Role Recall: Hugo Weaving on His Journey From 'Priscilla' to 'The Matrix' to 'The Dressmaker'

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THE DRESSMAKER, from left: Hugo Weaving, Kate Winslet, 2015. (Photo: Everett)
Hugo Weaving and Kate Winslet star in ‘The Dressmaker’ (Photo: Everett)

Nowadays, Australia feels like a satellite of Hollywood, with many of the industry’s biggest blockbusters — not to mention action heroes — emerging from Down Under. Twenty-five years ago, a young actor named Hugo Weaving was among the vanguard of the current Aussie invasion, starring in a dark comedy called Proof that became a hit in its native land, and attained cult status internationally. (That Jocelyn Moorhouse-directed film also introduced another future movie star to the world stage: Russell Crowe.) Three years later, Weaving vogued his way into the hearts of moviegoers again, and looked fabulous doing it, in another global hit, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, starring alongside Guy Pearce and Terrence Stamp as members of a road-tripping drag-queen show. Roles in some of the most popular Hollywood franchises of all time soon followed — from The Matrix to The Lord of the Rings — and took full advantage of Weaving’s ability to juggle wicked humor with honest emotion and, when necessary, quiet menace.

Even after making the leap to the blockbuster realm, Weaving has kept his feet firmly planted in Australia, alternating bigger movies with more homegrown projects like The Dressmaker, a new revenge comedy starring Kate Winslet as a talented seamstress who returns to the tiny Outback town that cast her out decades ago for a crime she doesn’t remember committing. Opening in U.S. theaters on Friday, the film reunites Weaving with writer-director Moorehouse on the silver anniversary of Proof’s release. “The reason I continue to do Australian films is out of a desire to tell stories that spring out of your own landscape,” Weaving tells Yahoo Movies. “And if the film’s got enough basic humanity to it, it’s something that can also travel overseas.” We took a stroll with the actor down memory lane, revisiting some of the movies and roles that have traversed the world.

PROOF, Russell Crowe, Genevieve Picot, Hugo Weaving, 1991, (Photo: Everett)
Russell Crowe, Genevieve Picot and Weaving came to international attention with the 1991 dark comedy, ‘Proof’ (Photo: Everett)

Proof (1991)
The opening salvo in the ’90s Australian film renaissance — which soon included Muriel’s Wedding, Strictly Ballroom, and ShineProof became a word-of-mouth favorite for its unlikely story of a blind photographer (Weaving) and the strange relationship he shares with his devoted housekeeper (Geneviève Picot) and new best friend (Russell Crowe).

I’ve seen it recently because they just restored it. It shows how old I am, they’re restoring my early films! [Laughs] It holds up really beautifully. It’s actually funnier than I remembered it, but it’s a kind of humor that’s in a much darker strain. It’s just a nicely made love triangle with thriller elements. It’s aged really well and it looks absolutely beautiful in its restored glory.

THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT, Hugo Weaving, 1994, © Gramercy Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection
Weaving as the ever-fashionable Mitzi in ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ (Photo: Everett Collection)

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
Fueled by an ABBA-rich soundtrack and Oscar-winning costumes, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was part of a wave of movies that found the humanity and humor in the drag scene, arriving in theaters in between Paris Is Burning and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. Terence Stamp received some of the best reviews of his career as an aging transgender woman, but Weaving provides the movie’s emotional center as a performer passionate about his art and craft, but fearful that the family he has left behind may not accept who he has become.

That’s one of those films that became a party movie, didn’t it? It’s something that people went back to see again and again. If people need to celebrate something they’ll watch Priscilla. The premise is wonderful; it’s a very simple story dressed up in extraordinary clothes. When Stephan [Elliott, the film’s writer-director] pitched it to me, he said, “I’ve written this script about three drag queens that go on a bus trip into the desert.” He didn’t need to say anything more. I just said, “I would love to be in it.” I was on a plane with Guy Pearce recently, and we spent an hour talking about how extraordinary that project was. And last year when I was in London, I saw Terence Stamp. It was lovely to catch up with him.

I think that film came out at the right time, when it could be embraced by a vast majority of people. Maybe five years before, it wouldn’t have been. It was a watershed year in the sense of embracing drag queens in a really celebratory way, and not just as a political protest. At that time, the feeling was, “We can all agree that we’re human beings, and let’s celebrate our diversity.” I think that’s the power of the film, and why it will always be popular. There will always be someone else who feels trapped in another guise and needs to be liberated.

Weaving provided the voice for Rex the sheepdog in the family favorite 'Babe' (Photo: Everett)
Weaving provided the voice for Rex the sheepdog in the family favorite ‘Babe’ (Photo: Everett)

Babe (1995)
Produced by George Miller and directed by Chris Noonan, this little talking pig movie took the world by storm, earning $250 million worldwide and a surprise Best Picture nomination. (It lost to Braveheart in a decision that deserves a do-over.) Weaving provides the gruff voice of Rex the sheepdog, who doubts the titular porcine star’s abilities to become a… well, sheep-pig. The actor would reprise the role in the Miller-directed sequel, Babe: Pig in the City, which bombed spectacularly at the time, but has since re-emerged as a cult classic.

After I left drama school, my first job was working with George Miller’s production house. I did three separate 10-hour miniseries with them in my first 10 years as an actor. So my relationship with George goes way back, and when Babe came along, he was very keen for me to do one of the voices. The film is set in England, but they filmed it in the green fields of a particular region of Australia. I remember seeing the storyboards and they were beautiful, and the technology was there to have the animals’ lips seem like they were actually moving. None of the actors were there for the actual shoot; we recorded our voices in the studio before the film went into production. That shoot must have been a nightmare of sitting there for half a day while a pig walks into the shot! [Laughs] I didn’t have to do any of that, I just went in to re-voice certain things. I later worked with George on the Happy Feet films and doing voiceovers for him generally means you go back three or four times times. It’s like, “There’s this new line we’ve just written for your dog or your penguin. Come in and record it.”

THE MATRIX, Keanu Reeves, Hugo Weaving, 1999 (Photo: Everett)
Keanu Reeves and Weaving experience Bullet Time in ‘The Matrix’ (Photo: Everett)

The Matrix Trilogy (1999-2003)
As Agent Smith, Weaving created one of the big screen’s best contemporary villains in the original Matrix, matching Keanu Smith’s Neo taunt-for-taunt and punch-for-punch. Small wonder the Wachowskis made sure to bring Smith back for the divisive sequels, enhancing his character in ways that delighted some and baffled others.

I particularly love the first one, but I think there are fantastic things in all three films. We always had conversations about what we could get Smith to do. I remember asking, “Can you write him a song and dance routine?” [Laughs] Lana and Lilly Wachowski are extraordinary filmmakers; they want to expand the boundaries of filmmaking, and I think they did that with The Matrix. Bullet time, for instance. It’s a groundbreaking film in so many ways. I’ve made five films with them now, and it’s always wonderful. Cloud Atlas is a great film. It’s one of those films that people either seem to absolutely loathe or absolutely love, but I think it’s an extraordinary piece of work. They’re always breaking new ground, asking themselves “This is what we want to achieve — how do we do it? Let’s invent a way of making this work.”

Hugo Weaving as Elrond in 'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring' (Photo: Everett)
Hugo Weaving as Elrond in ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’ (Photo: Everett)

The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit Trilogies (2001-03; 2012-14)
Weaving’s Elven lord, Elrond, appeared in five of six installments in Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth saga, falling just shy of the “Six-Timers’ Club” inhabited by Ian McKellen and Cate Blanchett.

It was such a treat to go back to Middle-earth — or to New Zealand! — each year for 10 years or more. It felt like a family reunion each time, like going on holiday with the same people. You just happened to be going to New Zealand and dressing up in funny outfits, with long hair, robes, and Elven ears or whatever. Someone, I can’t remember who, said it was the most expensive home movie ever made. And that’s not a pejorative! It’s a very accurate way of expressing the mood on set. It felt like home. There’s something about Peter Jackson that’s really friendly and warm, and at the same time there’s this fierce intelligence. He’s a unique character.

As a result of the success of The Fellowship of the Ring, the franchise just got bigger and bigger; every time we went back for reshoots, the production would get larger — there were more and more people on set, and the studios got bigger and bigger. When I went back to do The Hobbit, it was just going to be one film when I got on the plane. By the time I got off the plane, they asked me, “Have you got the script for the second film?” Suddenly there were two films, and they wanted us to stay on and do scenes for the second one. Then by the time I got back to Australia, they said, “There’s a third film.” So I didn’t actually know which film I’d be in! That’s how crazy it was. My scenes for the second film were eventually slotted into the third film, and as a result the only installment I’m not in is the second Hobbit movie.

Weaving as Captain America's nemesis, the Red Skull, in 'Captain America: The First Avenger' (Photo: Everett)
Weaving as Captain America’s nemesis, the Red Skull, in ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ (Photo: Everett)

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Weaving joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe to bedevil the Star-Spangled Avenger on his maiden movie adventure. Long one of Cap’s most persistent villains in the comic-book world, the MCU’s Red Skull was last seen being consumed by the Tesseract, one of the all-important Infinity Stones. Currently kept in lockdown in Asgard, this cosmic cube seems destined to reappear in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War… and maybe Weaving along with it?

I thought it would be a lot of fun to play a classic über-Nazi, someone who thought Hitler was a pussy! [Laughs] It was fun to play; I enjoyed the outrageousness of the German accent that I employed and I enjoyed the extraordinary mask and costume, even though it was unbelievably hot inside it. I enjoy mask work; I enjoy trying to animate masks and reveal certain things that the mask itself might not reveal. V for Vendetta was another example of that, but there was less animation within that mask versus the Red Skull.

With Marvel, it’s pretty basic stuff: accept the deal and enjoy the ride. It’s not a major stretch for an actor, but on the other hand the difficulty with the Marvel universe is maintaining a link to a human dimension within such an extraordinary, technological CGI universe. In terms of me going back and doing another one, I don’t know. I’m not sure what they’re up to with the Red Skull.

Weaving strikes a pose as a flamboyant small town cop in 'The Dressmaker' (Photo: Everett)
Weaving strikes a pose as a flamboyant small-town cop in ‘The Dressmaker’ (Photo: Everett)

The Dressmaker (2016)
In addition to re-pairing Weaving with Proof director, Jocelyn Moorehouse, The Dressmaker also echoes his breakthrough role in Priscilla in that his character — kindly small town policeman, Horatio Farrat — is revealed to enjoy dressing up in women’s clothing.

To me, The Dressmaker is a fantasy revenge film that’s part spaghetti western and part love story. Trying to find all those different notes is quite complex, and there’s a lot of trust required from everyone. You need a director who’s able to say you “Dial that up” or “Dial that down” in a particular scene. It’s good to be working with Joce again; having worked with her before there’s certain shorthand in place. I’m interested to see how it will play in America, because it’s a very culturally Australian film that’s playing with all sorts of local stereotypes. In terms of any similarities between Farrat and Mitzi, both are in the Outback and both wear frocks, but they couldn’t be more starkly different in their personalities. Farrat is a very sweet man trapped in a hideous town. He’s only able to maintain his double life because he’s a nice guy and everyone really knows that he likes to dress up in the privacy of his own home. Whereas Mitzi wants to free herself from all sorts of shackles. For her, it’s an alter ego, a political statement, and entertainment at the same time.

Andrew Garfield in 'Hacksaw Ridge' (Lionsgate)
Andrew Garfield in ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ (Lionsgate)

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Weaving’s second Australian-shot film this year is this Mel Gibson-directed World War II drama, which recently debuted to strong reviews at the Venice Film Festival. Hacksaw stars Andrew Garfield as real-life Army medic Desmond Doss, who refused to bring a gun into battle, in part because he still carries the scars left by his abusive father, played by Weaving.

It was great working with Mel. He has a wonderful kinetic energy about him, and that’s something that comes across in his films. It certainly comes across in Apocalypto and Hacksaw Ridge. He’s got a restless mind, but is a really smart man and very playful. The crew absolutely loved working with him. It was a real treat to have him direct us.