"We're a young country,” says Hugo Weaving. “When you turn up at a new school, you don’t think you’re as important as the jock with the loud voice, so you just sink into the background. It’s human nature not to want to tell your own story.”
Weaving’s role in Jasper Jones is the latest in a career defined by seeking out strong Australian stories. It’s a period piece set in a small Western Australian town in the sixties. A teenage girl is murdered, which the police (and most of the town) immediately blame on Jasper Jones, the local black kid. Everyone except our plucky teenage leads, that is, who ignore the advice of the adults and run an investigation of their own. They blame “Mad Jack”, a reclusive alleged murderer and madman, played by Weaving.
It’s an extremely enjoyable film with a dark core. Based on the 2009 novel by Fremantle-based writer Craig Silvey, it harks back to when we were an even younger country, and doesn’t shy away from the big issues: the Vietnam War; racial prejudice and immigration; teen suicide; marital breakdown; abuse. Weaving isn’t on the screen for very long (he shot his scenes in three days), but it’s a pivotal role.
“It’s a lovely character,” Weaving says. “He’s one of those classic mad guys on the hill. In every gothic novel there’s that character who’s the repository of everyone’s fears. This one is literally called Mad Jack and lives on a hill.”
Weaving is a household name from his Hollywood work. But for every Matrix or Hobbit sequel, it’s worth remembering he’s been at the epicentre of the Australian film industry for 30 years. He’s also one of its most outspoken supporters.
“It’s a pretty small industry,” says Weaving, “but my priority has always been to work here. I live here. These are the stories I want to be part of.
“I swing between being really disillusioned and thinking that some of the greatest Australian films ever made have been made in the last 10 years,” says Weaving. “And that’s the way it should be. We should be getting better.”
He reels off a list of his favourite recent Australian films as evidence. Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road and Goldstone. Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes. In the last year, he’s loved Girl Asleep, Pawno and The Daughter.
“Having said that it’s hard to celebrate our best films because no one pays attention to them,” he says.
“Look at Last Ride,” he goes on, referring to a critically acclaimed 2009 drama in which he starred, which seemed to sink without a trace. “I’m not just saying that because I was in it. I think [director] Glendyn Ivin is a major, major talent. MOMA in New York picked it up and screened it. He was being hailed in the States.”
Australian filmmakers are drowned out by American voices, but our own self-effacing habits don’t help. So why don’t we pay attention to what’s happening on our own front lawn?
Weaving cites the radio hosts who interviewed him immediately before his chat with Broadsheet. “I’ll name no names, but these are very prominent people,” he says. “I was there to talk about Jasper Jones. They hadn’t seen it, they hadn’t read it. They talked about everything else under the sun except what we were there for. They immediately asked about The Matrix. Then they asked about working with Nicole Kidman, who’s famous.
“They were lovely, but we were there to talk about an Australian film, and without thinking about it, we were talking about American shit,” says Weaving. “That’s what we do. We don’t want to promote our own culture. We don’t think it’s as important.”
A film like Jasper Jones is a step in the right direction. It’s small, it’s plucky and it’s not letting the jocks tell it what to do.
Jasper Jones is playing nationally.