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Hugo the Hermit

Hugo Weaving is one of the greats. From getting frocked up in drag in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to playing poker-faced Agent Smith in The Matrix or Elrond of Rivendell in The Lord of the Rings, his roles are as diverse as the landscapes in which they appear.

With an incredible ability to adapt and transform, Weaving portrays a forest-dwelling hermit in The Rooster, the directorial debut from Mark Leonard Winter. Tierney Seccull caught up with the legend of the silver screen to chat about the film, his career, and table tennis.

Thanks for your time, Hugo – it’s an honour to be chatting! Can you tell us a bit about your character, Mit?
He’s a man who’s withdrawn from the world for various reasons, and made the choice to disappear into the woods ... but it all stems from childhood trauma, I think, and associated alcoholism. That's Mit, in a nutshell, he’s a hermit who lives in the woods.

He’s got health issues and used to being on his own, but he’s still searching for something – he’s still trying to work something out, to nut out his problematic past. He’s got a certain wisdom but it’s a bit left of field. He’s got a sense of humour as well, and he’s an ideocratic, mercurial creature, who you probably wouldn't really want to get too close to. But on the other hand, there might be rewards if you do get close to him.

I know what you mean, I found Mit quite endearing, he tugged at my heart strings at times. I wanted to give him a big hug but keep him at arm’s length at the same time! 
[Laughs] Yeah, I think that’s really the reason why he's withdrawn, he knows that about himself, he knows he’s a loose cannon. He has felt scarred by the world, so it’s easier to withdraw from it … It’s easier to blame the world and push it away than it sometimes is to live in it.

Mit deals with some heavy topics and goes to pretty dark places – how did you prepare for that?
One of the greatest helps for me was a wonderful Australian Story on Gregory Smith, his story is amazing. For me, when I’m looking at a role, the script is always the first jumping-off point ... there’s a wealth of fabulous information and stories in Mark’s script that might be enough, plus imagination, to develop a character. But I always try, if I can, to find someone who’s like that character and be with them and talk to them.

In this case, it was quite hard – you can imagine a hermit doesn’t want to be found! [laughs] So I had to use my imagination, but I did lean on that Australian Story quite heavily, and there’s a TED Talk this guy does as well. He was a fascinating character, who had quite a lot of trauma as a child … He eventually, after trying to live in the world, disappeared to live in the forest on his own for some years. I thought his story was very moving and very powerful, and I got his life struggle, so I sort of used that sense with Mit, he’d been struggling ever since he was a kid.

The film is the directorial debut by actor-turned-director Mark Leonard Winter, and I’d say he’d be pretty chuffed to have someone of your calibre say yes to his film, so I’m wondering why you did that?
Mark and I have known each other for a while. We’ve worked together about four times, this is our fifth, and did a film some years back called Healing. We were both away from home … staying in the same digs, so we got to know each other very well, working on set every day. There's a lot of mutual respect there

He wrote The Rooster because he needed to and he wanted to, but when he started writing, he started to think about Mit and who would play him. He’s always said he wrote the character with me in mind – not that I am the character, but that he imagined me playing it. I read a number of different drafts and found them really interesting, I was wanting to do it straight from the word go. I knew it would take a while for him to get the money up, it’s so hard these days and it’s a tiny budget, but I was always very keen to work with him and to play that character.

That’s something you have done over the years, obviously you’ve had your massive blockbusters, but you've been very open to smaller independent projects. I interviewed Ivan Sen last year about Loveland, which you are also in, and I asked him what made you perfect for the role and he said,“sometimes you actually write roles for specific actors and you can’t get more perfect than that!”
[Laughs] Well Ivan and I had worked together before as well, and with regard to Ivan, initially, my brother was writing film reviews for the Canberra Times at one stage and was interviewing Ivan and I said, “Oh, please say hi to Ivan for me, I’m just such a huge fan.”

I had met him many, many years before, and quite soon after that I got a message from Ivan. I reached out to him because I think he’s amazing ... and once we’d worked together, the next script he was writing was with me in mind. These relationships become very important, and you develop a short hand when you work with someone. When Mark was directing The Rooster – he’s such a fantastic actor, he’s worked with me as an actor before – we talk in the same way … We felt we were on the same page.

Those sorts of relationships, and how you get to day one of shooting, is kind of important … if you've swept away issues and have good communication, then it makes day one on the set really fun and easy. And actually, it’s exciting – you can step forwards rather than backwards and sideways trying to work out how to talk to each other, you know?

Yeah, totally makes sense. And was it a long shoot, The Rooster?
No, it was such a small budget. Actually, it’s interesting [laughs] Loveland and The Rooster are perhaps the two least funded films I’ve ever worked on, but both wonderful for different reasons, and so when you don’t have much money you can’t take much time.

I shot every day for two weeks, which is not very long really … But it was great. It was cold and it was wet and it was fabulous. It was just delightful, you know? It was difficult and challenging and exciting. Mark was a fabulous presence – it’s his script, it was his property, it’s his baby – and we were all excited by it.

It was a familial situation. Geri, his partner who I’ve also worked with, was producing, Mark’s parents were there every day helping with catering – and it was on their property, with their dogs and chickens. We’d meet in their kitchen every morning and say hi and have a coffee [laughs].

It’s so funny to hear that it was such a warm and welcoming space for you, because the film portrays the opposite. And your character has quite the journey with Phoenix Raei’s character Dan, what was he like to work with?
Really beautiful. He’s very soulful, warm and really smart. He hadn’t had the sort of prep time that he would normally like to do a film like that. We’re very similar in that way, in that if you’re gonna do something, you’d need at least six weeks to prepare. To understand a character and approach them in the right way, I'll take as much time as you can give me, please!

He was busy working on something else until the last minute, and we’d only met on Zoom … and so my relationship with Phoenix was very much meeting him [the day before the shoot] and giving him a big hug, and saying “it's so lovely to meet you in the flesh, and tomorrow we have our first scene where we go to a grave and I shoot a bottle out of your hand!” It’s a good first scene because the characters don’t know each other, and we don’t know each other, so we discovered each other as the characters discovered each other.

It was absolutely delightful to work with Phoenix, we had a lot of fun.

It looked like your characters had a lot of fun, with a fair bit of table tennis action?
[Laughs] We’d often be down there between takes just hitting it backwards and forwards, so we were on the table quite a bit!

[Laughs] Oh, I love that! You've been in the acting game for decades – what’s it like to still be practising the craft you love?
I think I feel really privileged to be able to do it, you know, I love working and exploring a new character or a new challenge, whether it’s on stage or film … I love it. I love having the opportunity to explore human psyche and human relationships, and the weird characters that make up the world. It’s a pleasure.

It’s also a bit of a battle as well – it’s a complex country we live in … At a government level, we don’t really value our own culture. I think we do if we are asked, but practically from a day-to-day thing, we don’t. And so it becomes like an afterthought rather than central to who we are.

I actually think all culture is central to any people. The way in which we express who we are, the things we celebrate and how – our jokes, the world around us, the environment, our writing, our music, our stories – that’s culture. I think in this country it’s always very, very hard if you're in the arts to feel like there's an understanding from a majority of people that actually what you do is valuable ... At a profound level, you’re always fighting the predisposition to prefer something else, you know? We just don’t put culture front and centre, so that’s always a battle for me, and it’s a good battle, but it’s very disappointing sometimes.

It’s interesting, it seems like some areas are better funded – like sport for example – but the arts always seem like a bit of a battle.
I think that happens everywhere, doesn’t it? And it shouldn’t be a battle. But we certainly understand sport and we do put a lot of money into sport – and that’s great! – but we don’t really think about the arts in the same way. We tend to view sport with clarity, we view arts with suspicion… it's very clear what the arts are, but we sideline them, we make them not as important as other things, but yet we still don’t value science either, you know, so I think we’re kind of an odd culture
that hasn’t quite looked at itself properly.

Well speaking of the arts, The Rooster screens at the gorgeous Deckchair Cinema for DIFF’s closing night, and you'll be there! Are you looking forward to your visit?
I’m really excited about coming up to Darwin in the Northern Territory, I have never been, and I’ve always wanted to. So culturally, Darwin to me just seems really fascinating, so I’m really interested to get up there. I suspect and I understand that the culture in Darwin is really unique and the only place in Australia that has that particular culture, so I’m really interested in that. I'm so looking forward to it. My eyes and my arms are open – I will embrace what’s thrown at me!

The Rooster – DIFF Closing Night 
With special guests Hugo Weaving, Mark Leonard Winter & MahVeen Shahraki 

COST $15-$25 

Photos: Phoenix Raei (Dan) and Hugo Weaving (Mit) Photo: Sarah Enticknap 

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