In mid-sentence from isolation in the country, Hugo Weaving stops suddenly. “Oh, a snake,” he says. “How fantastic!” Like everyone else, one of the country’s greatest actors is dealing with a new reality. And a green tree snake sliding down a post during an interview from his front verandah in Dungog, in the NSW Hunter Valley, is a first. “There are wallabies around and lots of beautiful birds,” he says. “I feel very blessed to be here.”
While it sounds idyllic, Weaving has found himself in the same grim situation as actors everywhere – one job shut down early and no more work any time soon. “Everything’s gone,” he says.
Weaving was starring in Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play The Visit at the National Theatre in London when the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to close. Back in Australia, his lockdown has involved reading, reflecting and watching classic movies both as entertainment and a reminder “that great cinema can really uplift you and expand your thought processes”.
His next job is scheduled to be the new play Wonnangatta for The Sydney Theatre Company in September. “But who knows whether theatres will be open then,” he says.
An Australian film that Weaving loved making, Ben Lawrence’s emotional drama Hearts and Bones, has also been affected by the pandemic. In a performance as outstanding as any in an acclaimed career – one that has included the Matrix, Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies as well The Dressmaker, Hacksaw Ridge and Seven Types of Ambiguity more recently – he plays Dan Fisher, a traumatised war photographer.
Struggling with the news that partner Josie (Hayley McElhinney) is pregnant, he bonds with a South Sudanese refugee, Sebastian (non-actor Andrew Luri), whose wife Anishka (Bolude Watson) is also pregnant. But a revelation from the past throws all their lives into a spiral.
“It’s a complex film but it’s ultimately really uplifting,” Weaving says. “It’s about relationships – four people in particular – dealing with trauma, birth, death, home and the world. These are timely issues really.”
After a warm reception at the Sydney, Melbourne and Toronto film festivals, Hearts and Bones was heading for cinemas but, with uncertainty about when they can reopen, is getting a digital release instead.
“Going to see a film with a large group of people is, for me, a communal experience and there’s something really special about that,” Weaving says. “But that’s not to be, unfortunately because of the particular nature of the world in which we live at the moment. So, yes, it’s disappointing but people are at home and watching a lot of stuff so hopefully this will be something that speaks very much to Australians and people all around the world now.”
Eighteen months ago, on a break from filming Hearts and Bones in a church hall that has been turned into a photographic gallery for a scene, Luri admits he was so far outside the film world when he was cast that he had never even heard of Weaving. But he quickly realised his co-star must be well-known. “I saw him on an ad on buses,” he says.
Luri was driving a garbage truck in Melbourne when he was discovered by Lawrence, the son of Lantana and Jindabyne director Ray Lawrence, who wanted a non-actor who could bring his own life experience to the character.
Having fled South Sudan twice – the first time for Kenya during the war between the south and the north, then again with his family into Egypt during the civil war – Luri migrated to Australia on a humanitarian visa 15 years earlier. “It was so, so dangerous,” he says of South Sudan. “All of our lives were just war from one generation to the other.”
Luri spent two weeks with actor-drama coach Nico Lathouris learning about acting, understanding a script and thinking about a character. Then, like their characters, Weaving and Luri bonded quickly during the shoot. Both – and Watson – were subsequently nominated for AACTA Awards this year.
“He’s a very wonderful person,” Luri says. “I told him, I’m learning from you every day’. He said, No, we’re learning from each other’.”
Weaving describes his co-star’s performance as “really wonderful”, adding: “We come from very different backgrounds but we’re all human beings and we’re all trying to tell the same story. Ultimately that was the thing that held us together.”
Lawrence, a TV commercials director and photographer who is best known for the documentary Ghosthunter, shares his father’s quiet, assured manner, feel for richly affecting human drama and talent for drawing strong performances from actors.
While he recognises Weaving’s talent for larger-than-life performances – citing The Matrix movies and The Adventures Of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert – Lawrence thought he was ideal for what he calls a very domestic suburban role. “He just gets more and more interesting and better,” he says. “But it was the mix of him and Andrew that I was really interested in – that chemistry created something that was really special.”
But casting a non-actor was a risk for the film, with producer Matt Reeder needing to be convinced Luri was a better choice than the trained actors who auditioned. “Andrew always reminded me that he had more lines of dialogue in the script than Hugo,” Lawrence says. “When he first said it, it was oh my god, what have we done?’ But from the moment I met him, I felt he was the one.”
While it took time to get him to open up, Luri brought his experience of life in a troubled country – and his dedication to the sometimes demonised South Sudanese community in Melbourne – to the film. “He guided me,” Lawrence says. “I’d say to him, Was that real?’, oes the kitchen you live in look like this?’, Do you know someone like this?’ and What’s it like in war?'”
As a first-time feature film director, he has mixed feelings about Hearts and Bones not getting a cinema release. Given how many people have suffered during the crisis, “having a film not go to cinemas is not a big deal,” he says. “Two years ago, it would have been a very different reaction. But people’s point of view is changing about what online means and the quality things that are coming out. I feel like we sit within that – as a premium film drama.”
Lawrence, who is directing a TV commercial based on submitted footage as well as writing and home schooling his kids in isolation, says a cinema release is never about a financial reward for a filmmaker. “It’s a creative and connecting-with-audiences thing and you feel like [the film] really exists in a very physical way,” he says. “That’s probably the thing that I’ll miss the most. But the film is about hope so I still feel it’s relevant. It’s about family, it’s about bonding, it’s about friendship and we’re all having to reinvestigate those things now.”
The pain felt by Australian directors whose films are in limbo because of the coronavirus crisis is obvious. Director Mark Lamprell says it was devastating realising the closing of cinemas meant the release of his comedy Never Too Late, about four former commandos who break out of the retirement home from hell, would be pushed back until later in the year. “The world has much bigger problems than a delayed film release but, in the little cosmos of those who worked so hard to bring the film to the screen, it was heartbreaking,” he says.
While Hollywood has pushed back every major movie until later in the year, there is a long list of Australian films delayed including Shannon Murphy’s drama Babyteeth, which has Eliza Scanlen as a seriously ill teenager who falls in love; Stephen Johnson’s outback western High Ground; Jeremy Sims’ drama Rams, with Sam Neill and Michael Caton as feuding sheepfarming brothers; Unjoo Moon’s Helen Reddy biopic I Am Woman; Dean Murphy’s Paul Hogan comedy The Very Excellent Mr Dundee; and Will Gluck’s Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway (now scheduled for release on Boxing Day). Hearts and Bones, which was scheduled for cinemas, is going directly to a digital release.
After a warm-hearted response at the Young At Heart Film Festival, Lamprell is still optimistic about Never Too Late’s prospects when it eventually opens. “Certainly there will be many films big and small chasing a place in cinemas but the flip side is that no product is being made and isn’t likely to be made for at least the next six months,” he says.
“Cinemas – and exhibitors in all formats – are going to be hungry for product if they’re going to sustain screenings in the long term and we’ve already seen a huge amount of interest in foreign sales. So I’m reasonably optimistic that when the time comes, the film will open and open well.”
Are people likely to be wary about going to cinemas when they reopen?
“Some patrons might still be wary of gathering in public but really that depends on how well we continue to manage the pandemic and how cleanly and quickly it comes to an end,” Lamprell says. “If we continue as we are with effective isolation methods and the virus continues to diminish, I think there’ll be a very robust return to cinemas.”