Australian actress Jacki Weaver electrified audiences and revitalised her career in Animal Kingdom. She tells James Croot about moving from crime family matriarch to the magic of working on Woody Allen's latest project.
Grandma Janine "Smurf" Cody would have eaten her for breakfast.
The fiercely loyal and ruthless matriarch of Melbourne's criminal Cody clan would run rings around poor, naive Grace Catledge, the reluctant head of the Cote D'Azur-based wealthy American family.
Lost without her recently deceased husband, Grace has even taken to seeking answers from beyond the grave with the help of a talented mystic, even though others in her family have attempted to convince her the clairvoyant is a fraud.
Speaking on the phone from a sweltering Los Angeles, Australian actress Jacki Weaver admits that those who identify her with Animal Kingdom's "Smurf" may find it hard to believe she's the same actress playing Grace in Woody Allen's new 1920s-set comedy Magic in the Moonlight.
However, portraying sweetness and naivety wasn't as hard as some people might think. "I've got a good imagination," the effusive 67-year-old grandmother-of-two says.
"I'm a bit of an old cynic but I know lots of women like that and it's easy to imagine yourself inside their skins. I often think your imagination is the best research you can have. If you're a student of other people and their behaviour you can put yourself into their place."
Five years ago, the diminutive (she's listed as 1.51m in height) Sydneysider couldn't have dreamed she'd be working with the likes of Allen, or her Moonlight co-stars Emma Stone and Colin Firth. For four decades she'd been a regular sight on Australian stages and screens (featuring in everything from 1975s Picnic at Hanging Rock to the Alvin Purple TV series), but was an unknown quantity outside the land of Oz. Then came Animal Kingdom and the calls from Hollywood.
"I've embraced it with alacrity, but I never thought it would be on the agenda for me. Everyday I think how lucky I am."
She says that unlike her younger compatriots (Chris and Liam Hemsworth, Margot Robbie) who seem to be invading Hollywood currently, she doesn't think she would have had the wherewithal to wait things out when she was in her 20s or 30s. "I was always getting the work at home and I don't think I had the confidence to think there was a chance I'd get to work in America."
But work there she certainly has (enough to base herself there now), earning plaudits for her performances in the likes of Silver Linings Playbook, Stoker and Parkland and catching the eye of directors like Allen.
"I was passing through New York on my way to Puerto Rico to make a film with John Cusack (Reclaim, due out in the US next month) and I had a call from my agent to say ‘Woody Allen has asked to see you'," recalls Weaver of how her role in Magic in the Moonlight came about.
"So I went to his office and he said ‘how do you do, I really want you to be in my next film'. I was kind of gobsmacked - he's one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and I'd been a fan of his for 30 or 40 years. He then said, ‘I want to make sure that you like it, so will you go and read these two little scenes in that room by yourself and tell me what you think about it. And you have to be honest, if you don't like it don't worry I'll find another project we can do together'. I couldn't believe this was happening. So, I went in the other room and read it and thought it was hilarious. I came out and I said ‘I love it and I think it's really funny - I'd like to play all those women'. And he said, ‘well you can't, you can only play Grace', and that was that.
"Then I walked out into Park Avenue and I kind of floated along the pavement. Then I started calling everybody in Australia and waking them up."
Describing Allen's Moonlight script as "beautiful", Weaver says its frothy and light facade hides a philosophical core. "It's got a lot to say about romance versus logic and science versus the inexplicable. And that the only real magic is love."
As for the character of Grace, she says that even though it is only a supporting role there was enough in the subtext to really get a handle on. "She's so clearly slightly naive, a little bit gullible, but quite sweet and enthusiastic and very needy because of her insecurities about her dead husband."
When asked how Allen's directorial approach differs to the
likes of Park Chan-Wook or David O Russell, Weaver reveals that the still prolific 78-year-old runs a "very quiet set". "He doesn't say very much and things can be quite leisurely. Sometimes he'll reshoot stuff, but not as much as he apparently used to. Some actors aren't comfortable with a lack of feedback but it doesn't really bother me because I've been acting for 52 years and I sort of understand that if the director isn't saying much they're usually pleased with what they're getting - or else they think you're beyond help.
"He did once say to me, ‘We're going to get another take of that, but it's a camera issue so do exactly what you did last time around'. ‘Wasn't it slightly over the top?', ‘No, it was perfect'. I thought to myself - ‘Woody Allen just told me I was perfect' - that kind of made my year."
Helping keep Weaver in an ebullient mood was the south of France setting and the costumes.
"For about a month and a half we shot in Nice and Graz and we all stayed at a sort of spa. We used to eat a lot together and some of the guys would cook - Simon McBurney is a masterchef.
"Most of costumes we were wearing were originals that been sourced by Sonia Grande, who also worked on Midnight in Paris, from haute couture houses in Paris. Some of them were priceless. At one stage, I was wearing nearly US$2.5m worth of Bulgari and Von Cleef Diamonds.
"But while it was a privilege to pull on the costumes and the settings were beautiful, it is easy to overlook that the film has something quite profound to say."
That's also what attracted Weaver to Gracepoint - the upcoming US television remake of the UK's much-admired thriller Broadchurch (she plays Susan Wright, the mysterious caravaner and dog-owner essayed by Pauline Quirke in the original). "Broadchurch was such a brilliant script and series. I was one of the people who used to say ‘why do Americans always remake everything' but now I understand why it's necessary.
"BBC America is only watched by about 1 per cent of the US audience and many of them found Broadchurch unwatchable because they simply could not understand the accents - unlike us, their ears aren't attuned to them. It's the same with Downton Abbey - I know people that are devoted to it, but can't watch it without subtitles.
"Even Gracepoint's writer Dan Futterman says his mother was loving Broadchurch but had to give up on it after two episodes because she couldn't understand it."
She says Americans seems to be more accepting of antipodean accents, perhaps as a result of the success of the likes of The Flight of the Conchords and the Hemsworth brothers.
"Every talkshow the Hemsworths go on they speak Australian and people love it, but Cornish and England's North Country, forget it. It's easy for me, my mother was from England and my grandfather was from the north - none of my friends could understand him."
Her background could also explain her ability to put on accents, says Weaver.
"When I was a little girl I used to have a very ‘toffee' accent, because my mother used to send me to elocution lessons. But I could also imitate my grandfather. I'm not very good at New Zealand, or South African, even though I'm married to one. My Welsh tends to go a bit Indian. However, my Cockney's good and my Scottish and Irish aren't too bad."
Fortunately she won't need to perfect the local lingo for her next job - in Tokyo, although she is familiar with the culture. "I'm off to star in a futuristic thriller (Equals, set in a world where emotions have been eradicated) with Kristen Stewart and Guy Pearce. I'm looking forward to it, I love Japan. My daughter-in-law is from there and my two grandchildren are Japanese so I've got a real connection."
Magic in the Moonlight (PG) is now screening.
Jacki Weaver has a number of film and television projects about to hit screens in North America. All are awaiting scheduling in New Zealand.
The Voices: A comedy crime-thriller, also starring Ryan Reynolds and Anna Kendrick, about a disturbed factory worker who takes advice from his pets. A hit at Sundance, it will screen at next month's Toronto Film Festival.
Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks: Gina Rowlands-starring dramedy about a retired woman who hires a dance instructor to give her private dance lessons at her home. Opens September 12.
Reclaim: Thriller about a desperate American couple who discover all is not what it seems when they uncover a high-stakes underground scam while travelling abroad. John Cusack and Ryan Phillipe co-star. Opens September 19.
Gracepoint: US Remake of the British TV series Broadchurch. Starts October 2.
- Sunday Star Times