From 'Captain America' to 'Uncle Vanya,' Hugo Weaving stretches his acting chops
He's known for his iconic fantasy roles, but he's a classically trained thespian at heart
Hugo Weaving is appearing in "Uncle Vanya" at the Kennedy Center with Cate Blanchett. He's had prominent roles in "Lord of the Rings", "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and this summer's "Captain America." (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun / August 5, 2011)
Both of Weaving's faces are on prominent display in the Baltimore area this month.
As a cartoon villain with inverted facial features in a red rubber mask, Weaver is stomping around the screen in the dozens of movie theaters where "Captain America" is now showing. (Weaving portrays Cap's nemesis, Red Skull.)
And as Astrov, a driven and outwardly cynical physician with an underlying melancholy in Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," opening Saturday at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Weaving gets to make love to Cate Blanchett, who portrays Yelena.
"I kind of like the challenge of jumping into totally different spaces and styles and figuring out how to fit in," Weaving says. "It's great to blow the image that people have of me out of the water. It's one of the reasons I do it."
"Vanya" is coming to the Kennedy Center courtesy of the Sydney Theatre Company, Australia's premier troupe, run by Blanchett and her husband, Andrew Upton. Washington is the show's sole U.S. engagement.
The production follows the company's 2009 visit to the Kennedy Center in an acclaimed production of "A Streetcar Named Desire."
Blanchett, who starred as Blanche DuBois, decisively laid to rest any lingering doubts about the ability of an Australian movie star to command the stage for three hours in the inhumanly demanding, quintessentially American, role.
In "Vanya" she's cast very differently, as the bored and idle trophy wife of a Russian intellectual.
"Cate is incredibly intuitive, highly intelligent, physically free and playful," says Weaving, nothing that like all the actors in the Sidney troupe, Blanchett is classically trained.
"She has good theatrical sense, and she keeps her feet on the ground. And, of course, she's just gorgeous."
Bad productions of Chekhov suffer from the ailment that afflicts his characters. The shows can seem enervated, dour and depressed. Adult men and women complaining endlessly about their inability to act while gazing listlessly out the window, not unlike "Hamlet" minus the ghosts, the mad scene and the swordplay.
Tamás Ascher, the acclaimed Hungarian director and Chekhov interpreter, doesn't want his version of "Vanya" to fall into the same trap. He has set the play in the 1950s and enlivened the proceedings with pratfalls, drunken dancing, and even a pillow fight.
"Chekhov is brutal and dark, but he also can be really funny," says actor Richard Roxburgh, who plays the title role. "It's quite fascinating the way he combines all those different elements, and we try to bring them all out in this production."
That would have been a challenge under the best of circumstances, but Ascher speaks no English, and his cast, no Hungarian. Though a nimble translator helped to explain the actors' meaning to the director, and vice-versa, there were unavoidable communication glitches.
"It was hard not being able to talk with your director about things in a text you didn't understand," Weaving admits.
"If you can't quite figure out how to frame the question in your own language, you can't figure out how to frame it in another language. There'd be times when Anna would translate what we were trying to stammer out, and Tamás would just look bewildered."
This isn't the first time that Blanchett and Weaving have played opposite one another — they starred in "Hedda Gabler" together on stage in New York as well as in an independent film called "Little Fish" — and it's easy to understand his appeal as a stage partner.
With a deep tan, shaggy brown hair and overgrown beard, Weaving calls to mind the caveman from the Geico television commercials. But when a question captures his interest, Weaving leans forward and his eyes lock in with an almost audible snap. The speed and intensity with which he engages is a bit startling.