Modern updates of Shakespeare are always a mixed bag. But for the most part, they have a tendency to open up the Bard’s work to a new generation of viewers, especially if the story being adapted keeps the basic plot but swaps out Shakespeare’s dense language for something more contemporary. It was always his intention to make his works accessible to the masses of his time, so it makes sense that having them be understandable to audiences today might be the way to go. This is the approach with the Australian production Measure for Measure, which takes a few necessary liberties with the original story and swaps out iambic pentameter for language that transforms the plot into a gritty love story told in the middle of a fairly terrifying crime drama set in Melbourne.
In the film, we track the lives of inhabitants of a housing housing project, whose paths cross after a shocking and bloody event occurs right in front of many of them. Easily the most memorable character and performance in Measure for Measure is the crime boss Duke, played by one of Australia’s favorite sons Hugo Weaving, who began his career moving from the stage to television to films like Proof and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (he even did an animal character’s voice in both Babe movies). But it was his portrayal of the cold-hearted bit of anthropomorphic code Agent Smith in all three Matrix films that brought him international attention.
For a few years, Weaving went back and forth between Smith and the elvish king Elrond in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (and naturally he showed up in some of The Hobbit films as well), and his Guy Fawkes mask in V for Vendetta is still quite a popular staple in protests of today. Rounding out his franchise work, Weaving also provided the voice of Megatron in several Transformers movies, and made his mark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe playing Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger. In the last 10 years, he’s appeared in such works as Cloud Atlas, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, Jocelyn Moorhouse’s charming The Dressmaker, and Mortal Engines.
/Film talked with Weaving from Sydney, Australia, where he was rehearsing for the first play in the Sydney Theatre Company’s first socially distanced, COVID-19-safe season, Angus Cerini’s Wonnangatta, which will open September 21. The company’s revival received state government-allocated rescue funding to help it stay afloat (more on all of this in the interview). During the course of our talk, we touch on his thoughts on modernizing Shakespeare, whether production delays to the new Matrix film will make it possible for him to appear in it, and his thoughts on how the Guy Fawkes mask meaning has changed in recent years. And for the record, we were both exhausted during this interview but for different reasons—he had just finished a long day of rehearsal for the play, so it was 9:00 P.M. in Sydney, while it was 6:00 A.M. in Chicago.
Measure for Measure is currently available on VOD.
With Measure for Measure, I was impressed with the way that the writers—Paul Ireland [who also directed] and Damian Hill—managed to preserve much of Shakespeare’s story, while altering things where necessary to make this a gritty, modern tale. Tell me about your first exposure to this version of the story. Was it a conversation or the finished screenplay?
I first met Paul and Damian at the Melbourne Film Festival [in 2015], where they had their first film Pawno, a terrific little piece. And I just got chatting to them, and we got on very well, and I said I’d like to work with them if the opportunity ever arose. So I’d talk to them every couple of years, and there were a few project that they were looking at and bouncing around, and one was an adaptation of Measure for Measure, which Damian had been particularly interested in doing, since he’s been in a production of it with the Melbourne Theatre Company. The source material was something I was aware of and seen three or four productions of over the years, so I had a sense of it and a sense of the challenges Damian was going to face updating it to contemporary Melbourne.
I thought the update would work pretty well. There were certain religious elements in it and a certain morality involved in the Elizabethan world that needed to be dealt with in this story. So there were certain aspects that I thought were more problematic to update, but they were doing it and we talked it over for a couple of years. But really my interest came in working with them, so there were various drafts I read, and they got their funding, and we pushed on ahead and there were certainly things about it that we were excited about. And then Damian [who was also slated to act in the film] tragically died just before the shoot, so we were pitched into… well, we had to stop really and decide what to do, other than grieve. I didn’t know Damian very well, but Paul was absolutely shattered because they were best friends and collaborators. We wondered if we should shut this down and push it away or do it in a year. And the consensus was, as far as we could, to kick in as soon as we could because it seemed everyone agreed that Damian would want that. But it did mean recasting the central role of Angelo [now played by Mark Leonard Winter]. It was quite a major upheaval for the film and a tragic shoot, but we all pulled together.
As you’re piecing together Duke, he’s a complex person. He seems to have a moral code that he lives by, even in his criminal world, but he’s also a stone-cold villain. In course of the story, in helping the Jaiwara character [Megan Smart], is he looking for a bit of redemption in his life?
Yeah. It’s set in this criminal world, but I didn’t want it to just be about the criminal underworld, with the notion that he’s a father figure, a king figure, a god-like figure coming to the end of his reign or his life or his tenure and ceding power to his successor, and himself having moved from a youthful position to a more moderate, older position. I felt like he was a Leer figure, if you like, someone who wanted to pass on a world yet maintain a moderate take on the future, rather than allow something extreme to come to pass, in the way the film is a battle between moderation and extremity. In a way, Jaiwara and Duke are much more moderate characters within that world. I didn’t want to focus on the fact that Duke was a crime boss. I was more interested in the notion of relinquishing power and handing power to someone who feels like family but someone who is also losing control of himself.
Overall, what is you feeling about updating Shakespeare and making it more accessible to the general public, which was always his intention when he wrote it?
Ah yes. Shakespeare was writing things that said they were set in ancient Rome, but they were all-male casts walking around in Elizabethan clothes. I mean, there were hints about Rome but they were wearing their own contemporary clothes and telling stories on stage. The notion that we should maintain Shakespeare in some sort of historically museum is crazy. They’re all classic stories that he brought into his contemporary world, and we do the same thing. Any classic story will manage to be updated; it doesn’t mean you can fit every peg into every hole, but I think with this script there are certain parts of it you have to fudge or make disappear, and other things you have to augment. That’s the slight of hand that any updating of Shakespeare will require. I’m all for it; I think it’s pretty exciting.
You have a long and storied history of playing men of authority. Have you had any thoughts about or is there a secret to playing such characters? Other than you deep voice…
[laughs] No, I don’t know. I’ve so many different roles really. It depends what you see of mine. I certainly don’t feel like a particularly authoritative human being. I feel very floored and childlike. I guess any character is a challenge, and there are elements of characters that seem far away from you and others that feel graspable—some things seem unfathomable—and that’s the attraction of acting to me, understanding other people’s psyches and human beings other than yourself. The challenge is figuring out what makes someone tick, whether they are an authority figure or not. Plenty of characters I’ve played have out of control and not authoritative, completely fearful.
But someone like Duke interested me because he’s a man who’s dying, and he’s lost his wife and child, and he’s committed at least one murder as a revenge. You asked that question before about whether he wants to atone for that, and I think that’s right, I think that would always be part of your ledger—all the sins you’ve committed, and you want some credits as well. As you get older, that sort of thinking would prey on you more and more, the desire to not leave a more chaotic world. It must be exhausting having to watch your back every five minutes—trying to stay king and stay on top, having to kill people. I wasn’t that much interested in the specifics of the criminal world; I was much more interested in the notion of stepping down and the vulnerabilities of someone who has been in power, but also has a sense of diplomacy and empathy and of their own mortality. In the play, he’s not a criminal; he’s just the Duke, so I took that as the starting point for the piece. We know what Angelo is up to, but we only get a sense that Duke may have brothels and he’s probably been involved in lending money, but he doesn’t want to know about the drugs. He’s an old-school kind of guy and is very tired. I found that interesting in him, that softness to realizing his own mortality.
Over the course of your career, you don’t have a tendency to repeat yourself in the types of roles that you do—other than the roles where you literally play the same character in multiple movies, of course. Is variety an important component to you when choosing a role? Have you ever turned something down because it felt too familiar?
Not very often. Oftentimes, it depends who you’re working with and what the script is like, and how much you really want to get involved with that. It’s an instinctive thing. Recently, I’ve played a number of characters suffering from PTSD, like four or five in a row for different reasons. Not all are contemporary pieces, and the characters weren’t all from the same walks of life, but there was something about them all that made me find them interesting, even though they were variation of these people traumatized by conflict. Prior to that, I seemed to play three or four cops, and some of them overlapped with the PTSD characters. So I’ve done similar sorts of roles before, but then I’m also working in theater as well, there’s so much variety in the approach to the work and the style of the work and the requirements of performance, and I love that, I love the challenge of expanding your mind and getting out of your comfort zone, just as I enjoy entirely different books from one to the next. I’m interested in opening my mind up to different ways of seeing the world, and when I read a script that is different, it makes me think in a different way. That in itself is attractive to me.
Back in January, I saw an interview with you where someone asked you if you were going to be in the new Matrix film, which had just started shooting. At the time, it seemed like schedules weren’t going to work out because you were getting ready to do a play at the National Theatre, and they were shooting at a certain name. Now, everyone’s schedules have been thrown into a shredder, and I’m wondering if there’s now a chance that you might be able to appear in it.
Sadly, no. They’re shooting in Berlin now. Lana [Wachowski] rang me at the beginning of last year, saying that she wanted to get everybody back together, and she wanted me to go over and do a reading with Carrie-Anne [Moss] and Keanu [Reeves], and I couldn’t because I was doing something, but I was interested in talking to her and seeing them again. We’d done so much work together, and it would have been really great. I had some reservations about going back into the Matrix. I really wanted to know why we were doing it and what’s to be gained, apart from making money [laughs]. I don’t mean me; I mean Warner Bros. But there’s got to be a good reason to revisit a franchise, and it was wonderful, the first Matrix and then doing V for Vendetta and Cloud Atlas—I felt very much a part of their family. But I’d just gotten this offer from the National Theatre, and then the official offer came from Warners, so I rang Lana straight away and said, “I’m in. I really want to do it, but I really want to do this play as well.” I had the dates for the play and the dates for The Matrix, and it felt to me like we could make it all work, but it about putting those days in May, June, July, rather than January, February, March. It was doable, but Lana got worried and said it wasn’t going to be possible, so it didn’t happen.
It won’t be the same without you. You mentioned V for Vendetta, the Guy Fawkes mask has taken on such a significance in this country…
Well, it’s got me worried. The right-wing patriot people are wearing it now.
Well that’s quite a shift from where it was with the Occupy movement and just how it started in general. How does that land with you?
Just seeing those masks recent being worn by far-right groups, I felt “There you go. Everything in Trump’s America get co-opted. Everything said is the opposite.” It’s unbelievably Orwellian. It’s extraordinary to me, and he gets away with it. So those masks to me, I get it in one way why someone from the far-right believes in freedom to do what they want. They might see themselves in that mask, and they somehow see themselves in it. The original Guy Fawkes and the plotters were disgruntled Catholics trying to blow up the houses of Parliament in England. It was a pretty major terrorist plot, but they were being persecuted by James I’s government and by Elizabeth, so there is a historical reason for it all, and I find that interesting.
But when you throw history out, you lose sense of what everything is, and nothing makes sense anymore. But my original V for Vendetta mask sits on my shelf—I’m looking at it now—it’s really quite iconic, and it’s extraordinary how it means so much to so many people. For me, it’s a rebellious mask; it’s questioning government and corruption and the government doing what they want without answering to the people. I think it represents, at the very least, a hearty questioning of authority, but it certainly shouldn’t represent racists, for example. But that idea of terrorist vs. freedom fighter is absolutely embodied in that mask. It depends on which side of the fence you sit.
I want to ask you about this play you’re working on right now. I didn’t realize until recently the significance of this production and brining Sydney theater back to life.
Yeah! It’s a play called Wonnangatta—it’s a place in Country Victoria, up in the Alps. It’s a play based on a real event that took place in 1918, during the first World War, at a homestead way out in the middle of nowhere, two days ride from anywhere. A body was found by a friend of the dead guy, and co-opted a group to try and find out what happened. There was an inquiry, but they never find out who killed him. Then the person they thought was most likely to have killed him was found dead, not very far away. So basically there was a double murder, and no one knew what happened. So that’s the place, and it’s a piece of storytelling for two men, myself and Wayne Blair, whose a wonderful actor and director, and it’s got the most extraordinary vernacular poetry; it’s a contemporary play but it’s set back then. It’s just two men on stage, telling the audience the story of what is happening to them in the now. It’s quite austere and classical; we don’t at stuff out, we just tell the story, both in character and in storytelling mode at the same time.
It’s a wonderful piece and it’s fiendishly hard, and it was scheduled last year to be on stage this year. And of course all the theaters have been closed. The last thing I did was at the National Theater [Tony Kushner’s The Visit, opposite Lesley Manville), and we were closed down, so in a funny way it seems right that I’m helping to reopen theater here. But we’ve got an 850-seat theater, and we’ll only be allowed to have 147 people in there, so it will be an interesting and unusual, but it will also be great. It’s overbooked already. It’s exciting to be working again, because I’ve had five months with nothing to do. To be honest, I loved having some time off and have a family around me and a roof over my head and a little bit of money in the bank, so I’m mindful of the fact that I’m very privileged, but it’s great to be working with a small group of people on this in a creative way again.
It’s inspiring to see a country get its act together enough to open theaters again.
I know. You guys have really copped it, so it’s been a nightmare in so many places in the world. But we look at New Zealand and wish we had their situation. They’re great. Look, every country is suffering but we haven’t suffered quite as badly in the death department. But in terms of lockdowns and shutdowns, I think everyone is feeling the pinch of wanting to get back.
Thanks so much for talking at the end of a busy day for you. Best of luck with the film and the play.
Thank you for getting up so early. Cheers, mate.
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