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It’s the early hours in New York City and Jacki Weaver has, at last, retired to her hotel room. It’s been a big night. She’s just turned in another performance in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya on Broadway. Tom Hanks and Liv Ullmann have come backstage to congratulate Weaver and the rest of the Aussie cast.
After moving through the autograph seekers at the stage door, she’s gone out to dinner with friends, and now here she is, talking with me. “I’m a little bit mellow because I’ve been out to supper after the show,” she says.
After a 50-year acting career in Australia (she tells me that anniversary is in November) you don’t have to pause too long to work out why Weaver is so loved in this country, and coming to the phone in the middle of the night does nothing to tarnish that reputation. Watching her extraordinary rise to world fame in the past couple of years has made us all a little bit mellow.
At 65 (“At my great age”, she says with typical humor and self-deprecation or maybe just honesty) no one should be surprised at Weaver’s energy level. She has become a well-respected and even much-loved player in the multibillion-dollar film industry in the US, with major celebrities queuing up to say hello. She’s the hottest thing in the room right now. So, after 50 years, she’s an overnight success.
And right now she is excited to be performing with such Australian actors as Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh. “Cate Blanchett is so respected and loved here, it stands to reason,” Weaver says. “The audiences are incredible, they leap to their feet and cheer. It’s pretty good compared to the laconic reaction you get in Australia. I love Australian audiences, but we seldom get standing ovations, except for musicals.”
The reaction to the production has been extraordinary. “It’s a very hot ticket,” Weaver says. “It seats 2400 and it’s been sold out for ages.” And the critics have loved it. The New York Times described the production as “glorious”, saying the director had delivered “what may be the most profoundly physical, and physically profound, interpretation ever of this
The play’s success is just the latest in a string of wins for Weaver. Her life changed dramatically when she was nominated for an Oscar at the 2011 Academy Awards for her turn in Animal Kingdom as Janine “Smurf” Cody, the menacing matriarch of a Melbourne crime family. And it is indeed a staggering performance, the Weaver “sweetness” at dramatic odds with the chilling cruelty of the character. As she has said in understatement, “I don’t have a Cruella de Vil look about me”.
Jacki Weaver in Alexandra Schepisi’s short film, Lois.
“It’s changed my life completely, actually,” Weaver says. “Hollywood and America and an international career were never on my agenda or even on my horizon. It wasn’t something that I coveted or wanted because I was always perfectly content with the work I got in Australia. I was never out of work and I always had a wide variety of characters to play. I didn’t even think it was a possibility, and then (the film’s writer/director) David Michod changed my life.”
Awards, and nominations, certainly matter in the US. “It’s great being an Academy Award nominee,” she says, “Even though I didn’t win the Oscar or the Golden Globe, I did win seven or eight other American awards and nominated for 12 altogether. It gets the attention. They take this very seriously in America because it’s a multibillion-dollar industry.
“That led to my getting offers from several agents and offers from several managers and I accepted a couple. I’ve had many, many scripts coming to me.” One of those scripts has her playing Robert de Niro’s wife.
Since Animal Kingdom Weaver has made three films including her Hollywood debut last year in The Five-Year Engagement, produced by Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up). She enjoyed her turn in the comedy. ‘That’s a wonderful bunch of young men. They’re so funny and energetic, lovely people.”
One of Weaver’s post-Animal Kingdom projects back home is a short film – eight minutes and 20 seconds to be precise – called Lois, directed by Alexandra Schepisi, who last year received warm reviews for her role in her father Fred Schepisi’s adaption of the Patrick White novel The Eye of the Storm.
“Alex Schepisi is incredibly talented,” Weaver says. “I’d seen one of her short films and I thought it was terrific. She sent me a script and I thought it was really interesting and clever and original and I thought ‘Yeah, I’m in straight away’.
“Alex is gorgeous, so bright, so clever, so inventive. Her husband Jeremy Rouse was the cinematographer. They’re a great team. I remember Alex when she was a little girl. I knew Fred and (Schepisi’s second wife) Rhonda Schepisi … It’s interesting how you come to work with young people you knew when they were babies. It’s wonderful. Part of life’s rich tapestry.”
Lois was inspired by Alexandra Schepisi’s observation of a woman reading a letter while sitting on rocks at a beach. Filmed on location in Sydney and Greece, the film tells of a woman receiving this “long-awaited letter” and being “driven to wild lengths to address some unfinished business”. It takes “an ordinary woman’s story into the fantastical realms of Greek myth”, according to the film’s notes.
“Hollywood and America and an international career were never on my agenda or even on my horizon.”
In the notes, Alexandra Schepisi says: “I have always been a big fan of magic realism and love the creative depth it allows. It is the perfect medium to be able to explore the limitless capacity of love and the agony that it can cause. I wanted to create a film that stays ahead of the audience so that they might go on a journey with Lois, without knowing what is in the letter or where she is heading.
“I wanted to create a sense of desperation and danger when she first reacts so wildly to the letter. What could be in a letter that causes such a reaction?”
“It wasn’t an easy shoot, because I’m not a great swimmer,” Weaver says. “It made the papers when we did some of the Sydney shoot because we were in very treacherous ocean, one of the most treacherous that Sydney’s got. I was in very heavy surf with a few lifeguards around me but even so, it was very tough. (Later) we went to Greece (to film) and the village was beautiful. A good experience.
“I think short films are just as valid a piece of art as an hour and 40 minutes. I think some of the most beautiful films are short films. That wasn’t a problem for me at all. You judge everything by the script and what you think it’s going to be like to make the character work.”
Still, it’s an interesting choice for Weaver coming off major big Hollywood success to do an eight-minute film. “I don’t have a career arc at this age,” she says. “I’m so ancient that I (only) think in terms of whether I’m interested in being the character. I did three films in America last year, so doing a little short film was … I took it seriously. It was just as important to get it right. Just because it’s eight minutes and 20 seconds doesn’t mean it’s any less of a project.”
It’s been a relentless schedule for Weaver since her Animal Kingdom nomination, and she has acquired some pretty highly placed fans. In conversation with a Hollywood identity, US President Barack Obama recently asked: “Are you working with Jacki Weaver at the moment? I loved her in Animal Kingdom.’
“I think that’s my best,” Weaver says. “Another good one was when we were at the Golden Globes and Michael Barker, the boss of Sony Pictures Classics, said ‘I’ve just had a lovely text you’ll like’ and he showed it to me. ‘Tell her she’s one of my favourite actresses of all time’, signed (Spanish filmmaker) Pedro Almodóvar.”
She’s working with the hottest of the hot and has scripts piling up. I asked Weaver if it was difficult to know what to do next. “I get quite a lot of guidance. You do get inundated with stuff. I read three scripts a week. You get very good at reading scripts. I always read them at least twice and make notes because sometimes you can overlook really good material if you’re tired and not concentrating.”
Does the success in the film roles bring a little added gold dust into the theatre? “People are definitely aware of it,” Weaver says. “I’m on stage with Cate Blanchett who had not only won an Oscar and a Golden Globe but she’s been nominated five times. She is stratospherically up there. Her performance in this is just peerless, it’s just amazing. And so is Hugo Weaving, he’s brilliant and so is Richard Roxburgh, he’s extraordinary.”
She has found herself away from her Sydney home a lot lately. “Last year I was hardly at home at all, I worked in six different cities in America. I’m glad I’m missing the winter in Sydney, actually. I’m a walker. Melbourne is a good walking town, like New York and Sydney are. But there are days when you just cannot walk around Melbourne, it’s so cold. (Melbourne and Sydney) are like children to me, I love them equally and yet they’re so different.”
Weaver recently appeared on the ABC’s Q&A, one of the broadcaster’s great success stories, even if it does week to week slide from sublime to excrutiating. Weaver appeared with two of the chat circuits’s greatest practitioners, Barry Humphries and actor Miriam Margolyes. With the brilliant David Marr sparring hilariously with Humphries and Margolyes being as outrageous as usual, it was a surreal evening’s television.
“I resisted Q&A for such a long time. My brother, who’s a barrister, said ‘You musn’t do Q&A, you’re going to destroy your reputation as a nice girl, you’re just going to say something really vile to a politician’. Because some of the people they have on I loathe. And Tony Jones said to me at a cocktail party ‘Why don’t you come on the show?’ I said ‘Because I don’t trust myself’.”
It was suggested to her that she come on in a night when there were no politicians. “I was very quiet compared with the others; they got really outrageous.”
She has several projects on the go, including a pilot for HBO television, a film with Shirley MacLaine (“which has been postponed a few times, hopefully it will go ahead soon”) and several film offers that are awaiting finance. In the middle of next year she will appear in an as-yet unnamed theatrical production in Melbourne.
Meanwhile, Weaver is revelling in her new life as an internationally recognised actor. She is approached by fans much more in the US. “Every night at the stage door there are people waiting,” she says. “They’re waiting for Cate but they know who I am. They have big printed glossy photos of me that they get me to sign. It is a fan culture. I get fan mail here.
“When my husband Sean and I were in LA for the first time, some 14-year-old kids walked past and recognised me, and that gave Sean the biggest thrill ever. They were just kids who’d seen the movie. It was really strange to be in a foreign country and get recognised.”
She should get used to it.
Film » Lois will screen at the Melbourne International Film Festival as part of MIFF’S Australian Shorts program on Saturday, August 11, at 4pm at Greater Union cinema 6.
MIFF runs from August 2-19. Check out the full program at