Before Animal Kingdom, the Australian crime drama which Jacki Weaver so memorably inhabits as den mother Janine "Smurf" Cody, she was unknown to many American moviegoers including myself. The last time I see her onscreen, perusing a few key scenes from the film prior to the interview, she's training those enormous unblinking peepers on good cop Guy Pearce. They're in a sterile grocery store but the conversation is anything but; the words are loaded and coded. Her stare is equal parts dare, gloating and faux sweetness. "I hope you catch the killers," she tells him, with disingenuous grandmotherly concern, both of them fully aware of who is getting away with murder and why.
In person, what can you expect: An evil granny? A diva actress? A regular woman? When we sit at the Regency for a half hour chat over coffee, Smurf departs leaving only Jacki the "Oscar Hopeful" (more on that in a bit).
"I should rewatch it," she tells me when I mention my pre-interview visual cram session with her movie. She's seen Animal Kingdom four times but not recently. She remembers the plot details and her co-stars frequently. She's quick to praise Ben Mendelsohn's "amazing" work. (He plays her son Pope, the only character more unsettling than Smurf.) But when it comes to her own part, the famous dialogue is escaping her. "They keep quoting lines that I said" she says "I have no recollection of them at all. It's been two years since we shot the movie. I've been in six different plays since then so's the slate has been a bit wiped clean."
Why hasn't she watched it recently?
Jacki: I find it quite distressing. It's really heart in the throat stuff. Even though I know what's going to happen.
Nathaniel: Was it disturbing to shoot?
Jacki: It wasn't at the time, no. It was more exhilarating than distressing because I felt we were doing such good work and it had a ring of authenticity about it all the way.
Nathaniel: I know you do a lot of theater and Animal Kingdom actually reminded me a little of a stage play. It's very cinematic but he's [David Michôd, the director] often using medium shots, which I loved, and showing you the crucial interplay between the actors. Do you think of stage and movie acting differently?
Jacki: I think of them the same way. In movies, you have the luxury of being able to whisper [Laughter].
Coffee has arrived and we chat for a bit about filmmaking. Jackie says "I love a good editor" [don't all smart actors?] and shares with me a bit of Oscar trivia that I hadn't connected: Animal Kingdom's editor Luke Dolan was up for an Oscar just last year for the short film "Miracle Fish". "He's just turned 30," she says, marvelling. "That's impressive." While she's on the subject of fresh careers we naturally drift over to her director. He's a fully formed talent already, I think, and this is only his first feature.
Nathaniel: I met with Michôd this summer when the movie came out. He called you a "National Treasure."
Jacki: [Laughter] I'm more of a national relic, i think. I've been around so long. I keep telling people that I think Australians think of me as a comfortable old piece of furniture that they're not quite ready to throw out yet.
Nathaniel: You've been in the industry a long time.
Jacki: 48 years.
Nathaniel: Have you seen it all or this year special? I mean, if i tried to list all your honors from the movie I think we'd be here for hours.
Jacki: I've lost count. I'm totally overwhelmed.
Nathaniel: When you were filming it, did you ever think...
Jacki: No! [Sensing the awards question coming.] Well, you never do...
AFTER THE JUMP... Jacki on awards buzz, "Smurf" character choices, loving Cate Blanchett, kissing Sullivan Stapleton, and her brief scenes in Aussie classic Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975).
All you care about is getting the work right. I love acting.
Nathaniel: I wanted to talk about the original conception of the character. I know the script went through a long period of development. Was the physicality of Smurf always in there? The way she's constantly touching her boys.
Nathaniel: Is that something you added or...
Jacki: The kissing of the boys was a directorial choice. I'd love to claim it because I think it's a really inspired small gesture that speaks reams. It's so unexpected but it tells you such a lot about the power she has over the boys and how under her thumb they are. [Thinking...] The inappropriateness of it is quite palpable for Americans and English people and Australians. But David was telling me -- apparently the only place they didn't ask him about that on the promotional tour was in Italy. To kiss your son on the mouth in Italy is perfectly acceptable! [Laughs]
Nathaniel: That's funny. I assumed it was an acting choice because, for instance, with Sullivan Stapleton. He's so delicious, how could you not?
Nathaniel: You're constantly stroking him. Am I right in feeling there's a hierarchy for Smurf among her children?
Jacki: Yes, yes. Luke [Luke Ford who plays Darren"] the pretty one, is her baby. She cares about him because he's softer than the other and he's possibly gay. I'm not sure. They all come from different fathers... [pauses to explain] This is just just my backstory but David says we're allowed to have our own backstories -- Smurf probably had the most passionate relationship with Craig's [Sullivan Stapleton] father and there's transference to a degree. I also think Sullivan character is ADHD. He's so hyperactive and stroking him is a way of calming him down like you do with a little kid. I think even she is a bit scared of Ben's character. I think that was probably a violent relationship she had with his father.
But this is all stuff that you can keep in the back of your head while you're acting a scene. But I love that the audience wonders about it and I love that David doesn't explain everything. It's so much better for an audience to make up his or her own mind and not have all the loose ends tied up. If you want everything explained you watch a soap opera. I think a piece of good fiction should leave loose ends and make you work.
Nathaniel: I'm glad you bring that up because it's unusually complex. People talk about things reductively for ease and for sound-bytes and what not but you can't just reduce Smurf to "evil mother." Each of her parent/child relationships feels different. I'm talking about the "positive spin" scene which is such a great window into a softer side of her.
At this point in our conversation, edited to lose the spoilers, Jacki and I swerve into a particular plot point that is better left for your film viewing. One of Animal Kingdom's strength is the taut storytelling and the sometimes twisty developments. Even the things you can see coming happen in jarring ways.
Jacki: David's original screenplay had me on the floor, where I've obviously collapsed and I'm crying. On the day of shooting he said 'I've changed my mind about that. I don't think you should be on the floor.' I said 'Just let me have a shot at it on the floor. Remember why you wrote it in the first place.' It felt real. That's exactly what would happen. She is more devastated than in any other part of the movie. I said 'If you don't like it, we'll do it standing up.' But we did it with me on the floor and he said 'you're right.'
There's a tendency when you're the auteur and you've lived with the script for years that stuff you're used to you suddenly think 'oh no, get rid of it.'
Nathaniel: You're second guessing yourself on the day of shooting.
Jacki: There were a few instances of that. David would say 'I don't know why I wrote that.' [As if speaking to him] 'At the time you thought it was good. Trust it. Trust it.'
Nathaniel: I think one of the reasons people have latched on to your performance so much is your way with a line reading. It's great dialogue to begin with but, for example, "You've done some bad things, sweetie." They even put it on the posters! Have you seen the t-shirt?
Jacki: My husband wore it to the mall. Idiot [Laughter]
Nathaniel: I almost wore it underneath this today but i thought... too gimmicky! Did you try those lines in a bunch of different ways or did they come to you as this is the way to deliver this line.
Jacki: I'm always open to -- I'm very flexible. I've been in musicals so I can do everything the same but sometimes in a film with a a lot of emotional content it's best to play it off the type of your head each time. This is pertinent to what you ask, I think: we did have two weeks of rehearsals which is a great luxury. During that time we were able to really got to know each other and get into the rhthym of the scenes. We didn't set anything in stone but we certainly read the piece a few times. David, on the strength of that, made some tweakings and things.
Nathaniel: I wanted to ask you about one of my other favorite lines in the movie. "I'm not trying to tell you how to suck eggs." I'd never heard that expression?
Jacki: It means -- If I say to you 'wrap up warmly when you go outside,' you presumably know this already. It means I'm telling you something that you already know. You already know it so well you know it better than I do. Telling your grandmother to suck eggs is the expression. You might have to google the origins -- it must be English or it might be Irish?
Nathaniel: I didn't know it but the line works so well in the movie. It's such a chilling but amusing bit of condescension.
Jacki: Who says that in the movie?
Nathaniel: You do!
We both burst out laughing there. It really has been years since the filming. For the last few minutes of our discussion on Animal Kingdom we also verged heavily into spoilers to discuss one particular chilling scene that takes place in a car in which you see the full extent of Smurf's amorality and also the ending, which is somewhat ambiguous.
Jacki: I knew it was authentic because I talked to some of my friends who are clinical psychologists about the mind of sociopath. They will pragmatically do whatever is best for themselves even when they've got other loyalties that might be important to them. They don't have a conscience and they're callous and their own interests comes first. She's condoned and lived off the criminal behavior of her boys for years so she's just as culpable in the bad things they've done.
Nathaniel: I love that the ending is a repetition of a shot you've sort of experienced several times already but it's played so differently. I talked to David about the ending. Your gestures are so perfect in that scene. He said it was totally you.
Jacki: Did he? He gave me credit? I can't remember. I would have given it to him. [Laughter]
There were a few things -- we did work very well together. His suggestions I always took on very easily. They were not difficult to. But by the same token, he was not a puppeteer. That's a tendency you sometimes get with young directors. They've got an exact idea in their head, like a storyboard of exactly how they y know how they want every line said and every gesture; they use you like a puppet. That's one way of doing it and it sometimes work but I think you get more out of your actors if you're willing to incorporate their ideas and make it a collaboration. David is a collaborator but he has a very clear vision of what he wants.
I couldn't leave without briefly talking about an even more ancient memory. I had recently seen Peter Weir's breakthrough "Picnic at Hanging Rock" (1975). Jacki has a small role as a maid at a girl's school.
Jacki: Peter Weir is lovely. He's a wonderful director. I thought Master and Commander was brilliant. And what about that Russell Boyd? He's one of the best cinematographers around. [Boyd shot both Master and Commander and Picnic at Hanging Rock]. He was the one who told me which was my good side. [She gestured toward her face, suddenly unsure of which was which.] I always say 'This is my ugly side and this is my worse side.' [Laughter]
Nathaniel: That movie is so gorgeous and strange. But your character... she gets these scenes to herself and she's not really connected to the narrative. Why are we spending time with this character? It's almost like you were starring in your own little movie. Do you think about the whole movie when you act or just your story?
Jacki: I just think about making the character work. I'll tell you something about my character in Picnic, though. I had more scenes. They were cut. Peter came to me very apologetic and said 'There was nothing wrong with your scenes but they were too amusing and lighthearted and they took away from the suspense.' He might have just been being kind!
Nathaniel: I talked to some of my Aussie friends to get some info on you. You've only been doing cameos in films lately: Three Blind Mice. Summer Coda?.
Jacki: I haven't done a big film since Cosi which is 15 years ago. This myth is developing in Australia 'Out of Work For Huge Period". I've never been out of work. I'm always working but sometimes I'm on tour and I'm out of the limelight and people think I've stopped. I've got this mortgage to pay. There was a headline recently that said
From Jobless To Oscar Hopeful
My brother and my son and my ex-husband rang furious and said 'If you've been jobless how come we never see you!?' [Laughter] I think it's just lazy journalism.
I'd really like to do more films, now. It'd be great. Now and then I see a film done in Australia and think 'Ohhh, I wished they'd ask me to do that.'
As we were wrapping up I finally broached the topic of Oscars. There are no nominations yet but everyone on the awards track is barreling forward as the last ballots come in. She's being careful not to talk it up too much in Australia because she didn't want to be disappointed. The excitement was setting in anyway. "I'm very thrilled about the one I'm getting tomorrow," she says. She's talking about the National Board of Review which her recent stage co-star Cate Blanchett had won ten years ago. "She was in my dressing room with a bunch of flowers," Jacki says, recalling a conversation where Cate told her about some of the awards groups and ceremonies. "She is the most divine creature in the world. We are all in love with her."
Whether or not the Oscar nomination comes, it's been a great run. "I can't stop grinning. I'm like a cheshire cat."
If you've seen Animal Kingdom and ever chance upon Jacki Weaver in person, you'll notice that the exterior is much the same but the effect is totally different. Her eyes are still huge orbs of icy blue feeling but they don't give off the affect of something terrible inside clawing to get out, they twinkle. This time the sweetness isn't curdled.