Gilbey on Film: Interview with Jacki Weaver

The NS's film critic talks to the star of Animal Kingdom.

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.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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