Cloud Atlas’ Hugo Weaving On Ambitious Filmmaking And The Movie's 'Yellowface' Controversy
It’s a strange pattern, but where there’s a big budget, highly ambitious project in the works there’s a very good chance that Hugo Weaving will be involved. It began in 1999 when the Australian actor first teamed up with the Andy and Lana Wachowski to play the villainous Agent Smith in revolutionary science-fiction modern classic The Matrix, but even since then he’s found himself playing in movies like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Captain America: The First Avenger (which qualifies due to its part in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), and, most recently, in the soon to be released Cloud Atlas. Is he a conscious decision to star in films that could potentially change the industry? Does he actively seek out parts in the boldest projects he can find? I recently had the chance to find out the answers.
During a recent press day for Cloud Atlas, which reunites the actor with the Wachowski Starship for the first time since V For Vendetta, I had the amazing opportunity to sit down with the exceedingly talented performer to talk not only about his latest movie, but also the path of his career and the choices he has made. Check out the interview below, in which Weaving discusses his appearance-motivated performances, working with director Tom Tykwer in conjunction with the Wachowskis, and the film’s “yellowface” controversy.
NOTE: At one point in the interview Weaving did go into spoiler territory, and while what he says won’t ruin the movie for you, it might be best to come back to once you’ve already seen the film. Be careful scrolling!
I’m curious about how ambition enters in to the equation when you’re selecting scripts, because not only do you have this film – which is a major undertaking in its own right – The Matrix movies, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and even the Marvel Cinematic Universe are some of the biggest, most ambitious projects we’ve seen in the last 20 years. Is that something that plays a part in your mind?
I would certainly agree that The Matrix and this film were very ambitious projects in some ways, and The Lord of the Rings is a very ambitious project in a totally different sort of way – but then the majority of the work that I do is actually ambitious in other ways, and it’s much more low budget, small, Australian contemporary films, to be honest, and that would be the bulk of my work. Or theater! My ambition would be to stretch myself in all sorts of different ways and work with wonderful people and work with wonderful scripts, actually. The script is always the thing that’s the key for me, and that’s the thing that, hopefully, if someone’s got a script it means that they’re interested in the material, they’re interested in the ideas that are in that script, so if they’re interested in that and I’m interested in that hopefully that means we have a similar interest- and that might mean it would be good to work with them. So I’ve always taken the script as being the first place for working, the ideas are embedded in that, and certainly this film is chock-a-block full of ideas, from this wonderful book that I had loved so much anyways. So it was something that was very kind of exciting to me, the idea of it.
I have to imagine that reuniting with the Wachowskis as directors must have played a role as well.
Absolutely. We kept seeing each other over the years, either with The Matrix or V For Vendetta or this and in between times, but we kept chatting. It’s always lovely to see them. I feel very, very close to both of them, and the addition of Tom [Tykwer] on this one has been great.
I was actually just about to ask about that. How did working with Tom Tykwer in the mix change the dynamic on set, or did it?
It totally affected the dynamic of this film. Totally affected it in a wonderful way. This project came out of the fact that Tom and Lana and Andy met, and they met because they liked each other’s’ films and wanted to meet – which is a good way of meeting. They met, they talked, they loved talking to each other; they met again, they became friends, they shared similar ideas and are all highly intelligent men and women who have a shared bond. And they’re very generous, very warm. So the idea of working together came out of that. And if we are going to work together what is that project to be? So what I think Tom has brought to them is like he holds a mirror up to them in the way that Lana and Andy held a mirror up to each other and projected each other and reflected each other on to themselves. So the sense that you might have a triumvirate directing a film is a great one. But only if that triumvirate actually works together and gets on and in this case they do and the project would never have happened if they hadn’t gotten on. So if you have a studio and said, “Let’s get these three directors together and we’ll give them this script” it might not work so well. So the genesis of this project has come out of people who are interested in the material and people who are interested in working together. And so all the actors are interested in the material, all of the ideas incorporated around that, and the idea of working with either Tom or Lana or Andy. So I think he’s brought so much to them and he’s brought so much to the life of the project and the first day we had the read through he played his music, and that kind of underpinned that score – the Cloud Atlas Sextet – he scored the whole thing for us.
Obviously I don’t want to ignore the other great work you’ve done, but I’ve also noticed a pattern in your career where you take parts that not only change your physical appearance, but also play characters that are partially defined by their appearance. You have the multiple characters in this different looks, but even Agent Smith takes something as simple as a suit and sunglasses and makes them iconic. How does the appearance of a character, like Nurse Noakes or Old Georgie in this movie, change your approach?
Well, your body, what happens to your body, is a product of the way you think and the way you are and what you do in your life – we get older and we get saggier and wrinklier and we get more weighed down, or we get older and we have more of a thirst for life. So the way you think and what you do defines your body. So any physicality of any character is based on who they are and what they’ve done and where they’ve been and why they are the way they are. So as long as that physicalization springs from something that is truthful for that character, then that’s worth chasing and finding. Smith is a construct, he’s not a robot, but he’s not a human. He’s a construct, so he has a certain bearing, a certain gate, a certain vocal delivery, because I figured well, if he’s not a human and he’s not a robot what would he be like? He’s probably sound like a news reader and he’d have a particular kind of enunciated delivery. So any physicalization or vocalization of any kind in a character comes from what’s written there and what’s suggested by the character as written.
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