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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Oliver Stone on interviewing Vladimir Putin: "There are two sides to every story"

The director says his conversations with the Russian president, like all of his works, speak for themselves.

“You’re going to start with this blogging bullshit?” Oliver Stone raises his voice at a reporter, a look of fury on his face.

The director has been asked about the veracity of a video shown to him by the Russian president in his recent Showtime series, The Putin Interviews. The hapless Norwegian journalist who is asking the question notes that bloggers have taken exception to the footage’s true provenance.

What bloggers think of Stone's work, however, is clearly of no consequence to him. When another journalist asks if he’s afraid to be seen as Vladimir Putin’s "PR guy", though, he erupts. 

“Do you really think I’m going to go and spend two years of my life doing a tourist guide book? You really think I’m that kind of a filmmaker? Do you have no respect for my work?”

Stone is on fiery form at Starmus science and music festival in Trondheim, Norway. His series on Putin was filmed over two years. The final four hours of footage were cut from an original 19 of recorded interviews, which covered such diverse topics as “Russia in the 1990s and the 2000s, the American expansion of Nato, the American support of terrorism in Central Asia, Syria from his point of view, Ukraine, nuclear arms…”

Critics, however, have termed it a hagiography, and argued it offers Putin a deferential platform to share his view. Others have dismissed Stone as a propaganda poodle. 

Stone counters the criticism: “I researched it, I did the best I could, and I think it proves the old adage that there are two sides to every story.”

Whether because of naivety or professional courtesy, on the face of it, in the interview series the 70-year-old appears to buy into everything Putin tells him. "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," is all he'll say at the conference.

Later on, in the calm after the storm, we speak alone. “This was a special deal,” he tells me. “He was very congenial and articulate and willing to talk. He grabbed the moment.

“People need to keep something in mind. They said I was soft on him - that’s nonsense.

“You can’t have an interview where you’re asking hostile questions. He would have just tolerated it and said what he did, and then after that first interview he would have not have done a second or a third.

“I was interested in the long view. Nobody in the West has gone that far with him that I have seen.”

The long view is a speciality of Stone’s, as he reveals with his address at Starmus to a packed auditorium. As befits a science festival, he addresses the development of the atomic bomb and the modern digital arms race of cyber warfare.

In his view, “politics invariably gets a stranglehold on science and takes it in the wrong way”. He cites J Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the nuclear bomb, and computer analyst Edward Snowden’s life following his decision to turn whistleblower. 

Stone directed the film Snowden, a task which involved navigating numerous obstacles, including gaining access to the real Snowden, by then in Russia, himself. 

“Science gets slaughtered by politics,” he tells me.

In the shadow of the criticism on the Putin front, he admits that from an American perspective, for him to become involved with Snowden was, well… “beyond the pale". 

But despite – or perhaps because of – the Academy Award-winning director’s commitment to the truth, he’s not letting go of various facts as he sees them.

“There is no evidence as far as I’m concerned for the Russian hacking allegations,” he says, adding that this was an “assessment” from the US security services which turned into a “farce”.

He has read the detail for himself, he says – and he also appears on film looking like he believes Putin when the president says it’s nothing to do with him.

Back at home, the American domestic political situation has him as appalled as ever. He is critical, not only of Donald Trump, but the system the US president operates in. 

“It seems that the president does not have the power he thinks he has," he says. "You get elected, you think it’s a democracy, but there is this mechanism inside, this Deep State – intelligence agencies, military industrial, the generals, the Pentagon, CIA combined with other intel – which seems to have some kind of inner lock.”

Although Stone places characters at the heart of many of his films, he finds Trump hard to figure out.

“I don’t know what Trump’s mind is like, I think so few people do," he muses. "He says super-patriotic things suddenly like 'I love the CIA, I’m going to really support you, I love the military, I love generals, I love all that beautiful new equipment' – that he sold to Saudi Arabia.

“He also said, and it’s very disturbing, ‘the next war, we’re going to win’. As if you can win a war where you use cyber and nuclear and various weapons. He’s thinking this is a game like a child.

“The purpose of war is not to have one.”

Stone believes – as Trump initially seemed to profess – that Russia will be the chief ally in future for the United States: “They can be great partners in every walk of life, it’s crazy to have them as an enemy."

Nevertheless, he is not as slavish to the official Russian line as many have countenanced.

“I was able to shoot this documentary because of my reputation," he says. Some people say he pulled his punches, I counter.

“Gloves off, gloves on – the truth is, he sees things his way," Stone says. "I’m not there to change his mind, I’m there to show his mind.”

In his view, an observant watcher will learn about Putin just by watching him. "The camera doesn’t lie – the camera tells you things, body language, eyes – you can get a feel sometimes," he says. "I think if you watch all four hours you’ll see that we got an enormous amount of information."

Perhaps those who sit through those four hours will be satisfied that they know more about Putin – or about Stone himself. After all, if the camera doesn't lie, it doesn't lie for anyone.

As I leave the room, Stone raises his voice after me: “Don’t change my words.” He’s smiling broadly as he speaks.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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