V FOR VENDETTA: Talking With Hugo Weaving

Thu, February 16th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

TV/Film
Jonah Weiland, Executive Producer/Publisher

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    Rounding out today's coverage of the "V for Vendetta" feature film, CBR News is happy to present our interview with actor Hugo Weaving, done as part of a round-table interview in London, England on June 1st, 2005.

    Weaving plays the role of V in the film, the anti-hero who'll go to extreme lengths to support his beliefs and his fight against the oppressive State government in control of Britain. V's identity is never revealed, but that's less important than what the character stands for and the affect he has on those people who come into his life.

    Originally, actor James Purefoy was to play the role of V, but soon after starting production he was replaced by Weaving. This meant that Weaving came into the role after pre-production on the film was completed and shooting began.

    Taking into consideration the qualities of the character, the fact that he's masked throughout the entire film and his last minute addition to the film, Weaving was presented with a number of challenges as an actor. Weaving spoke about those challenges and much more in this 25 minute interview.

    Hey Hugo, would you start out by talking about the challenges of working inside the mask? Was the mask ever off?

    Yeah, funnily enough, V impersonates a couple of other characters in the story, so the first three days shooting I was not in the mask, which was actually a good introduction to everyone on set. The challenges of working in the mask, it's a very fixed mask, so it's a fixed impressions which you can change with certain angles of the head, movement and by lighting. So, it's not just an actor's challenge. It's a challenge that's faced by those who created the mask, the actor himself and the director. It's a collaborative challenge. The main challenge for me is that he has a fixed expression, yet he talks a lot. In the book you can read what he has to say, but you're not looking at his face. You read what he says and then you're onto the next scene. So, you can take that character in on the page, but on screen he's there going [mumbles mumbles]. [laughs]

    V doesn't have a name, there's not much back story beyond his experience in the camp, so how do you build up a performance from the inside?

    Particularly if you've been asked to do something and within a few days you fly half-way around the world and jump into the skin of the character. There was really no time to think about that either, really, so I decided very early on for me it was a technical exercise and I wasn't going to get emotionally engaged in the problems of the mask at all, but do everything I can to make that mask work. That's my brief.

    You know, the thing is he's an idea anyway. Yes, he's a human being, but you never find out who he is. The writers of the piece have never really addressed exactly who he is, so I certainly can't go there either.

    So, do you McKellen it?

    McKellen it?

    Yeah, do you …

    Do you mean Sir Ian? [Laughs]

    Yeah, do you chew up the inside of the mask or something?

    Yeah, he loves language, certainly, as does Ian, and I think V does, but he's got a very strong sense of purpose and direction. He's a tortured character as well, so that's his human side I suppose. He has been physically tortured. If you're looking for a real human being underneath the mask, then here's someone who's been mightily, mentally and physically abused by the state and who's seeking to take some sort of personal revenge against those people who have abused him. Then there's the heroic side of him, if you like, which are the liberators. So, he's both an avenging angel and a liberating, hopeful idea and if you push that idea strong enough, making things can change.

    Your primary tool as an actor in that situation is your voice. So, do you have to avoid making it too much of a voice performance?

    What we had to do vocally is on the day we'd have to capture the performance as much as we can by micing the mask, but that still sounds muffled, so the whole performance will and has been already worked on in post-production, recreating that performance on the day. So, it's important to try and find the performance on the day so that it can be recreated, but then down the track, even after it's cut, there are things we can inject or change. So, there are positive sides to it well.

    Do you see a thematic link between "The Matrix" and "V for Vendetta?"

    I haven't thought about it, to be honest. I'm sure Larry and Andy, who adapted the book, [may have found some] and I get they have certain interests that have to do with the individual, individual responsibility and state control, which are thematically similar in both. A large controlling body and imprisoned individuals, that's very similar in both.

    You've had a relationship with James going back to "The Matrix" …

    Before that even. Yeah.

    How's it working with him now?

    Wonderful. We get along extremely well. And we've also had a social relationship as well. Prior and after working with him on "The Matrix," he was involved with a very good friend of ours and the four of us would go out together. I regard him as a good friend.

    Would you have jumped into this project so last minute if it hadn't been a Wachowski-family kind of film?

    Yeah, I think so. It made it a lot easier when I got to Berlin that they were there, that I knew them all, that I knew Owen Patterson the designer, and I knew the stunt guys, so that made it very easy. But if somebody else I didn't know had rung me up and said, "How quickly can you get to Berlin? This is the script, would you read it and give me an answer by tomorrow," I still would have said yes.

    I spoke to Terrence Stamp once, who played two comic book characters in "Superman II" and "Elektra," and he said he would always try to figure out how the character moved in-between the panels. Did you do anything like that or take movements from V in the book?

    No, no time. Really no time. V in the book has a great stillness about him. Yes, he moves and you see him sitting atop rooftops, but he has a great stillness about him. The thing is, in making this mask work-- that's the hard thing-- I just had to trust my intuition about any physical movements, whether they were head movements or body movements. I didn't really have time to think or plan, I just had to get into the skin of the character and move around based on my limited knowledge of what the story was about at the time. That's why I say, for me, it was a technical thing, because I literally didn't have the time to go into all that. I said to them straight away, "Look, I'm here and I'm going to try and make it work, but if it ain't working just tell me and we'll change."

    Was there a moment when you were on the set when you said, "OK, I've got this figured out?"

    They seemed quite pleased on the first day and they saw elements that were working well. James wasn't ripping his hair out! I was getting a lot of positive feedback.

    How quick was it from the point that you got the call and then began filming?

    I think I was here in about six days, well, in Berlin anyway. And I think I had about four days there before I started, so that was good to get to know what was going on once I was there.

    You mentioned the stillness of the character. Was there anything else you tried to do with the physicality of the character?

    I'm actually not really trying to. You can only use that to a certain extent on the film.

    In the book it seems like with the art they underscore that he's more of an idea than a person by showing the costume as very empty. When he moves it seems like he's leading with the mask and the cape flows behind. Is anything like that going on?

    Maybe, you'd have to James about that, really. To me he's a human being under the mask, but you never see his face and you don't ever find out exactly who he is and that's important. He is the idea, yet you need to feel that he's a real human being and yet not ask too many questions because if you ask too many questions about it the question becomes, "How the hell does he do all these things?" You just can't go too far down that track either.

    It's a pretty heavy movie, were you able to have any fun during the production?

    Yeah, yeah. When you take something as a challenge, something like this, which sounded very difficult, well that's quite fun itself. And not having any time to think about things before hand was quite liberating. Often you get chained down by our thoughts and those thoughts can become fears and sometimes you just gotta go, "Yep, allright, I'll be there now." When you've suddenly jumped in and don't think about something, it's much more exciting and much more fun. That's how I've been working on this.

    You have the chance to do both big movies and small movies. This is clearly one of those big ones. Do you see yourself sticking with the big productions only?

    The size of the film has never been important to me. If the script is interesting and I like the director, then that's what keys me into it. Actually, to be perfectly honest, I've tended to choose the small films and I think that's because they're probably more interesting scripts most of the time, I suppose. That's the most important thing to me.

    It sounds like you've been freed by the last minute nature of this work.

    Yeah, absolutely. In your life I'm sure there have been times where people have asked, "Can you be here now and do this?" There's an excitement there. You sort of feel like you're flying a bit! That's probably how life should be like.

    With such a quick turn around between the moment where you were asked to step into the role and start filming, did you have a chance to read the graphic novel?

    No, I didn't. When I got to Berlin, I saw Owen Patterson to have a look at the mask and he then gave me a copy of the novel. I didn't read the whole thing, but I looked at it fairly intensively, but then I realized structurally how different it was from the film, so I decided that with all I had to work on with the film, I'd put my time into that. If there were questions that were not answered for me in particular scenes, I would then go back and refer to scenes in the graphic novel, which I did do on two or three occasions. That was very interesting, actually, to have a look at certain scenes and go, "Well, what's being said in this scene or what's being said physically that might be of use to me?"

    Do you remember what scenes those were?

    Yeah, the thing that I always thought was the most difficult and potentially incredible was the scene when he comes out of the interrogation and back into the Shadow Gallery, because suddenly your asked to believe, well, that's when you realize that's when V's been the one torturing her. For someone who's not read the graphic novel and is watching the film for the first time - which is what we're doing, we're making a film here - making that scene work was potentially the most difficult one, and it kind of was, too. But I think we made it work. So, that's when I went back to the book.

    What about the holding her head in the water? Did you do that?

    Yes, but I didn't shave the hair, though. [laughs] They wouldn't let me.

    How many takes did you do with the dunking? [laughs]

    Quite a lot! We had a camera underneath; it was a glass bottom bucket. Then we had cameras on the side. So, just getting the right level of the face in the water, we had quite a lot of shots.

    Would you do that actor's thing at the day and remind yourself, "I'm just acting, that's not really me!"

    Oh, no! [laughs] She was very sweet. [While doing those scenes] I'd ask, "Are you allright?" And she'd always say, "Oh, I'm just fine!" [laughs]

    What about working within the Shadow Gallery? Everything I've read and seen makes it sound very impressive.

    Yeah, it's a beautiful set.

    Did it help bring out your performance as well?

    Yeah, I have to say when I first walked onto the set with James it was wonderful to walk into there. We were actually shooting that bucket scene at the time, so we wandered onto the Shadow Gallery and we were talking about the first scene I was going to shoot in the mask which was the scene after the interrogation. It's one of the longest scenes in the film. So, it was great to be in there and I became quite excited about.

    Have you ever felt like you were playing a super hero in this movie? He's sort of a Batman like character.

    He is, isn't he? Guy Fawkes is a great hero of mine, anyway, and funnily enough Larry and I both read "The Gunpowder Plot" [a book by Hugh Ross Williamson that explains what happened almost 400 years ago when barrels of gunpowder were found under the House of Lords] when we were doing "The Matrix." I don't know if he was reading it with this in mind, but I was reading it because I'm a history freak. So, we talked about that a lot. Guy Hawkes was a big hero of mine, in fact the entire Gunpowder Plot is an extraordinary story and one that should be in film.

    Yeah, V's taken on that role. Yes, he's a hero, but I'm not big on heroes anyway. He's not just a hero. He's a lot of other things.

    V's quest for freedom and revenge tends to take the form of artistic expression a bit, as that seems to be what represents freedom to him in that he has all the movies, books, Shakespeare, etc.

    Well, also he's actually maintaining them, keeping them, he's a guardian of all those things. And there are a number of characters in the film, like the character Gordon Dietrich that Stephen Fry plays, who also has his illegal horde of things which the State no longer allows to keep. So, in one way he's amassed all these treasure together to maintain and keep them there. That's one side of his character. The other one is certainly the dark, vengeful angel who wants to do the people in who have put him where he is. So, he has a vendetta, he's out to get them. There's the other part of him, which is to prod people to think and take responsibility for their own lives. There's quite a few different sides to the character.

    The original writer has gone on record that he's not real happy with this movie being made. How does that affect you or do you think about it al all?

    I don't know. I personally don't think about it a great deal. I don't know why he isn't happy, but that's neither here nor there really. My take is that Larry and Andy are both great graphic novel buffs and they're also great, cutting edge film makers, so if anyone is going to take a novel like this and put it on to the screen, they're probably the best people to do it. Because I think they understand both mediums very well and they love both mediums very much.

    You've spent a lot of time in genre films with "The Matrix" and "The Lord of the Rings" films and now "V for Vendetta." With your next project, would you like to get away from that and go with something smaller? Something a bit more mainstream?

    I don't know. I guess I tend to go back to Sydney and work in smaller budget Australian films. That's where I'd always love to work more often than not. For me, these films are anomalies, but things that I love doing. That's where I always return.

    You're probably the best known actor in the world who doesn't ever have to go to Hollywood.

    Cool, isn't it. [laughs]

    Have you made any Hollywood films? Really, anything shot in Los Angeles?

    No, I've never worked there.

    Do you want to? [laughs]

    No, I've loved working with Larry and Andy and with James on this. And I loved working with Peter Jackson in New Zealand. So that was, New Zealand, Europe and Australia. A little bit in San Francisco, which was great, but San Francisco ain't Hollywood.

    The holy grail has always been Hollywood, but your experience as an actor has been quite different.

    It certainly hasn't been for me, but I don't know particularly why that is. I suppose I have a European bent coming from England and then moving to Australia. The films I loved watching when I was, 15, 16 and 17 were actually European films and that's where I got my excitement for film, watching films from here. I suppose that's just where my interests lie. And the Australian film industry fits somewhere in their half-way and it has it's own, very strong cultural identity. As it's where I love, that's the sort of film I like being a part of because that's who I feel I am.

    Are you a comic book fan at all?

    I wouldn't say I'm a huge fan, but yeah I have picked up the odd comic and graphic novel and enjoyed them. I bought a couple for my kids just yesterday.

    How old are you children?

    16 & 12.

    What do they think about the character you're playing here?

    They've seen the mask, but they don't really know a lot about it to be honest. We had intended to go on the set together, but it just hasn't worked out. They know less about it than I do, and I don't really know much! [laughs]

    "Your Dad's playing the hero, but you can't see him."

    [laughs] Right!

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