NEW YORK — He’s been in the “Matrix” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogies, which grossed a mere $4 billion-plus in worldwide box office. Lines he’s uttered infuse the pop-culture lexicon. Yet, he’s pulled off being a successful movie actor while remaining relatively anonymous.
“Shhh. Shhh,” Hugo Weaving hushes, laughing conspiratorially.
That’s the way he likes it.
The 45-year-old Weaving has always maintained that becoming famous or making it big in Hollywood was never a goal. And his career choices bear that out, typically low-budget Australian films.
In his latest movie, “V for Vendetta,” you never see his face. It’s hidden behind a mask — and he’s the title character! (These days much of his face is covered with a full beard for a stage production of Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” that he’s doing here with Cate Blanchett.)
“I think,” Weaving says, “when your image becomes so big that it’s hard for a viewer to see a character, then I think you’re in danger as an actor of being unable to perform what you should be doing. And it becomes harder for you to successfully create another human being ... So the idea of playing this man in a mask and never being seen was wonderful.”
Mention Weaving’s name and you’re likely to get a blank look. But you’ll get instant recognition by reciting Agent Smith’s creepy salutation from “The Matrix.” You’ll hear it echoed in everyday life: A mailroom staffer — employing Weaver’s evil lilt — calls out to a friend, “Mr. Anderson.” Ditto a guy on the street, shouting to a pal down the block.
The Australian actor smiles when these recent evocations of someone he’s played are relayed to him.
“Look, I loved Smith. I thought he was a great comic character. I thought he was a great film villain as well. But he’s also a villain who’s been written with such enormous humor. Larry and Andy [Wachowski, the brothers behind “The Matrix”] enjoyed writing that character enormously, and that’s the thing I responded to when I first read it — was how much fun it would be to play that man. Because he’s an agent of control, he’s a construct, he’s not a human being, he wears his own mask as well, really. He starts to kinda feel these emotions, and he has the most fantastic dialogue.”
No doubt, Mr. Ander-- ... er ... Mr. Weaving.
Paydays from the big-budget movies — including “LOTR,” in which he played the elf leader Elrond — give him the financial security to pursue other things creatively.
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“But I don’t really see it like that. They’ve certainly given me financial rewards. And I’m very grateful to those. Thanks to ‘The Matrix’ particularly, I’ve been able to buy an old dairy farm about three hours’ north of Sydney. Katrina and I and the kids go up there very regularly,” Weaving says, referring to his partner of 22 years (they’ve never married) and their teenage son and daughter.
He figures most of his work in the near future will be either on stage or in more small Australian movies.
“And if I can from time to time work on something larger and better-paid, then fantastic. But ultimately it’s always going to come down to the script, and whether that script is something that sort of fires my imagination.”
His creativity has been stoked by voicing the dog Rex in the animated “Babe” movies, and playing a drag queen in “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” a murder suspect in “The Interview” and a blind photographer in “Proof” (a 1991 film not to be confused with last year’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play).
‘More exciting than daunting’
Now in “V for Vendetta” — starring Natalie Portman (in the role for which she shaved her head) — he’s got the male lead in a movie with more than a shoestring budget.
Because he’s wearing an immutable full-face mask during the whole movie, Weaving concedes: “I have to say when I started, I thought ... ‘Well, this might not work. But, oh well, jump in and try to make it work.”’
James McTeigue, an assistant director on the “Matrix” films who’s making his directing debut with “V,” felt it would work “from the moment Hugo put the mask on.”
“He has a theater background, which is important to the character. He also has a great physicality and a fantastic voice,” offers the protege of the Wachowskis, who wrote the “V” screenplay.
Weaving’s character V has elements of the protaganists from “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” — even “Batman” with his flowing cape.
“There’s a number of characters throughout literature and film history that he sort of echoes. But he’s absolutely his own being as well,” Weaving says. “It was more exciting than it was daunting. And so if something’s more exciting than it is daunting, I always think, ‘Ooh, that’s quite good.”
Weaving also was attracted to the movie since he thought it densely packed with ideas, and topical ones at that. Although the source material — a graphic novel — was written in response to Thatcherite Britain in the ’80s, he notes, it’s been rewritten and springs very much from today’s world.
Critics already have addressed the film’s political themes, especially since V could be seen as T — for terrorist.
The word terrorist is “used to such an extent actually that it’s almost become meaningless, I think. It’s an unhelpful label a lot of the time,” Weaving says.
As he observes, it depends on who you are, what side you’re on, what you believe — as the old saying goes, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
“I certainly don’t advocate terrorism as a way of progressing and understanding people, nor do I believe labeling everything as a terrorist act is helpful either,” Weaving says. “I think we need to look beyond those labels and try to understand when people do certain things what is it that brings them to perpetrate that stuff.”
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