CS Interview: Hugo Weaving Talks Measure for Measure
To celebrate the release of Paul Ireland’s gritty adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, ComingSoon.net had the opportunity to speak with the film’s star Hugo Weaving (The Lord of the Rings franchise, The Matrix franchise, V for Vendetta). The actor discussed his role in the flick and also went into great detail about all things Shakespeare and acting. You can purchase or rent the new film here!
Here’s the official synopsis for Measure for Measure: “An improbable love affair flares up between Karima, a modern Muslim girl, and Claudio, a local musician, in Melbourne’s most notorious housing estate, where ruthless gangs rule, drug abuse spreads and racial tension grows.”
ComingSoon.net: How did you get involved with Measure for Measure?
Hugo Weaving: I saw a film that Paul Ireland and Damian Hill had made together. And Damian acted in it, Paul directed it, a film called Pawno, which I absolutely loved. It was set in contemporary Melbourne, a suburb, and saw it about three years before we worked on Measure for Measure. And I met them then and I just was really interested in working with them because I knew that they’d made that with a lot of determination and good humor and good fellowship and with a minimum budget. And they’d done a fantastic job, so I was just interested in working with them, to be honest. And we talked about a few projects and one of them was this Measure for Measure, was then called M for M. And Damian had written a screenplay for it, which I then read and we talked about over a couple of years’ period, various drafts. And they got their funding and they wanted me to play Duke, and I was really taken with actually the character of Duke.
I thought he was very well-written. I think there were all sorts of other issues with the script that we were continuing to work on, but I was sort of committed to working with them, and I was committed to playing this particular role. I was just interested in all the complexities within that character so I could go figure if you like, he’s like a King Lear character. He’s stepping down. He’s very aware of his own mortality. And even though he’s a crime figure, he’s a crime boss, he’s actually a man of moderation, a certain amount of wisdom that had come through living through so much, a great deal of guilt, perhaps for certain things he’s done, a great deal of grief. Lost his wife and child and a great deal of empathy for other characters within the film. And he has a certain code, his sort of moral and ethical code. You know, he’s an old school kind of gangster, if you like. And it wasn’t so much the underworld that I was interested in, but I was interested in that concept, that idea of relinquishing power and sensing your own decline, which is all inside that character. So that’s really why I was interested in doing it.
CS: Well, so how familiar were you with the original Shakespeare play?
Weaving: I’ve never been in a production of Measure for Measure, but I’ve seen I think four or five productions, actually, unusually. Yeah, probably about four or five. And always been fascinated by elements within it and thought other elements within the play incredibly tricky, which I don’t think I’m the first person to say that. I mean, they’re problem plays of Shakespeare’s, but not because they’re problematic to do, but I think they are. I think Measure for Measure is an incredibly dark play. And there are certain aspects of the morality tale, which are very hard for us to take these days. There’s certain aspects of it which are very difficult to take. But there are other aspects of Measure for Measure, which seem very, very present, actually.
So yeah, I knew the play, but had never investigated it as a performer, never been involved in a production of it. But Damian had and was really keen to set it in contemporary Melbourne in Council Flats in Melbourne. So and I thought that was a pretty wonderfully brave and interesting idea. There were all sorts of issues with how do you make that reality, the morality of the original play work in contemporary Australia? And there’s something that they’ve found with the Jaiwara, Karima and Farouk characters, the intense religious sort of hold that the brother, the Farouk character has on his sister. It’s both familial and there’s a male/female domination. There’s a religious dictate and there’s also that their father figure has gone.
So I think some of his extreme morality plays well into this. And then, you’ve also got sort of the code and the chaos of the younger generation coming through, wanting to sell crack cocaine on the streets and make money that way. And so, there was quite an extreme sense of darkness and light and of chaos and balance, I suppose, within the piece that I thought could be perhaps contained in a screenplay. You know, I don’t know if you know that Damian Hill died the day before we shot the film. He was going to play Angelo and had written the piece and would’ve been co-directing and producing it. So this project’s really, there’s a lot of tragedy both in the piece itself, but much more for the people making the film. And it was – yeah. So that has informed the experience for all of us hugely.
CS: It’s interesting how you describe the play as being dark when it is typically referred to as a comedy.
Weaving: Yeah, that’s right.
CS: So when you guys approached it, did you approach it as a dark comedy?
Weaving: Yeah, no, well, we did talk about certain comic elements, but no, we didn’t look at it as a comedy. And I think all of — look, I think all great Shakespeare plays have great, fabulous comedy in them. I mean, Hamlet’s a case in point. You move from a clown grave digger talking to another clown grave digger into a scene where the body of a beautiful woman arrives and she goes into the grave and another man leaps into the grave declaring his love for her. And then, her brother drags him out and they start fighting. It’s like intense life and death mixed up with comedy and philosophy about life and death. So I think Shakespeare’s, that’s why he’s so great, is that even in the darkest moments, there are ways of looking at life that make you laugh, yeah.
CS: Okay, so I watched online you performed a soliloquy of Hamlet.
Weaving: Right, yeah.
CS: And I just got to know, how difficult is Shakespeare to pull off?
Weaving: I think it’s interesting because, yeah, the Sydney Theatre Company, basically because they haven’t been putting on plays this year, although I’m now rehearsing one with them. We’re about to open in about three weeks in a sort of social distancing theater. But yeah, they were basically trying to ask people to do things to help raise money for them because they weren’t doing any shows, you know? So I’ve been working with them since I was about 21, and one of the characters that I never got to play was Hamlet. And Tim Minchin, the musician/writer/composer/actor, who you may or may not know of, wonderful character, he did a soliloquy of Hamlet. And I had been thinking the same thing, although I was looking at all sorts of other things. I was looking at all sorts of plague things from The Decameron to The Diary of the Plague Year. I was trying — or Camus’ The Plague, reading sections from that. And then — well, look “to be or not to be” has just been going around in my head forever, ever since I was 18, 17, you know. I’m also interested in the idea of actually doing a production of Hamlet with every actor, everyone in it has to be over 65, so you get all the wonderful old actors, male-female to play, not necessarily play — just get all this fantastic experience so you hear the language and you hear the words, you hear the text, you hear what’s being said. His words are so extraordinary. And if you really understand, I don’t know.
You can’t ever dig and find the water. You’ve just got to keep on digging, you know, with Shakespeare. You can’t ever quite get there, but you can hope to try and get somewhere near there, but the well will just get deeper and deeper, I think, with him. And so, it’s endlessly challenging and fascinating. So incredibly difficult to make it work, to pull it off, if you were doing a Shakespeare play on film, but wonderful, some fantastic, some of the most extraordinary films. There’s a great Russian Hamlet. There’s all of Akira Kurosawa’s, Throne of Blood — a fantastic take on Macbeth. Orson Welles and [Roman] Polanski’s Macbeth is amazing. So you can do it. And but there are some of them are much more problematic. I think Measure for Measure is challenging and problematic, but it’s challenging and problematic to do on the stage.
CS: And so, do you have a favorite Shakespeare play?
Weaving: Yeah, Macbeth’s my fav, Macbeth and I love Twelfth Night. Macbeth, Twelfth Night. Yeah, and Hamlet. Hamlet, the soliloquies are extraordinary. I did play Macbeth with the Sydney Theatre Company about five years ago, and it was a massive theater and we put all the audience on stage and we performed on the lip of the stage and they were looking past us into an empty auditorium. And we also used the auditorium as well for different scenes. And it was incredibly claustrophobic for them. They were all sitting on the precipitous sort of stage seating. And yeah, smoke and lights and candles and a fantastic play — really, really headlong, dark, nightmare, wonderful. Just a fantastic play. Yeah, love it. But Twelfth Night I love, too. It’s just a beautiful, joyous, yeah, anyway. But you can make such a mess of them all. They can just be awful, but they’re wonderful, you know?
CS: It’s true. It’s like, if you have a great production then you can make something absolutely astounding, but you can screw it up.
Weaving: Very easily.
CS: What is your method of approaching a character?
Weaving: Well, I guess there’s an element of trust there. So you go reading, well, what sort of film is this? What is the style of this piece? How much humor is in this? How much self-deprecation needs to be in here from the point of view of the actors? How serious are these characters or how knowing are they? How innocent are they? And also, the filmmaker, are they really in control of their camera and are they in control of the material? And are the producers and will it be edited in the right way? So you don’t know. You have to trust as an actor. Like actors can look awful, just by their own performances, you know? It doesn’t mean they’re bad, it just means they’ve made a decision and jumped in with something. And maybe their communication between them and the director/producers is all wrong.
And so, actors can end up looking shocking. Similarly, an actor can be made to look amazing when they’re perhaps not amazing. And similarly, an actor can be really made amazing when they are amazing and they can be awful when they are awful. So I think to some extent you’ve got to — well, to a large extent, you’ve got to be able to communicate really, really — feel like you’re all on the same page, but also be prepared to fall on your face and be prepared to hopefully be picked up by someone and say, actually, that’s fantastic and thanks for that offer, but look, I think now we need to do this.
So you need to be looked after, but in order to learn, you need to jump over the cliff every now and then and hope that it’s not too far that you’re going to fall. I think part of — well, you’ve got to do to learn, don’t you? And yeah. You can play it safe and think about your career and play it safe and just look perfect all the time, or you can, you know, challenge and hopefully look pretty good sometimes and other times not so.