Every so often, Hugo Weaving will slip into soliloquy—and when he does, it’s hard not to picture his Agent Smith, the AI-antagonist of The Matrix.
“It’s fascinating in this time of COVID, where we can’t travel and can’t be in community, we can’t be in large groups, how those sorts of needs really do highlight that we are social animals in search of understanding and illumination,” he tells me. “Because we’re not traveling and seeing the other as much, we’re now prey to powerful forces that can abuse us.”
Those forces—fascistic leaders like Trump, big business, etc.—are explored over the course of our wide-ranging chat. And there’s plenty to discuss with the 60-year-old Aussie, who’s rather quietly become one of the more prolific actors around, featuring in blockbusters like The Matrix films, The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, V for Vendetta, the Transformers movies (as the voice of Megatron), and Captain America: The First Avenger—not to mention the LGBTQ cinema classic The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Weaving’s latest is Measure for Measure, a contemporary Shakespeare adaptation about the multicultural inhabitants of a housing complex whose lives collide following a mass shooting. And Weaving is the Duke, a berobed crime boss pulling the strings. His is a villain with a strict moral code, unlike a certain headline-grabbing world leader.
The Daily Beast rang Weaving in his native Australia, where he’s currently prepping to perform in a play at the National Theatre—to a scaled-down audience of 140 (down from 783), owing to COVID-19.
These are very surreal times. How have you been keeping yourself occupied during the ongoing pandemic?
Well, I was just in London working at the National Theatre in March when all the theatres in London were shut down—for the first time since the plague, I believe, which is extraordinary. I got out of there within a couple of days, came back to Sydney to quarantine for two weeks. We were relatively unscathed by COVID compared to the States, which is a hugely different situation. But the arts, for example, have been completely plunged into darkness, so for three or four months I was at home in the country. I’m used to that though, so in many ways I felt very privileged to be able to not work and not worry and actually enjoy nature, reading, friends, and family.
I don’t have a problem with time out. I love planting trees, watching films. So much of our contemporary world is so crazy, and we’re so speedy. People are trying to cram too much in—always on the phone, always looking at their screen. There are half-baked communications going on left, right and center in our lives, and they’re just so not necessary. We’re bombarded by advertising and lies from the government. There’s so much crap in our lives, and this has enabled us—as a world—to perhaps rethink where we should be going, and what’s wrong with our society. It’s a chance to hit the world-reset button.
That’s a good way to bring us into Measure for Measure, which in many ways explores the messy state of the world. There’s a line your character delivers in the film that stands out, delivered immediately after the mass shooting: “I see it happening all over the world…like a cancer…I understand this is not America, Jeffrey, this is my home. Where I grew up—where we grew up. And I care what manifests here.”
I’ve always been rather jealous of the way Australia instituted strict gun-control measures following the Port Arthur massacre, and how that’s helped curb gun violence in the country. America could really learn some valuable lessons from that.
Yeah, and there was the big gun buyback program. I don’t think gun culture was ever as embedded [in Australia] as it always has been in the States. The “right to bear arms,” which came from a historical imperative—once upon a time, that was a necessary thing for American militias, but it ain’t true anymore. It’s devolved into a crazy libertarian thing in the States. I feel there are people here who are also trying to push that. You’ve got the National Rifle Association that has so much power and so much ability to twist the narrative and to openly lie and disregard the facts of how many people die each year, and they keep saying that “guns are not the problem.” There’s this sense that everyone has a right to do what they want in the world, and this sense of, “If I feel something, it’s OK,” with no sense of the greater community. It’s this weird, crazy libertarian thing that morphs into an extreme right-wing view of life that “I’m always right and everyone else is wrong,” and it’s very exclusive.
WATCH AN EXCLUSIVE CLIP FROM ‘MEASURE OF MEASURE’
Your character—the Duke—is a villain but he seems to at least recognize that this is a multicultural world that we’re living in, and this mass shooting disturbs him as it is the work of a xenophobic white nationalist targeting various people of color.
Indeed it is. And it’s fueled by lies, and rage, and I suspect—mentally—ill health.
And the film does provide commentary on the rise of white nationalism that we’re seeing across the globe. This is a heady question but why do you feel this rise of white nationalism is occurring?
If you don’t have a media that is upheld by your government, defended by your government, and championed by your government, and indeed if the leaders of that country deliberately destroy that sense of what journalism should be in order to gain power, then you’re in trouble. And you also have the rise of the internet. Print media is going out the window, and there are many, many voices. Having many, many voices is good but when the leading journalists of the day are being killed around the world or ripped down, and this sense of “fake news” is being thrown at them of all people while actual “fake news” is being championed, you get all sorts of conspiracy theories coming out and crazy, crazy beliefs. America is particularly infected by it. It’s a terrible, terrible disease.
I can see it happening here too. I can see it with [Rupert] Murdoch, just as an obvious example. When you have that ability to twist the truth, and to revere the lie, and to put out the lie as truth, the whole notion of what’s real and what’s not goes out the window, and the result of that is you get all sorts of crazy people thinking they’re right. There are major problems with unemployment, the environment is being plundered, big business is reaping profits and running the world. There are so many things wrong that it’s no wonder people get angry or upset, and it’s no wonder that people don’t know what to believe, because we have such appalling, immoral leaders. There’s no sense of right and wrong, and people take the law into their own hands. “These people who don’t look like me? They’re the cause of all my problems, and I’m going to kill them”—these ideas have been seeded by our leadership.
Speaking of the bowels of the internet, I wanted to ask you about The Matrix because The Matrix has been co-opted by these dark, men’s rights activist corners of the internet, what with “red-pilling” and the like. It’s always struck me as incredibly bizarre, given that it’s a series of films directed by a pair of trans women.
I am befuddled by it. It just goes to show how people don’t read below surfaces. They don’t read between the lines. They will take something that they think is cool and they will repurpose it to fit themselves when the original intention or meaning of that thing was quite the opposite. I’d say the same thing about the V for Vendetta mask. There was a group at the Black Lives Matter protest that were up against [the BLM protesters] with their guns, and two or three of those guys were wearing V for Vendetta masks, and I was like, “Wow, man. That couldn’t be more the opposite of what it stands for!” The original V was based on Guy Fawkes, and these guys were trying to blow up the House of Parliament. They were young Catholic protesters who were being persecuted by their government, trying to rebel against that, and taking very violent course of action to make their cause. To me, that mask has always represented questioning the government. And somehow now it’s guys who are generally unhappy with what’s going on, or guys who think they look cool.
The same with The Matrix. There was something to do with looking cool in black with a gun, and then you can go into a school and shoot people and somehow you’re immune from the consequences of that because you feel like you’re cool—you feel like you’re V, or you feel like you’re Neo or something. It’s a very, very shallow reading of the intention of a film. That’s a problem with popular culture: these films are profoundly thought through, but it’s too easy to look cool, have a cool haircut, and have a gun, and you think that’s all you need to do in life. But you haven’t thought about what that gun is for, and what that haircut is for, and what those black clothes are meant to be. What are you trying to do all this for? Is it all narcissism and ego? Or is it about community and thinking about what’s right for other people? When you get such a split in society, it’s because there isn’t the leadership at the top. They aren’t thinking about other people and are only thinking about themselves. Trump is the classic, most unbelievable example. “Narcissist” is a stupid thing to say, it’s so obvious. He doesn’t give a flying fuck about anyone else but himself. It’s just unbelievable that he’s the president.
It’s reality TV. Politics has become reality television, he’s a reality-TV host, and the way that the White House is covered now is sort of akin to reality-TV recaps. It’s mostly gossip.
That’s right. I’ve often thought a lot of the time that the media fall into a trap of just reporting the rants and tweets rather than questioning the lies that are coming out of their mouth—and I’m not just talking about Trump. The purpose of journalism in terms of politics is to say, “Hang on a minute now, that’s not true. The research here says otherwise.” That’s why the media is so important. But it is all a reality-TV show now where “winning” is the only thing that matters, and the way that you win doesn’t matter. It’s like Survivor. You can lie and cheat but it doesn’t matter. That’s the game. Nothing else matters except for winning—even if it means that everyone loses apart from the winner.
You know, the first film I ever saw you in was The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It’s such a lovely film. I’m curious what inspired you to tackle LGBT issues then, at a time where transphobic films like Silence of the Lambs were winning awards?
It felt like that film was the crest of a wave, and a filmic expression of something that was swelling in society. I think that’s why it was embraced in the way that it was. It’s a very good-natured, fun film in an exotic setting, but it was also expressing something about human sexuality that needed to be expressed, and hadn’t really been done too much before. It came out of a country where the sense of what it is to “be a man” is so important, and what constitutes the Australian male is very important. I was very aware of that when I came from England to Australia when I was 16. I thought I was a cool, young English guy but I was quite shocked by this aggressive idea of what it was like to be a man. I could hold my own so wasn’t in danger but I was acutely aware of a certain pressure to be a certain way and act a certain way—as a man.
I moved into the city and went to drama school. The inner city was alive with nightlife and rebellion. Around the time I moved into the city, the gay and lesbian Mardi Gras hadn’t started—but there was one of the very first gay and lesbian protest marches in Sydney all the way up to Kings Cross—and they were all arrested. And that protest march quite quickly morphed into a celebration because there was community support. It was a great celebration. But that’s a very roundabout way of saying that it seemed perfectly right at the time.
I read that you were born in Nigeria and grew up all over the globe. Did that make you more tolerant, and give you a deeper respect for different cultures?
Oh, of course. I had such a fascinating education. I went to 10 different schools, I think. We were always moving. To grow up in South Africa during Apartheid was like…wow. This is what this society thinks the world should be like? Man. As a 9-year-old boy, my eyes were so open to it all. I just couldn’t believe that. I couldn’t believe what that society was getting away with. So I was politicized at a young age. But I also moved from one country to the next to the next, and realized that we’re all so different—there’s so many different politics in play, so many different languages, different religions, different experiences, different climates, and different jokes—but there was something much more fundamental that united us all, and it’s that we all sleep at night, we all like to eat and drink, keep warm, have friends, make love, laugh, and talk. There are some very, very basic human needs, and we all need them. The things that bind us are much more fundamental than the things that don’t. The things that don’t are the constructs that we add on to what is really a very basic animal existence. A lot of those constructs are fantastically interesting and a lot of them are appalling, and designed to enslave and make a profit for people.
To end things on a more up note, your character in Measure for Measure has a very cute dog who you kiss. Are you a dog person? Do you have any yourself?
I’m a cat person. I love all animals, actually—even ants. Any sentient thing. I’m a big tree lover. I love trees! But dogs? I’ve never had a dog. I love dogs but we’ve always had cats as a kid growing up, and so I continued that. I’ve had a wonderful string of fabulous cats. Our current cat is called Slim, and he’s a 19-year-old Abyssinian. And I adore him.
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