Hugo Weaving is best known for playing a malignant computer program: the menacing, monotone-voiced villain Agent Smith from The Matrix. In recent weeks reports have made the rounds that Warner Bros are planning more instalments of the Wachowskis’ seminal spoon-bending cyber escapism yarn, sparking speculation about what that might look like. Belated sequels, for example, or a wipe-the-slate-clean remake, or something else. Screenwriter Zak Penn, however, has spoken out against “inaccurate” use of the words “reboot” and “remake”.
Weaving, on the press circuit to promote the Australian television drama Seven Types of Ambiguity, says nobody in the know has contacted him about any new Matrix movies – though he would consider appearing in them if the scripts were “really good” and came with the Wachowskis’ blessing. But “if this I something they’re seriously going ahead with, I would think they would reboot the whole thing”, he says. “And, just as The Matrix was a reiteration each time of a world, they would start again with different actors.”
Weaving may have played a highly evolved program – replete with Men in Black-style eyewear and pugnacious disdain for humankind – but is himself “a bit of a luddite”, cautious about our increased reliance on technology.
“We are heading towards a much more virtual world,” he says. “People exist in virtual worlds almost entirely a lot of the time these days, on their computers. It’s something that worries me, because I think it often robs us of our connection to other people and our connection to the natural world. So I do have an ambivalent or complex attitude towards it.”
The 57-year-old Nigerian-born Australian actor, who recently appeared as Andrew Garfield’s haunted father in Hacksaw Ridge and as a small-town hermit in the locally made mystery-drama Jasper Jones, is accustomed to fielding questions about blockbuster Hollywood productions while promoting smaller passion projects. With key (mostly supporting) roles in a swag of monolithic movie properties – including V for Vendetta, The Lord of the Rings, Captain America: The First Avenger and (as the voice of Megatron) Transformers – it is par for the course.
As is the case with other Hollywood-dabbling thespians who have gleaned worldwide fame from blockbusters while smaller, more personal work lingers in the shadows of obscurity, those familiar with Weaving only by the big marquee titles have barely scratched the surface of his talent. Some of his very best work, including gobsmacking performances in Australian indies The Interview and Last Ride, also ranks among his least-seen, hemmed into short seasons at local independent cinemas and attracting only modest attention in non-theatrical formats.
“Some of the things that are the most interesting – the most challenging, experimental or complex – are often, but not necessarily, less mainstream,” he says. “Less palatable. Too problematic. Or just low budget and therefore with not enough money to promote. There are many reasons why a lot of the more interesting stuff that I get attracted to doesn’t have such a wide audience.
“Also there’s the fact that we are in Australia. I’m sure if films of that sort of budget and complexity were in the UK, the audience for them, because of the population, would be much bigger.”
A large proportion of Australia’s relatively small population is watching for American content, Weaving says – a situation that is reflected around the world.
“The other side of that is, often the harder the job and the greater challenge for you as an actor, the less money you get for it,” he says. “The easier the ride and the less challenging it is, the more money you get. It’s absolutely insane. Doing something like Waiting for Godot for the Sydney Theatre Company, or Endgame for the Sydney Theatre Company – fabulous Beckett material – you’re getting a theatre actor’s wage and you’ve gone to the most difficult places.”
Weaving’s ability to project complicated internal emotions is on fine, grief-stricken, woebegone display in Seven Types of Ambiguity, as it was recently in Jasper Jones – both based on acclaimed Australian books.
The actor doesn’t consider it necessary to read the original text before signing on to an adaptation. In fact, he says, “It’s important to read the adaptation first, if you can. And to be very clear about what that character is, what the trajectory is, what the narrative is and what complexities are within the screenplay. In books there is then often a wealth of more material in there, usually to do with character. So for an actor the original material is really wonderful.”
Weaving’s most affecting performances tend to focus on tormented characters with mixed and opaque motivations. His enigmatic cop in 2013’s outback noir Mystery Road, for example, or his wretched former footballer junkie (opposite Cate Blanchett) in 2005’s Little Fish, or the aforementioned performances in The Interview and Last Ride. They are dark roles that take him – and the audience – to dark places. Does Weaving subsequently accumulate emotional baggage, or is it as simple as moving onto the next gig?
“As an actor things do ride through you in, I suppose, what could be seen as a damaging way, or in ways that have a lasting impact,” he says. “In real life we go through grieving. We go through emotions which are really hard. I will use a bad metaphor: it’s like you’re in a plane. It’s on fire, it’s crashing and it’s going to hit the ground. That’s real life. But, as an actor, you’ve got this fabulous ejector seat that magically saves you from dying.
“You also have the reward of working with other people and seeing that your work, collectively, has achieved something you think illuminates something about humanity. That, to me, is the great reward.”
• Seven Types of Ambiguity is on ABC TV in Australia on Thursdays at 8.30pm and on iview, and will be out on DVD on 14 June