Jacki Weaver Has Done Some Good Things, Sweetie

She was in Peter Weir's “Picnic at Hanging Rock” back in 1975, but up for Supporting Actress at this year's Oscars for “Animal Kingdom,” the Australian nominee shows she still has a few tough moves

Jacki Weaver is one of the year's unlikeliest acting nominees, a 63-year-old stage and television actress from Australia whose four-decade career has included barely more than a dozen movies, including Peter Weir's "Picnic at Hanging Rock" in 1975. But Weaver emerged at last year's Sundance Film Festival as a fearsome presence in David Michod's dark, tense "Animal Kingdom," a brilliant drama focusing on a family of criminals in Melbourne.

Jacki WeaverAs the matriarch of a clan of thugs, convicts and  ex-cons who are visited by the police as often as the postman, Weaver is initially a puzzle; she may be oblivious to the malfeasance in her home, or she may be complicit. With a sweet grin and a catchphrase that has ended up on t-shirts ("You've done some bad things, sweetie"), it's a delicious, sly performance in one of the year's underappreciated gems — and it's to the Academy's credit that they noticed and made her a Supporting Actress nominee.

Warning: the conversation strays into areas that give away a few things about Weaver's character, although they don't touch on the film's plot. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Now that you're on a break from the play you were doing with Cate Blanchett in Australia, have they been working you hard on the awards circuit?
Like a dog. But I don’t mind. I had a taste of it in June, when I did some long-lead publicity. I've been doing plays back-to-back in Australia, and they gave me a week off to fly over here and do three days in New York and three days here before the film was released. My biggest day was one day in L.A. when I did 38 interviews and six photo shoots. I got sick of the sound of my own voice, it was so boring.

Is it a little better now?
It's a little more relaxed. Now I'm trying on dresses.

When you were you working on the film, did you ever think about awards?
No, I didn’t think about awards, especially not American ones. I just thought it was a great character, and I loved the dialogue and I loved the story, I thought I really want to play this. That's all.

And when the awards started to come in, were you…
Flabbergasted. Flabbergasted. I mean, a year ago, when the film won Sundance and we all went over there, we only went because it was one of the 12 finalists out of more than 1000 entries, and we thought that was good enough. I don’t think any of us expected it to win. But when we were in Sundance, Americans were already saying to me, "This is a brilliant film, and you'll be getting a lot of attention for this." And I thought they were just being kind and polite. And as it's transpired, that's what happened.

Do you get sucked into wanting awards once they start coming?
It's something that was never on my agenda, but now that it possibly is… I think I want it. I said this in an acceptance speech before, but when I was younger I had my fair share of awards. And I was very blasé. I used to think, awards aren't important, it's the work that matters. But nowadays, I've done a complete turnaround. I love awards. I embrace them wholeheartedly. It's a basic human need to be told you’ve done a good job, whatever your job is. And when you're told that by a lot of people all at once, it's even better. (laughs)

Jacki WeaverHow did you get involved with "Animal Kingdom?"
David [Michod] sent me the script, and I loved it and said, "I’d love to do this." But then I didn’t hear anything for five years. That's how long it took to get the money. And when he contacted me again and said, "I've got my money, please say you'll do it because I don’t want to do it with anybody else," how could you say no to that?

What was it about the character that you loved?
She's a complex, well-researched, well observed, classic sociopath. And I love the way David only subtly introduces that fact. There are a few little teases at the beginning that make you realize, hang on, this woman doesn't react the way you'd expect. And then eventually you realize she has all the attributes: she's callous and without a conscience and coldly pragmatic and completely self-centered. She loves the boys, in that she's part of this group of dangerous young men. She's probably grown up with criminal parents.

I mean, it's easy to explain why she is how she is. Working out the backstory was fun. And I liked the way she's contradictory and multi-layered and complex. Like people really are. And i liked how he didn’t want her to be a villain right from the beginning. I think it's much more interesting storytelling for it to be a gradual realization.

I also think David writes great dialogue — it's authentic without being cliché. And I liked the way he drove the narrative. I like the way he enters the scene late and leaves the scene early.

At a certain point in the movie, I think the audience feels that your character is oblivious to what's going on. And then you think, no she's not oblivious – she's vaguely aware, but she's made a decision to ignore it. And then it's like, no, she's …
… Manipulating the whole thing. Yeah. That's right. And that's what's so clever about the way David tells the story, I think. Because if I'd gone with my first choices, I probably would have telegraphed how bad she was a little bit sooner, and I know now that would have been a mistake. And David kept me from doing that.

You shot on a tight schedule, didn't you?
Yes. But even so, there was the luxury of a rehearsal period, which was invaluable. We got to workshop it, and David added and subtracted a few scenes. But it also gave us the chance to bond and get the ensemble feeling going. It was good for young James, especially, because he was only 17, we took him out of school, he'd never done any professional work before. And being mostly a theater actor, I'm used to a lot of rehearsal. I like trying out all my choices before I commit them to camera or commit them to the audience.

Was it a conscious choice to focus your career in the theater?
It's just that i get offered theater work all the time. There's only 20 million of us, and probably 30 films get made in Australia each year, so there's not a lot of work in film for someone like me. I haven’t really considered a film career much, whereas I've never been out of work in the theater.

Do you think "Animal Kingdom" has changed the prospects for you?
Well, yeah. Suddenly I'm getting a lot more movie scripts sent to me. That's quite exciting. In 48 years of acting, I've made about 15 films and about 100 plays. So it'd be lovely to do some more movies, and not have to do eight performances a week. Which I don’t mind, but it is hard work. Movies are hard work, too, but it's a different ballgame. You get a caravan. A Winnebago.

So that's your new career goal? Movies and Winnebagos?
I'd love to do more movies. I mean, there's a limit to what's left for someone of my era can do in the movies, but I've no doubt now there will be more options open to me. Every actor gets to this stage and thinks there are roles I would have loved to have played and never did. And I just shrug my shoulders and say that it doesn't matter, because I've been very happy with what I did.

But yeah, if this means I'll get more film work, that's fabulous. Bring it on.