Known for his roles in The Matrix and Lord of the Rings, Hugo Weaving is about to star at the National Theatre in The Visit. The actor tells Theo Bosanquet how theatre is in his blood and his joy at reuniting with Lesley Manville
Despite an indelible association with blockbuster film franchises, particularly The Matrix and Lord of the Rings, Hugo Weaving is a theatre animal at heart. Or at least that’s what director Jeremy Herrin said when he asked the actor to star in a major new production of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit at the National Theatre.
“I’ve no idea why I was offered this role, I’ll find out one day,” laughs Weaving, revealing he had previously sworn only to do theatre in Sydney, where he is based. “I love travelling, but four months is a long time to be away from family. I don’t even do theatre in Melbourne anymore, let alone London.”
Yet, reading Tony Kushner’s “extraordinary” adaptation of The Visit soon changed his mind. It also helps that the UK is a country he feels at home in, considering his parents were British and he spent a good portion of his schooldays here (he has a British passport). And an added sweetener was the chance to reunite with Lesley Manville, with whom he starred in TV miniseries The Bite in 1996 – shortly before he donned those iconic sunglasses in The Matrix. “She’s both easygoing and very hard working,” he says of Manville. “She’s just a delightful person, nuanced and intelligent and very warm.”
In The Visit they play former lovers. Manville’s character Claire Zachanassian has become the richest woman in the world and is determined to exact revenge on Weaving’s humble shopkeeper. The play – written in 1956 and described by Dürrenmatt as tragicomic – looks at how one can manipulate the occupants of a depressed town through the promise of money. Kushner has transplanted the action to Slurry, New York, and set it during the same post-war era as the original.
Weaving first became aware of the play at drama school in Sydney; it was a favourite of one of his tutors. “It’s a very human piece, though some of the characters are grotesque and some of the incidents are extreme.” He compares it to Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector and Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. “These three plays have a lot in common, though they’re tonally quite different. The Dürrenmatt is unique in its balance of theatricality and intimacy. It’s a revenge tale about credit and debt, community and utilitarianism, but it’s a love story first and foremost. To me it’s a hymn to young love, which I didn’t realise until we started running it.”
His mention of Arturo Ui is a reminder that he played the satirical dictator recently for Sydney Theatre Company, with whom he has worked on more than 30 productions spanning nearly 40 years, including several of the great roles – Macbeth, Vanya, Vladimir. His regular collaborators include Cate Blanchett, who appeared at the National Theatre last year herself in When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other.
Theatre is in his blood. “My parents met at the University of Bristol. They studied different degrees but were both involved with the University players. My dad was part of the drama union and set up a theatre festival there, and they toured together as well. So theatre was always a great love for them, and they always took us to lots of plays, as well as opera, ballet and classical concerts. Theatre has always been a part of my life.”
Like Blanchett, Weaving has managed to balance two professional personas; the cerebral stage actor and the blockbuster film star. It was largely accidental, he says, that he became the latter. He was drawn to The Matrix by its “fascinating script” and the artistry of its producer/writers the Wachowskis, but its success opened the door to Hollywood. It is credit to his range that prior to taking on the broodingly malevolent Agent Smith his major screen association had been with the exuberant drag queen Tick in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Since then Weaving’s CV has been peppered with major movies, from The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies to Captain America and Transformers, but he has come to prioritise small-budget passion projects in Australia. Several years ago, he was quoted as saying he wouldn’t appear in another blockbuster (though he now says “never say never”), and he won’t be appearing in the upcoming fourth Matrix film. “When you do a big blockbuster it has repercussions, because people say: ‘Oh, that’s what that person does.’ So I came to realise that although those films are fun, and they pay very well, they’re not really the thing that draws me.”
He loves Australia, spending much of his time on a farm he owns with his long-term girlfriend Katrina Greenwood. “It’s a lovely part of the world – there are wallabies jumping around and a beautiful river.” He has found the recent wildfires that afflicted the country, and the underlying environmental factors that precipitated them, both heartbreaking and enraging. “For such a long time the government has been not just sitting on its hands, but actively working against anyone who mentions the environment in a protective way. They’re a bunch of criminals.”
This attitude is part of a global problem, he says, which has echoes in The Visit. “It’s easy to jump from the play to Trump – it’s unbelievable what is going on there, in terms of the truth being called lies and lies being called the truth… It’s hard for democracy to work in the face of these forces – democracy is in peril.” He cites the Murdoch press as an “insidious” force and found it telling, he adds, that many of the same people who helped Scott Morrison become Australia’s prime minister went on to work on Boris Johnson’s election campaign in the UK.
Despite its clear parallels with the current rise of populism, The Visit is a play that speaks to any era, Weaving says. “It’s one of those great plays that you could transpose to any country at any time, as long as you’re a good writer – which Tony Kushner manifestly is. The story is one of poverty and need, and the extent people will go to get money… It could be revived in 200 years and still be an essential human story.”
Like many great actors, he is deeply knowledgeable of issues that extend far beyond his craft. But despite early ambitions to write, it is acting that has proven his vocation. As such, his long-awaited debut at the National Theatre, just a few months shy of his 60th birthday, feels distinctly like a homecoming.
He hopes it won’t be his last appearance in London, and would like to bring over Arturo Ui and a double-bill of new plays by Australian rising star Angus Cerini. He also has his eye on Shakespeare roles including Richard III, King Lear and The Tempest’s Prospero, all of which are mouthwatering prospects. But it will have to be the right project. He says he hates it when star actors “do a turn” in big roles; the production must come first. Which is why, when Herrin sent the script to this theatre animal all those months ago, he knew exactly what he was doing.
The Visit runs at London’s National Theatre from February 8-May 13. For more information go to: nationaltheatre.org.uk