Hugo Weaving versus the cultural cringe

Hugo Weaving: Photo: Michael Rayner

Hugo Weaving: Photo: Michael Rayner

Crossing the hotel foyer, Hugo Weaving cuts an imposing figure. He’s taller than I’m expecting and fabulously hirsute, with the sort of dominating broad chest and shoulders you expect from heroes of the silver screen. It strikes me as odd, then, that he’s more typically cast as the bad guy (see The Matrix, Captain America and Transformers franchises) or broken men.

Take Alex, his new role in hit ABC drama Seven Types of Ambiguity. He’s a psychologist who has dangerously blurred his professional responsibilities towards his patient, Xavier Samuel’s Simon.

“He’s a very attractive, human character because of that,” Hugo says over a glass of red in the hotel bar. “Messy. You want to go see Alex if you’ve got a problem, but you might not want to be Alex.”

Indeed, Alex’s life is falling apart as his wife files for divorce. There’s an extraordinary moment in the second episode, when Alex confronts her for an explanation and we see his heartbreak in silence. It’s 10 seconds of the most powerful acting you’ll see this year, and a stark reminder (if one were needed) of Hugo’s talent.

Taking in heartbreak, child abduction and infidelity, Seven Types has an all-pervading air of gloom. Does it take its toll, working inside such a bleak world view?

“Yes, it does, but ultimately that’s the job,” says Hugo. “If you’re a reporter reporting on what’s happening in Aleppo, in order to tell that story to the world, you need to be there. As an actor, all these things about human nature and the world might be revealed to you, and they might be hideous, but the rewards are to do with illuminating human behaviour.”

Hugo Weaving: Photo: Michael Rayner

Hugo Weaving: Photo: Michael Rayner

He’s quick to point out that actors are rarely putting their lives on the line. And, unlike many of his characters, the 57-year-old has enjoyed what seems an enviously stable home life since meeting his girlfriend Katrina Greenwood in 1984.

Balance is key, he says. While creatives are famously prone to put their art above all else, Hugo has long imposed a “loose” limit on himself of no more than three projects a year. When his kids Harry and Holly were growing up, he also turned down gigs that might have interfered with family summer holidays.

That must have cost him a few juicy parts over the years, I suggest. He shrugs. “Probably, yeah, but that’s all right. The film industry puts a lot of pressure on families, probably more on crews than actors. The need to maintain the career means you’re away a lot more than you’re home. If I can do a play, a film and another thing, that’s pretty much all I can cope with. It means I’ve got time between projects to not be working, to be at home, to grow vegetables, plant trees, and see my friends and family.”

Hugo Weaving (L) and Keanu Reeves in

Hugo Weaving (L) and Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix Reloaded”. Photo: Warner Bros

Aside from a fine body of work, which began with the 1984 mini-series Bodyline and includes Hollywood blockbusters like Lord of the Rings and The Matrix, Hugo’s most important contribution to Australian culture may yet end up being a genetic one. His son Harry Greenwood (he uses his mother’s surname for his nom-de-theatre) is building an impressive screen career and, along with cousin Samara of Home and Away fame, looks set to establish a Weaving acting dynasty.

Hugo says he was working on The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert when then-four-year-old Harry first displayed a theatrical bent. “When we were shooting at Broken Hill, his mother and I went out to dinner and Harry was asleep. We came back and he was lip-synching in the mirror. He’d obviously seen me practising my lip-synch and listening to the song.”

Like his dad, Harry has a nose for important Australian stories; he had a major role in 2015’s Gallipoli miniseries. Telling such stories is clearly important to Hugo. Ask him about Aussie cultural cringe and his easy manner gives way to near-apoplexy.

Seven Types is his first major television work in 20 years. His willingness to return to the small screen could be seen to reflect TV’s changed fortunes, as Hollywood talent switches to long-form storytelling. But Hugo says it’s more to do with chasing interesting work closer to home.

“I’m not a North Korean actor, I’m not saying I will only do North Korean things, but I absolutely will champion Australian culture. I desperately want to work here more, whether it’s film or TV. There’s a million stories to tell.”

Hugo was a latecomer to Aussie culture. Born in Nigeria to English parents, his family settled here when he was 16. By then, he had already been bitten by the acting bug, after seeing Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet as a nine-year-old. “That led me to playing dress up games as Romeo and Mercutio with my friends. It was probably all about kissing girls and having sword fights.”

There’s a distinct lack of kissing and swordplay in Seven Types, but it’s still been applauded by critics and viewers alike. Its success is a stinging rebuke to the idea that Aussie audiences would rather watch something imported. Not that Hugo is surprised.

“Sit someone down to watch a great Australian TV series and they’ll dig it. Most people love looking in the mirror. I think it’s an entirely natural thing to go, ‘oh s–t, is that who I am?’”

WATCH – Seven Types of Ambiguity is showing at 8.30pm Thursdays on ABC. The entire series is available on iView.

OUR COVER \ Hugo Weaving photographed by James Brickwood

OUR COVER \ Hugo Weaving photographed by James Brickwood

 

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