Jacki Weaver: 'Michael Powell said I was headed for great things. He didn't tell me it would take 50 years'

Silver Linings Playbook and Animal Kingdom catapulted her to global stardom after a career stretching back to the 70s. She talks about her ‘renegade life’, her spat with Anjelica Huston and her latest role as a woman running a drag club

Jacki Weaver is thinking about how her life has changed. “To find yourself in bed with Robert De Niro is an extraordinary thing for a woman of my age,” she says, with a distinctive giggle. In 2010, she was living in Sydney and approaching pensionable age; she had a memoir under her belt and an acting career that had thrived since the 70s, but without making her famous far beyond home. A decade on, she has twice been nominated for an Oscar and is one of Hollywood’s most prolific character actors, having uprooted to Los Angeles after her unexpected success with the 2010 thriller Animal Kingdom.

As Janine “Smurf” Cody, the deadly, diminutive matriarch of a Melbourne mob family, she froze the blood without once raising her voice. Her performance drew praise from Quentin Tarantino and Pedro Almodóvar and spawned a string of T-shirts emblazoned with the character’s most memorably barbed lines: “You’ve done some bad things, sweetie,” was a favourite. There was also a US TV spin-off, with Ellen Barkin taking over the role of Janine. Most importantly, the movie brought Weaver her first Oscar nomination, at the age of 63. “I was gobsmacked,” she says. She did not even mind when she lost. “You feel a stab of disappointment and then a huge relief that you don’t have to make a speech.”

Two years later, she was nominated again for playing another mother, this one benign, loving and perpetually concerned, in Silver Linings Playbook; De Niro was her husband (hence that bed scene) and Bradley Cooper her troubled son. “When I heard about the second nomination, I ran around my hotel room screaming: ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck!’ More in shock than joy.” Her life had always been dandy, she says. “It wasn’t that I was discontented with my career in Australia. I used to get all the roles I wanted and had a great time doing them. I worried that if I went to a bigger pond I might sink. Then I went and I didn’t sink, which was a great relief.”

Weaver and Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook.
Weaver and Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook. Photograph: Jojo Whilden/AP

To paraphrase Janine: she has done some good things, sweetie: thrillers, including Steve McQueen’s Widows, Park Chan-wook’s Stoker and Susanne Bier’s Netflix sensation Bird Box, as well as comedies such as The Five-Year Engagement and the Melissa McCarthy vehicle Life of the Party, plus a pair of James Franco-directed films about film-making, The Disaster Artist and Zeroville. Her wigs alone are usually a treat. As a 60s film editor in Zeroville, she sported a droopy pudding-bowl cut, while in The Polka King she chose a severe corkscrew perm to play Jack Black’s volatile mother-in-law. She imagines an assessment of her career: “‘Can’t act, but does good wigs …’”

This month, she gets a rare leading role in Stage Mother, a kind of west coast Kinky Boots, in which she plays Maybelline Metcalf, a mild-mannered Texan who takes over the running of the San Francisco drag club owned by her late son. Maybelline transforms its fortunes and dispenses the sort of maternal advice that she was too shy, and too cowed by her homophobic husband, to lavish on her own child. “Luckily, I’ve never had a husband like hers,” she says. “Her rejection of her son when he came out had a lot to do with her husband’s anger and misgivings, and she’s always regretted it. When her son dies, it’s devastating.”

She turns briefly wistful. “I have this fantasy where a young person who hasn’t come out yet takes their parents to see Stage Mother. That could ease the way for them to deal with the issue.” Her plucky performance lends some vim and momentum to the film, not least in the scene where she pulls a gun on a thug and tells him: “Dropping a woman-beater is on mah bucket-list.”

Her own life could not be more different. “Maybelline’s vistas were quite small, whereas I’ve always led a fairly renegade life. The gay scene in Australia has been close to my heart for at least 40 or 50 years and I’ve been queen of the Mardi Gras. Some women are very drawn to gay men; I’m one of them. I think my husband and my son are the only straight men I know.” What is the attraction? “I’m no psychoanalyst, but perhaps it’s something to do with my father. He was a lawyer, very gentle, never raised his voice. I think I always wanted a man like him. Bully boys and tough guys have never appealed to me. I find them an awful waste of time.”

Have any of her previous partners been jealous of her closeness to gay men? “I can think of one who felt envious. But you’re talking to a woman of 73 – I’ve had a lot of relationships. I was even married to a gay man. Well, bisexual.” Did she know about his sexuality before she married him? “I thought he was just gay!” she says. “He’d only been with men. Then he changed for a fag hag.”

She has worn that label with pride ever since she was introduced at a gala concert in front of thousands of people as “the smallest fag hag in Australia”. She sighs at the memory. “I thought it was such a lovely title, so I kept it.” And how small is small? “Four-foot 11 and three-quarter inches. I don’t quite make five feet.” She suspects that her size and her cherubic looks held her back. “I don’t think I became a character actor until my 50s. Before then, I was pretty limited, because I’d always been tiny with a baby face.” Her Tweetie Pie voice and Barbara Windsor chirpiness made her a natural fit for lighter material. “I never used to get the femme fatale or the interesting villainous roles. It was quite frustrating.”

Among her earliest jobs in the 60s was a walk-on in They’re a Weird Mob, a comedy that the British director Michael Powell made in Australia following the fallout from his controversial Peeping Tom. She also got down to the final two or three candidates for the female lead in Powell’s Age of Consent; in that instance, she was beaten to the punch by Helen Mirren. “It’s no disgrace to lose out to Helen,” she says. She still has the correspondence Powell sent her after they worked together. “To write to a bit-part actress is an incredibly kind thing to do. He was such a charming man. I framed the letter. It says: ‘You are headed for great things.’ Though he didn’t tell me it would take another 50 years.”

Weaver with Joel Edgerton in Animal Kingdom.
Weaver with Joel Edgerton in Animal Kingdom. Photograph: Narelle Sheehan/AP

I tell her she is being modest. After all, she was a fully fledged star in Australia in the 70s, appearing in a string of sex comedies – Stork, Alvin Purple, Petersen – that broke domestic box-office records. “I did have a burst of cinema success,” she concedes. “Everyone went a bit wild in the 70s. There was a lot of sexual freedom and that’s reflected in those films.” It was not all pants-down romps. She also played the maid in Peter Weir’s atmospheric Picnic at Hanging Rock, about three girls who vanish during a school trip. “You know it’s not true, don’t you?” she asks. I confess I did not. “At the time, we were discouraged from saying it was fiction, because people thought it really happened.” I ask what she remembers about the shoot. “I fell in love with the props master,” she says.

Her manner is never less than endearing, although the claws can come out if need be. When Anjelica Huston disparaged Poms, in which Weaver, Diane Keaton and Pam Grier played ageing cheerleaders, she was quick to respond. Weaver told a reporter: “I would say she must be going through the menopause, but she must have had that ages ago.”

It is unusual for her to hold back. She once admitted on television that she had been sexually abused as a child by a family friend. The interviewer on that occasion was the Australian broadcaster Derryn Hinch, to whom she had twice been married. “Why did we break up again?” he asked at one point during the broadcast. “Because I ran off with another man,” she replied. “And I’m sorry, but he was lovely.” Homegrown audiences are accustomed to her blithe candour. “I believe in sex on a first date,” she once said. “Otherwise, how do you know if a second date is worth the effort?”

She has not been shy on screen, either, with sex scenes ranging from the tender and explicit in Petersen to the comic in The Polka King, where she enjoys a spot of motel-room foreplay with Jason Schwartzman. “Oh, I love Jason,” she cries. “Isn’t he good? I said: ‘I’m a woman in my 70s. I can’t do a sex scene.’ Jason put me at my ease. He’s a wonderful young man.” No slouch at foot-rubs either, by the looks of it. “I’ve got webbed toes, you know! Could you see them in the film?”

Recent work has tended more towards violence than sex. She had a memorable death scene in Bird Box, stabbing herself in the neck with a pair of scissors. “And I was shot by John Cusack once,” she says brightly, referring to the 2014 thriller Reclaim. “When it comes to fake blood, I’m like a 15-year-old boy. I love it. I don’t want to watch it, but I love taking part.”

With everything that has happened since she published her memoir in 2005, a second volume is surely overdue. “Only last week the publisher was on to me again: ‘Can’t you write another book during lockdown?’ It’s funny. We think we’re going to get so much done and we don’t, really. Time contracts.”

I ask what is on the cards for the rest of the day. “It’s 26C here, so my husband and I are going into the garden to fiddle with some plants,” she says. Husband number four – or five, if you count Hinch twice – is the South African actor Sean Taylor, whom she married in 2003. He was a regular on Neighbours until his character was killed by his son (cause of death: an ornament to the head). How did Weaver manage to avoid the Aussie soap circuit? “It’s not that I’m a snob. It just never happened. I was visiting some cousins in the Lake District in the early 90s and they didn’t believe I’d made it, because I’d never been on Neighbours or Home and Away.” Another giggle. I hope they believe her now.

Stage Mother is in cinemas from 24 July


Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Post your questions for Jacki Weaver
What will you ask the Oscar-nominated star of Animal Kingdom, Silver Linings Playbook and the forthcoming Father Stu?

Catherine Shoard

29, Apr, 2022 @11:05 AM

Article image
Jacki Weaver: ‘I can be a cow, but I had a very polite English mother who taught me to be kind’
The twice Oscar-nominated star of Animal Kingdom and Silver Linings Playbook – as well as the upcoming Father Stu – on mangling accents, Vegemite and preteen fanmail

As told to Catherine Shoard

05, May, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
Theresa Ikoko's fantasy festival: great glass elevators, John Boyega and her brother's jollof rice
The Rocks writer and playwright plans to fly her guests across the London skyline to sip rum punch while watching Babymother and Bullet Boy

As told to Rich Pelley

28, Aug, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Bird Box review – Sandra Bullock's Netflix thriller is a bird-brained mess
Despite some tense moments, this apocalyptic shocker is a disappointingly clunky waste of a star-studded cast

Amy Nicholson

14, Nov, 2018 @8:02 PM

Article image
Taraji P Henson: 'Hollywood didn't grasp my talent'
Harvey Weinstein obstructed her rise – now, with her new film What Men Want, she is calling the shots. But what does she make of her Empire co-star Jussie Smollett’s hate-crime controversy?

Ryan Gilbey

08, Mar, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Tara Fitzgerald: 'I didn't think I was very talented. I didn't have that fight'
In the 1990s, she was everywhere – on film and TV and in the theatre – but then she almost disappeared. She talks about eschewing Hollywood, and being close to Harvey Weinstein

Hadley Freeman

18, Apr, 2019 @4:00 PM

Article image
Flicky leaks: when should you pee during long films?
Avengers: Endgame is three hours long – a test for those with weak bladders. We meet the man who knows when to dash for the loos without missing any crucial action

Ryan Gilbey

02, May, 2019 @1:37 PM

Article image
Swabs, masks, action! Film-making through a pandemic
British film-makers are back at work – and going to extraordinary lengths to protect cast and crew from Covid-19. Is it possible to make great movies behind face masks and Plexiglass?

Steve Rose

30, Jul, 2020 @3:49 PM

Article image
Has Terrordome's time come? How a black British film found its moment
The dystopian sci-fi film was dismissed by critics for its nihilistic view of race relations when it was released in 1995. But, 25 years on, it chimes with our times

Ellen E Jones

23, Jul, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
Together in the dark: what we miss about going to the movies
Cinemas are closed, but the silver screen’s primal magic lingers – and streaming is no substitute. From close-ups to communal screams, Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch explains why cinema needs a crowd

Walter Murch

15, May, 2020 @5:00 AM