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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.
To talk a bit about your evolution in the film, I actually think that you have the most fascinating path in the movie. Unlike some of your co-stars who get to play on both good and evil characters, throughout this you are always playing someone on the wrong side of right, and what that leads to is Old Georgie, who is not a person but rather more like a manifestation of evil. How do you wrap your mind around that progression?
It was always a character that I loved – I loved reading a lot of the characters from the book, but Georgie jumped out at me, and he jumps out of you because he’s inside Zachry’s head and you’re with Zachry and you know what’s happened to Zachry. Zachry’s in a world where he believes in the devil. It’s a futuristic world, but it’s also a medieval world with medieval sensibilities, and so people are prey to the voices in their head. We’re all prey to voices in our head! And this idea that Georgie is just this embodiment of the voice that says “no,” the voice that tells you that you must do this, you can’t do that. That happens to me all the time! So the challenge of playing Georgie was this wonderful thing. Yes, he’s a character, but actually he’s not – he’s not a human being. So then how do you shoot that? When I was trying on the costume I thought, “Well, this costume is great,” but I kept saying, “I really love this costume, but the more I think about Georgie the more I think you don’t want to see him, in a way.” You don’t want to notice that he’s got a shiny suit – you don’t want to think about that. It shouldn’t be shiny or it shouldn’t have this or…it should be more amorphous.
So I was talking to Lana and Andy about that we thought, well, he can’t come into frame, and you can’t see him leave frame because then he’s exiting to somewhere else and therefore he’s physical. So he can be found. He can not be there anymore. He can’t disappear, he can not be there. He can then appear somewhere else – when you cut he’s there, he’s over the shoulder. It’s the vocal intention that’s important; it’s what he’s saying that’s important. He is just Zachry talking to himself. It’s just Zachry’s fears and preconceptions. Zachry’s brain and upbringing is telling him, “I can’t do this, I can’t do that. But I want to do this.” He’s conflicted. Zachry’s got Meronym, who is here and has all this stuff and he mistrusts her, and thinks she might be bringing about the downfall of his civilization. He’d rather have these cannibals, these nasty warriors on horseback to deal with because he knows them, rather than this mysterious woman who he doesn’t know and doesn’t understand. And the threat that she poses because he doesn’t understand her is the thing that has him saying, “I have to kill her” – and that’s Georgie. “Stay how you are. Don’t change.” So he’s the voice of absolutely “Don’t change. Don’t be free.”
You mentioned that you had input on Georgie’s look; was it the same situation for your other characters as well?
Georgie’s look was pretty much there, it was just to do with the shininess. So it became flatter, and it was to do with not the perfect top hat, but the battered one, the more amorphous one. And the way that he appeared on screen. So it was all of that, and it was a good for everyone. And that brought about things with the way they might film Bill Smoke as well. All of the characters have a link, so there’s the soul’s link that may be in the way that they’re shot or how they might appear. When Bill Smoke appears and kills Sixsmith he appears in the back of frame dropping down and then he’s not there anymore. And then Sixsmith turns and there’s no one there behind the thing. And then Sixsmith…and then BANG! So that’s like Georgie – the way that Tom shot that echoed Georgie. It sort of echoes all the way through.
END OF SPOILERS
I do also want to ask: some people have found Cloud Atlas to be controversial in that it has white actors portraying Asian characters. Basically, claims of ‘yellowface.” There have been some people that have attacked the film for that aspect and I’m curious what you make of it.
Again, it’s not just a silly, flashy idea – it springs out of this very central, simple idea in the material, in the book: whatever the wrapping you have around you, whether it be European, Asian, male, female, whatever age you are, whatever time you live in, there’s an essential humanity that lies underneath all of that. And having actors play… I’m playing a Korean, my character. Doona [Bae], who is Korean, plays a Mexican. So it’s not just “yellowface.” Keith David is playing cross cultural. I’m playing a woman. Halle [Berry] is playing a Jewish woman. This wasn’t happening…it wasn’t one way traffic, it was traffic going all over the place. You have more of an argument for saying, “Hey, there’s all these roles that are being stolen from other actors! What’s going on here?” If you stick to the way the world should be then things don’t change. So everything in this film, the structure of it, the way in which it cast, the way it’s being brought about, and the way which we did it and the way in which we jumped into it with that spirit is because that is fundamental to the ideas of the material, and it’s not some kind of flashy game that’s just being thought up to make money. On the contrary, it’s absolutely not that. So any argument about that is quite easily countered, really. I just don’t buy it. I think it’s silly nonsense.
Because I’m just a huge nerd, I do really want to ask about the future of Red Skull in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Do you know where the Cosmic Cube sent him at the end of the Captain America movie? Also, do you have the same kind of multi-picture contract that the other actors do?
I think, yeah. I think anyone who signs up for Marvel probably would be obliged to sign a certain deal for three or four pictures or whatever, or more, actually, in some of those cases. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to come to fruition. There hasn’t been a Captain America 2 yet, and anyway if there was you would probably introduce another villain. So I didn’t think I’d be in another Cap America movie. The only thing – the possibility you might want to bring Red Skull back into an Avengers thing. That’s also tied in.
But to be honest, I don’t know that I’d want to go back there. I had a good time and it was a good thing to do. I was really thrilled that I did it. I loved working with Joe [Johnston] again, it was great to meet a lot of those actors…it was kind of a different experience for me being in that world, to play…and he’s a villain. I don’t describe many characters like that, but this is like an uber-villain. This guy thinks Hitler’s a pussy [laughs]. He’s a villain. So that’s why I did it, I was like “Let’s try this.” To play a role like that, that’s fun.
And what happens to him at the end of the film…I always said that the interesting thing about Red Skull for me was not the bombing of America. He’s not interested in that! He’s interested in the cube – he’s interested in the cosmic cube. He’s interested in being one with the gods. He wants to be up there and he’s saying to Cap, [in German accent] “Come on! You’re pretty cool! Come on, man! We’re better than this! We can go up here!” So that’s what interested me. He’d probably be in Valhalla – that’s where he wants to be. But who knows!