Jacki Weaver is a 63-year-old Australian actor with a cutie-pie voice and eyelashes that could trap a butterfly. Until last year, she was scarcely known outside her home country, having spent the best part of 40 years plugging away diligently at stage and television work, with occasional movies thrown in (few of them, with the obvious exception of Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock, seen outside Australia). All that changed when the thriller Animal Kingdom, inspired by the reign of a real-life Melbourne crime family, won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance festival. As the apparently lovable Janine "Smurf" Cody, the ever-smiling matriarch in a clan of macho crooks, Weaver is the ace up the film's sleeve. It is she who gradually comes to dominate the picture without so much as raising her voice.
The acclaim has been unanimous. Quentin Tarantino picked Animal Kingdom as one of the three best movies of 2010. Weaver was nominated for a Golden Globe and took home Best Supporting Actress prizes from the Los Angeles Film Critics and the National Board of Review. She's now in the running in the same category at next Sunday's Academy Awards. I'll be reviewing the film in the next issue of the NS this Thursday; last week Jacki Weaver spoke to me from her home in Sydney.
All the fuss now about Animal Kingdom must be strange for you, I imagine, since it was shot two years ago.
Yes, and it's ten years since I got the script. David Michôd, who wrote and directed the film, was obsessed with the story for a long time. He sent me the script years ago and I thought it was fantastic. It took him ages, it being a small independent film as well as his first feature, to get funding. I'd almost forgotten about it when he got back in touch and said, "I hope you still want to do it." So it's been a long time. I've done six plays since making the movie, because I work mostly in the theatre, and people keep quoting me lines that I have no recollection of saying.
There's even a Janine T-shirt with her line, "You've done some bad things, sweetie." Why do you think people are latching on to her?
People find her fascinating. She's just so execrable. She's hideous, a despicable piece of work. I tried not to think about that while I was playing her because you've got to empathise with every character you play, and put flesh and blood on their bones, and not make moral judgements. You won't get into their skin if you're too lost in judging then. But once I'd let go of her, and I got to see the film, I saw she really was every bit as vile as I thought she was when I first read the script.
Was she hard for you to understand?
Not really. We did a lot of research and read a lot of true crime. I've got friends who are clinical psychologists and we talked a lot about the nature of the sociopathic psyche. She's got no conscience; she's very callous and pragmatic and cold-blooded. It seems that she loves those boys but really there's a lot of egotism involved with being the centre of attention among those young men. The inappropriate intimacy she has with them is a kind of substitute -- she's obviously had these children to different fathers and never had satisfactory adult relationships so she substitutes it with that intimacy. The Americans and Aussies remark on her kissing her sons on the mouth, and no doubt the Brits will too. It's shocking. I'd like to say it was my choice but it was David's. It's a good one; it speaks volumes about the power she wields and how skewed the relationships are. David's been all over the world publicising the film and he said the only place where no one thought to mention the kissing was in Italy. They saw it as nothing out of the ordinary!
You've said that David knew what he wanted and how to get it. What did he want, and how did he get it?
He didn't want to telegraph how despicable she is. Let's face it, not many grandmothers put out hits on people. He didn't want her coldblooded pragmatism to be apparent from the off, but to have it revealed gradually, which is of course how true sociopaths operate. The temptation for the actor is to play a character like that as a villain but it's much better storytelling if you don't. So he always encouraged me to underplay it.
We know something's not quite right with her, though, from the way she reacts to her daugher's death, or rather doesn't react.
She's not upset at all. My instinct as an actor and mother and grandmother was to gasp, maybe with a sob in the back of the throat, but David said, "No, I don't even want you to gasp." From that we get that all is not normal.
David told me that it was a very macho set, with all the young actors competing to be the toughest. Where was your place in all that?
Yes all those young alpha males. It was testosterone city. It was! It was palpable. Especially when we were filming some of the more tense scenes; it did get a little tough on the set. But I was told by the crew that the boys behaved themselves better whenever I was around. And they treated me very well. I've known Ben [Mendelsohn, who plays Janine's son Pope] since he was a teenager, so I felt naturally maternal toward him. We did a film years ago [Cosi] where he was a very sweet boy and I played a homicidal nymphomaniac.
We aren't so familiar with your work in Britain, but how much of a shock is it for Australian audiences to see you as Janine?
I've had my share of villains and played some fairly nasty characters. But I've been acting for so long. I started out as the girl next door. Now I'm the grandmother next door. Everyone probably has a benign image of me, which might have made the sight of me playing Janine that bit more arresting. It's funny in the UK, where I'm not really known because I never did a soap. My English cousins in the Lake District think I'm not a real actor because they've never seen me in Home and Away or Neighbours.
You must have done Prisoner: Cell Block H.
Nope, never even did Prisoner. I think I'm the only actress in Australia who wasn't in it. I wasn't being a snob, it just never came up. I was always busy with other stuff.
Has the acclaim and attention for Animal Kingdom been a shock?
Oh, so much. But it's very exciting. I came home to Sydney a few days ago, to get my bearings. Well, really it was to do the washing. Then I'm back to LA a few days before the Oscars. Suddenly I'm being courted by agents and managers which is really strange at this time of my life. I'm getting lots of scripts, which is incredible.
All in the same vein as Animal Kingdom?
At first they were. Now I'm getting some fantastic scripts, much more diverse. But initially I got sent a few villainous roles. There was one woman who was so evil she had her head blown off [laughs]. My husband said, "Please do that one!" He thought that was a fabulous idea. And there was another part, a woman who was really bad-tempered and said "fuck" a lot. We all have days like that, don't we?
"Animal Kingdom" is released on Friday.