Jacki Weaver: the "Ma Barker" of Animal Kingdom

Jacki Weaver: the "Ma Barker" of Animal Kingdom
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What hits you immediately upon meeting Jacki Weaver, the extraordinary Sydney-based actress who plays Smurf (Janine) Cody in the movie Animal Kingdom is that she is nothing like the sociopath, the manipulative mom with darting eyes and flirtatious menace she plays in Animal Kingdom. This Australian Tarantino-like crime drama won top awards at Sundance, and opens this week. I had the opportunity to sit down with Weaver at the Regency Hotel in New York on June 22. Sizing you up with her blue saucer eyes, this blond Sally Strothers lookalike asks you a question or two, until the lines blur, and you wonder, who is interviewing who.

Why haven't we seen more of you in this country?

I don't know. I've been acting for 48 years. I've never been out of work, never done another job, I get some great roles, playing a lot of Americans. That's why I'm so interested in hearing the way you speak. I've done three Neil Simon plays. My husband and I did two American classics: Death of a Salesman and Prisoner of Second Avenue. I've been in a long running musical, They're Playing out Song, wearing a black wig, looking a lot like you. Last year I toured for seven months in Steel Magnolias. Now that you mention it, if I'd been living here, they're probably roles I never would have been given. I've been here a lot, coming every year for 20 years. I see a lot of theater: my best was 30 shows in 3 weeks. That's 7 nights and 3 matinees per week. I've been in a few tv series, a couple written especially for me, but I am mostly a theater actress. This year I'm doing 4 plays back to back. None is American. I will do Uncle Vanya with Cate Blanchette. You could say I'm married to the theater.

Is this all in Australia?

Yes. Nowadays all the young actors go straight to Hollywood and get into pilots, but this is something that my generation didn't do. Maybe it was lack of ambition or courage. We loved everything that came out of America. Big filmgoers, we're obsessed with American culture. I grew up watching Mickey Mouse Club. My son grew up watching Sesame Street. We are like sponges. We like our own culture but there's a lot about America that we understand. It's very surprising at this stage in my life to be in something that is getting such a big release in America. Now that I'm 63, it just makes me laugh. I knew that I was happy with what we'd done. And then we won at Sundance. We only went there because we were one of the 12 finalists. And then when we won, we'd all left Sundance because we never expected to win. Suddenly I'm talking to American journalists the way I talk to Australian journalists.

I understand you were one of the first actors to sign on to this film.

David Michon said he wrote it for me, flattering, but unexpected too. You would never expect this role to be offered to an actress like me. You expect someone more hard bitten. I usually get Sally Field roles. But the nature of this woman is so complex. You don't realize she is an amoral sociopath until way into the film. That was David's idea. My idea was to jump in boots and all and play her like a Disney witch. Sociopaths are very good at charming people and hiding their true colors. It's important that at the beginning we see her as a typical ordinary loving mom.

Someone who kisses her sons on the lips?

That's a little touch, a gesture that speaks volumes. That was David's idea. It didn't occur to me that she would do that. But it says so much about her power over these boys that she condones, encourages their criminal behavior. And the boys have all had different fathers. Her behavior is inappropriate, crossing a line toward incest.

Is this genre of film peculiar to Australia? I saw The Square, another dark badass movie with many of the same actors and a similar sensibility. For example, a character is offed, and you say, gee, I kind of liked him.

Yes, Joel Edgerton made The Square. He's is Hollywood at the moment. He's lovely, with quite a future. Yes, there's a similar banality of evil in these movies, an anti-glamorizing of the bad people. There's a pragmatism in the violence. I think we are mesmerized by the crime genre because most of us are law abiding. We find it riveting that there are people who go beyond the bounds. I think most of us are capable of bad things but most of us know when to draw the line.

How did you prepare for your role?

I read a lot of true crime, a lot of this movie mirrors events that took place in Melbourne in the 1980's, a feud going on between the corrupt police and a couple of criminal families. This is fiction, though, because David wanted to tell the story himself without worrying about the history: there were 2 young cops killed as a reprisal and there was a family of thugs. The mother has around 6 kids, a bad woman who ran brothels, and had people killed. Two of her sons died in jail. They committed several murders, one with a chain saw like in Fargo. She's only got one eye because another criminal shot it out. In Australia we've got much stronger libel laws than they do here. She's still around, and a bit scary. We don't talk about it even though everyone knows who this character is based on. We do have a reality show a little like The Sopranos but we use real names. It is incumbent on the actors to do a kind of impersonation. That would not have bothered me. But David did not want to make a biopic. He wanted to borrow from those events and make his own story, so we invented the character. The real life mother is furious. She was interviewed, saying: Everybody's making money off my fucking life except me.

Your acting! There's something about this character. She is sweet one minute and then you are not even aware she is changing. And then all of a sudden it's the look in her eyes.

That's what we wanted. It was a good collaboration. David had a clear idea of what he wanted but at the same time he is not a puppeteer like a lot of young directors. They will tell you exactly how they want things and you might as well be a storyboard for animation. The best acting comes from collaboration and David was ready to listen to all of us. At the same time he had a clear vision.

Did you go to acting school?

I started when I was 3. I came out of the womb pretending to be someone else. I love the work of Judi Dench. Meryl Streep. Anything by Woody Allen and Pedro Almodovar. I am fascinated by others: I always find other people far more interesting than I am.

Is that why you started our interview asking me questions?

You are like a lot of my black wig characters. I wear a lot of wigs.

Were you wearing one in the movie?

No, they hot rollered my hair beyond belief.

Did it take a lot of time in makeup and wigs?

Not as much as the tattoos on the boys.

At the end of Animal Kingdom, the grandson-played by an extraordinary newcomer, James Frecheville-- surprises you. What do you think happens to the grandson?

It shows good writing that the end is not spelled out. But my theory is, he's now top lion. It's too late for him. He's already committed a murder so he has to be involved with crime. The family will continue with the grandson running the roost. And the grandmother has to obey him for her own survival. David is already talking about a sequel, even a prequel. I said I'm in, but only if I can choose her husbands.

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