Mommie Dearest: An Interview with Animal Kingdom's Jacki Weaver

Playing a complex, historically awards-winning character -- the atypical, troubled mother -- Weaver is very much in keeping with the traditions begun by Oscar-winning actresses such as Jo Van Fleet, Shelley Winters and even Mo'Nique. She talks with PopMatters about her scorching role in Animal Kingdom.

Animal Kingdom

Director: David Michôd
Cast: Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver
MPAA Rating: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
US Release Date: 2010-08-13
"Some mothers are kissing mothers and some are scolding mothers, but it is love just the same, and most mothers kiss and scold together."

-- Pearl S. Buck


American audiences might not yet be intimately familiar with the work of Australian acting icon Jacki Weaver despite her presence in such national treasures as Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock, but after the Sundance-sanctioned success of neophyte director Michôd's blistering family crime drama Animal Kingdom, it's no trouble whatsoever to imagine her name being mentioned in conjunction with any year-end Best Supporting Actress prize worth its salt.

Playing a complex, historically awards-winning character -- the atypical, troubled mother-- Weaver, 63, is very much in keeping with the traditons begun by Oscar-winning actresses playing bad mothers ranging in severity from the distant, alcoholic, yet not-entirely=unlikable (Jo Van Fleet, East of Eden), to the coarse and disfiguring (Shelley Winters A Patch of Blue) to, most recently, the repulsive and abusive (Mo'Nique, Precious). Cinematic bad mothers frequently cross over from famous literary works in the forms of archetypes such as Greek mythology's Oedipus' Jocasta and Medea or William Shakespeare's Gertrude from Hamlet or the classic Lady MacBeth and often, they liberally borrow from all of these broken womens' infamous traits: razor-sharp cunning, sugar-coated guile, raw animal instinct, and pure luck.

What these performances and types of performances have in common with Weaver's turn as the unnaturally cheerful on the outside, evil on the inside Janine "Smurf" Cody, is a willingness to play all of the rough, unsentimental edges. In a year in which motherhood has already been examined in new, fresh ways by women as diverse as Annette Bening (Mother and Child and The Kids Are All Right), Kim Hye-ja (Mother), Julianne Moore (Chloe and The Kids Are All Right), Tilda Swinton (I Am Love) and Naomi Watts (Mother and Child), it is Weaver who makes one of the strongest impressions of the bunch. The actress lures the viewer into operatically dark, cobwebbed corners like a deadly suburban black widow spider and without any hesitation or vanity, and an eerie calm.

The kind of details in "Smurf" -- the kisses on her sons' lips that linger just a second too long or the way she bats her eyes like a kitten at and pays special, flirty attention to policeman Leckie (Guy Pearce) -- highlight a sharply-rendered originality that can only be etched by a truly great, seasoned artist with a steady hand. The result of this risk-taking by Weaver is an unforgettable portrait of a woman who is terrified of being alone, so terrified she is willing to do whatever it takes to keep her boys with her, out of jail and alive. Weaver, with a gleam in her eye all the while, knows precisely how to navigate the tricky, often unbelievable psychological landscapes of a fractured criminal mind and hits paydirt with what is certainly one of the year's most captivating performances.

I was so impressed with the amount of detail that was packed into the first ten minutes, as we get to know the family. When you got the script, what was your reaction to the lean, muscular language?

I was really impressed with it. I was sent the script... oh, six years ago now and I was immediately struck by how good it was. The fact that the three main features of it being the excellent dialogue -- [David Michôd] he's incapable of writing a cliched line; I think the characters were so interestingly complex, there were no single-dimension characters at all, they were quite layered; and also the storyline told an interesting story in a really interesting way. It had an authentic ring to it. Even though it is a piece of fiction, it occurred in Europe, it occurred in Melbourne, in Australia, in the 1980s. So, it had a ring of authenticity about it. I was really impressed with it and then I almost forgot about it because it happens often that young filmmakers will send you a script and you say 'yes, I am very interested in doing it' and then they can't get their money up and you never hear about it again. Sometimes, you'll say 'Yes, I'm very interested' and the next thing you hear is that they're making the film with someone else altogether! (laughing) So, I had almost forgotten about Animal Kingdom and David called me a couple of years ago and said 'we've got the money, we're going to go ahead, and I hope you still want to do it, because I don't want to do it with anybody else.' Which was really flattering.

I was thrilled that he'd managed to get [the money] up because it was such a worthwhile project. We shot it about eighteen months ago and it was a terrific experience because apart from being a fantastic writer -- you know he co-wrote one of the American films that made it into the finals at Sundance, he had two films in the finals, he co-wrote the movie Hesher, which was put into the finals as was Animal Kingdom -- he had a very clear vision of what he wanted. He's a very unassuming, quiet, gentle kind of man, but he's got a fierce intellect. He knew he could get what he wanted but at the same time he was very collaborative, he wanted input from the actors and was happy to listen to all of our ideas, which is great for a young, inexperienced director, because sometimes they just want to be puppeteers and treat the actors like the the storyboards do, exactly. I think you get a much richer performance if its more collaborative, and that's what David was able to do. It was altogether a great experience, but then for it to go on to have such great success was just... icing on the cake, really.

Have you ever known a woman like Janine in real life? Who or what were your inspirations for the character?

Well, I honestly don't know any criminals to that extent but I have read about them. The criminal crowd, I would guess, would be about two percent of the population. I think the rest of us are fascinated by crime stories because most of us are law-abiding, decent folk. I think that's why we will always be fascinated by how that tiny minority behaves. I only from reading, but I do have a couple of friends who are clinical psychologists and I talked to them about sociopaths and how [their illness] is not always immediately apparent, that someone who does have sociopathic tendencies can be very clever at hiding it, that they seem like normal, perfectly charming people but you discover that they've got no conscious, they have no moral compass, I guess. So, no, she's not like anyone I actually know.

I am fascinated by characters that kind of upend archetypes and stereotypes -- here you do it by playing a very complicated "mother." What about Janine makes her a good mother?

Well, I think all mothers love their children. She does love them but I think she loves them just a little too much and a little inappropriately. I think she's probably substituting her affection for them with the fact that she hasn't had -- because we guessed that all of these boys come from different fathers -- she's not had a proper adult relationship of her own. She's sort of using the boys as a substitute. That's not to say that its anything incestuous, but there's definitely too much power, too much intimacy. I think that little gesture of kissing them on the mouth -- and that was David's idea -- I think it speaks volumes about the inappropriateness of how she feels about those boys. If they had chosen other careers, that support and love she gives them would be a positive thing but she totally condones their criminal behavior and profits off of it herself, so yeah, she's a good mother because a good mother loves her kids, but there's such a thing as loving them too much or not loving them in the right way, spoiling them. But these kids -- I mean, she's a sociopath whose given birth to other sociopaths.

There are some things that are unexplained in the film, which I think really makes for extra added suspense Where do you think Janine came from? We get bits and pieces of her backstory in the script, but not a whole history. What kind of backstory did you and the director come up with about what her earlier life might have been like?

We did! Oh yes! We were very thorough. I know in my experience that we always make up a back story based on evidence from the actual script. And it doesn't matter if the audience finds out that story because its not relevant to the actual story. It helps you to kind of inform what you're doing. Our backstory was that she had come from a criminal background and had relationships with different men and brought up the sons with different fathers and they were obviously violent criminals and whatever happened to them is no longer relevant to the story. She explains a bit why she's become estranged from the daughter but apart from that, I think its good to leave something for the audience to guess themselves, to fill in the dots, you know? That's part of a good story, not explaining everything.

What was it like working with all of these amazing men, being the female center of a very macho world?

They were very good to me, they treated me with enormous respect and kindness, they were very loyal. Actually, some of them call me 'mum'. Ben Mendelsohn ["Pope"] is just a bit older than my real-life son and I've known Ben since he was a teenager, so my maternal feelings towards Ben were very heartfelt. The other boys, I am very fond of too. We did bond pretty quickly during the short rehearsal period, and that was invaluable. You know, they're all young alpha-males, in their characters and in real life, the actors themselves. It would get a bit intense on that film, it was testosterone city, the masculinity was a palpable force! (laughing)

Did you have any concerns about the way the violence would be portrayed in the movie?

I like the fact that the violence is mostly implied. You don't actually see a bullet go in, I mean, you see blood spatter, but the violence is, I think more disturbing because it is implied rather than graphic. Its certainly not in the same league as in some crime films that you see. I love Quentin Tarantino, but its not that kind of violence.

I'm glad you bring up Tarantino because I was curious about what kinds of films and performances really excite you?

I've got very eclectic tastes. I love all sorts of films. I love Almodovar films. I love Woody Allen films. I was talking talking earlier this morning about Nora Ephron, I love her rom-coms. I loved The Road. I like anything that Sean Penn does. I think I read somewhere that Clint Eastwood runs a set where nobody's allowed to raise their voice, so that sounds like heaven. (laughing) Apparently, he doesn't shout action, he just whispers almost, 'anytime you're ready,' which sounds to me like bliss. (laughing)

It's probably because people are terrified of Clint Eastwood!

Yes! I would think so! (laughing)

Speaking of great directors, I'd love to know more about your experience working on the enigmatic Picnic at Hanging Rock with Peter Weir...

Oh right! Well, that was such a long time ago, it was in the seventies. Peter Weir was and still is a wonderful man, so creative and clever. Working on that, the director of photography was Russell Boyd, he won the Oscar for that film with Russell Crowe, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. I've worked with some fantastic Australian DOPs, come to think of it! Dean Semler, who won the Oscar for Dances with Wolves, he was the operator on a film that I did really well with, a television film that I did about 30 years ago [1976's Do I Have to Kill My Child?]. John Seale [who did the Anthony Minghella-directed trifecta of The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain, among other great works], I worked with him when we were teenagers on a TV series and he does very well in Hollywood now. Its not just actors actors who have invaded, but its also a lot of our technicians.

I couldn't ask for a more perfect segue into my next question! Why do you think contemporary Australian films and Aussie film stars have historically had such enormous cross-over appeal here in the states?

I think its a wonderful thing! Its great that people are always willing to embrace something that's new. I've been around for a long time and I remember when most of them were just kids. Cate Blanchett was at drama school with my son. I remember Nicole [Kidman] when she was 15 years old and she looked like a colt -- she was long and leggy with frizzy red hair -- and I remember saying to my husband 'I think she's going to be a big star' (laughing). Once you get popular... a lot of people would like to claim that now! I don't really know Russell [Crowe] very well but his father-in-law lives in my building. Guy Pearce, he was so good in L.A. Confidential. He keeps popping up in little things -- he's in The Road and he's in The Hurt Locker and he's never done a bad job. He's a lovely young man to work with. Young man ... (laughing) Its like I'm an ancient old crone (laughing).

I thought that gesture at the very end of the film was powerful: the embrace and your hands upturned in a shocked, pleading way. What is your take on the film's final scene? Where do you think the character goes after this scene?

When we shot that, we did a few takes on that and I think that was my idea. I suddenly thought 'she's in another zone', it didn't seem right to hold onto him, but it felt perfectly right for my hands to go limp, it was just an instinctual thing. I think upon seeing it, it was the right choice. I think its most likely that suddenly, there's a new lion running the pride and its the boy [J, played by Ben Frechette]. Its too late for him. He's committed a murder by now. If he's not arrested for that murder -- and he probably won't be -- the boy can say it was self-defense and it will be fine. He will now run that family because the other son [Darren, played by Luke Ford] is weak and ineffectual. She's still powerful but I think the boy is now going to be top dog, top lion.

* * *

Animal Kingdom, which permanently re-contextualizes the music of Air Supply, will enjoy a limited released by Sony Pictures Classics on August 13 (in New York and Los Angeles) and will expand throughout the fall. Look for Jacki Weaver to land on the supporting actress short lists during awards season for her adroit work.

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