowed bits of Spock from the Star Trek Vulcan, and HAL from the artificial intelligence voice of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But when it came to finding a model for the character's distinctive way of verbally burrowing into other people's heads, Weaving looked no further than Larry and Andy Wachowski, the films' writer-directors. "They wrote the character, so I figured there's a lot of them in him," Weaving says. "I think quite a lot of their vocal qualities injected themselves into Smith."
Weaving was not well-known outside Australia before The Matrix was released. He had received good notices five years earlier for his performance as Mitzi Del Bra in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and parlayed that into a voice role as Rex the Male Sheepdog in Babe.
But his life changed when Matrix producer Barrie Osborne signed on to produce the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and asked Weaving to play Elrond. Suddenly Weaving found himself with significant roles in two of the most successful movie franchises in history.
Because of the martial arts training required for The Matrix movies, Weaving spent three years working on that trilogy and a bit less than that on Lord of the Rings, in which he has a relatively smaller role.
Remarkably, the production schedules of this sprawling sextet of films rarely overlapped, with a lengthy location shoot in Sydney - where Weaving lives with his family - for The Matrix, Reloaded and Revolutions.
After filming the fight scene in which 100 Agent Smiths fight with Neo in Reloaded, he raced off to New Zealand to do re-shoots for The Two Towers, the second instalment of The Lord of the Rings triptych.
"They were very time-consuming projects, particularly as I wasn't involved in the shooting every day," he says. "I couldn't really go off and do anything else."
So he sat around and just waited for stardom to arrive.