'The Matrix' to 'Cloud Atlas': Hugo Weaving's Smart, Subtle Scariness

It takes talent to play this many unforgettable bad guys.

Diane Bondareff / AP

With a face reminiscent of a Modigliani portrait, Hugo Weaving is not obvious leading-man material, at least not by Hollywood's superficial standards. Still, his sharp features, which include a high, intelligent forehead and piercing blue eyes framed by a pair of unsettling brows, have been an indelible, if supporting, part of two enormous film franchises—The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix trilogies—while just his resonant voice, with its ominous smoothness, has enlivened several CGI creations, including the killer alien robot Megatron in the Transformers movies. The closing months of 2012 mark a couple of returns for Weaving. First, with the recently released Cloud Atlas, he has again immersed himself in the imaginings of Matrix directors Lana and Andy Wachowski. And in December, he treks back to Middle Earth to resume his reign as Elrond, the half-elven Lord of Rivendell, as Peter Jackson begins his attempt to spin Tolkien's modest prequel The Hobbit into three more crowd-pleasing epics.

Like many pragmatic foreign actors before him, Weaving, a Nigerian-born veteran of Australian cinema, has leveraged his talents into Hollywood semi-fame and fortune with roles of questionable artistic credibility. His turns as the eloquent vigilante in V for Vendetta and as the comic-book baddie Red Skull in Captain America certainly wouldn't seem to require the gifts of a graduate of Australia's renowned National Institute of Dramatic Art. In Vendetta, Weaving's wonderfully expressive mug is concealed by the now-ubiquitous Guy Fawkes mask, while for Captain America, it is buried in layers of scary silicone. But these characters actually show Weaving in his sweet spot: using his emotional intelligence and striking mannerisms to create unforgettable villains and anti-heroes.

The Wachowskis are particularly indebted to Weaving, whose sneering formality ("Mr. Anderson") and other sinister charms as the virtual Agent Smith in the Matrix movies distract from the directors' screenplays' ponderous cyber-babble and fascistic anti-totalitarianism. Wisely promoted from enemy to archenemy for the series' second and third installments, Weaving's appearances are a consistent respite from the Wachowskis' endless freshman-year philosophizing, as well as his castmates' obvious confused indifference. Despite the Wachowskis' determination to muddle all that they create, Weaving manages to give Agent Smith the self-awareness and touch of vulnerability a really good bad guy needs.

In Cloud Atlas, co-directed by Tom Tykwer, Weaving plays a distinct character in each of the movie's six interlocking, centuries-spanning storylines. Most of them are bent, as Agent Smith is, on defending old orders against new ones or, to the Wachowskis' forever Manichean minds, slavery against freedom. None of Weaving's performances amounts to much more than a cameo. But especially in the Wachowskis' segments of Cloud Atlas—in which Weaving respectively embodies evil as a 19th century slaveholder, as an Asian penal functionary in the year 2144, and as Tom Hanks's voodoo-lizard-man delusion in a distant post-apocalyptic future—his limited screen time pays exceptional dividends. That's because in each case Weaving infuses his character's misanthropic words with enough menacing panache to jar the audience awake.

In Australia, the classically trained Weaving has continued to challenge himself artistically in smaller roles—including, of course, by playing a few scoundrels. But whereas in Cloud Atlas and The Matrix movies Weaving does what he can to humanize the Wachowskis' villains, his Aussie antagonists have tended to be all-too-human and, therefore, much more terrifying. In the also recently released Last Ride, for example, which struggled for three years to find a U.S. distributor, Weaving portrays Kev, a laconic lowlife who flees with his young son to the outback after committing a violent crime in the boy's defense. In context, the impulse behind Kev's transgression is understandable. But at heart, Kev is a frightening figure who physically abuses his son to teach him the same base survival lessons he learned at an early age.

Unlike his big-ticket efforts, which often demand unabashed scenery chewing, Weaving is typically a paragon of acting restraint on the Australian side of his career. It is this subdued approach that makes his performances in Last Ride and another Australian movie, The Interview, so remarkably effective. In The Interview, a 1998 police thriller that also took a couple of years to hit the U.S. art-house circuit, Weaving portrays Eddie Fleming, a poor, unemployed outcast. As the film opens, he's rousted from a sound slumber and roughly handled by a swat team. These overtly class-prejudiced cops want to pin a car theft on him—and perhaps worse. Initially, Eddie comes across as a latter-day Josef K., a milksop crushed by existential forces beyond his control or comprehension. But then The Interview takes a Pinteresque turn, and Eddie morphs into a possible sociopath as the movie transforms into a lacerating meditation on language, bureaucratic power, and the flawed mortals who wield both. Brilliantly merging two performances into one character, Weaving leaves Eddie's true nature, either as victim or victimizer, chillingly murky.

Given the power of those indie roles, the temptation might be to label Weaving a sell-out. And indeed, some of Weaving's voice-over work has been in the service of the truly embarrassing. (To his credit, in an Internet dust-up with Transformers director Michael Bay, Weaving expressed contrition for taking a job that was "meaningless" to him). But Weaving and actors like him play an important role in big-budget Hollywood features: bringing an ounce of actorly smarts to otherwise dumb productions, and offering mass audiences a better, defter bad guy to root against.