Jacki Weaver, America’s Sweetheart

Published October 2, 2014

ABOVE: JACKI WEAVER AS SUSAN WRIGHT IN GRACEPOINT. PHOTO COURTESY OF FOX.

Jacki Weaver has been an actress her whole life. “From the moment I could talk, I was pretending to be other people,” she says. “I saw my first live show when I was about three. It was Aladdin. I thought what an excellent thing it was to do.” Now 67, Weaver’s professional debut was in a local production of Cinderella when she was 15. “I played Cinderella, and the Prince was an 18-year-old TV star,” she recalls. “We began a romance. He would pick me up from school in his red Jaguar. [The other students] used to mob his car until finally the headmistress banned him from picking me up,” she laughs.

It is only over the last five years, however, that Weaver has become a household name in the U.S. In 2010, Weaver received her first Oscar nomination for her role as the terrifying matriarch of an Australian crime family in David Michôd‘s Animal Kingdom. Two years later, she was nominated again, this time as Bradley Cooper’s mother in The Silver Linings Playbook. (In Weaver’s words, she “went from being the vilest woman in the world to the sweetest woman in the world.”) Since then, she’s acted for Woody Allen, Marjane Satrapi, and cult Korean director Chan-wook Park. Tonight, Gracepoint, Weaver’s new television series with Anna Gunn, Nick Nolte, and David Tennant, will premiere on Fox. “There’s an old adage,” jokes Weaver, “one Oscar nomination is great, but the second one proves the first one wasn’t a fluke.”

Based on the British series Broadchurch, which also stars Tennant, Gracepoint begins with the murder of a 12-year-old boy. Everyone—from the boy’s father (Michael Peña) to his sister’s boyfriend and the local priest—is a suspect. Weaver plays Susan Wright, a skittish, solitary, trailer-dwelling newcomer to the coastal Californian town. Like most characters on the show, Susan has something she’d rather not share with her neighbors.

EMMA BROWN: Did you watch Broadchurch before you got involved in Gracepoint?

JACKI WEAVER: I did watch Broadchurch, yes. I really loved it. I didn’t want to do exactly the same thing, even though I thought it was brilliant. I thought it was important to make it our own and I think we did that. It’s difficult to talk about Gracepoint without doing a spoiler—it’s a true whodunit; it’s essential you don’t give away too much. But as the show Gracepoint progresses it’s quite different from Broadchurch in many ways, not just in the characters but some of the plotline differs.

BROWN: Are you allowed to say if the killer’s the same?

WEAVER: Well, I was told it wasn’t, then I was told I was misinformed. We were given very limited scripts… [laughs]

BROWN: Did you grow up watching murder mysteries?

WEAVER: Yes. Even in Australia I’d say 80 percent of our television was American. I grew up watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. I used to sit with my mum when I was just nine years old, trying to guess what the twist would be. I love that kind of thing. For instance in The Sixth Sense, I guessed very early on what that secret was. Mind you, The Crying Game got me. I shrieked in the cinema when that secret came out. [laughs]  

BROWN: How did you remove the idea of Broadchurch from your mind when you started on Gracepoint?

WEAVER: Being a theater actor, I’ve done a lot of plays where I’ve seen someone else play the same role in another production. Especially with the classics: Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams. I think early on it’s important to put that at the back of your mind and make your own choices. Sometimes you do pick the same choices, just as a matter of course—not because someone else did it first, but because it was the best choice to make. But any actor worth his salt makes something their own. Pauline Quirke, who played my character in Broadchurch, is a wonderful actress. I’ve always thought she was fantastic, but there’s no way I could do an impersonation of Pauline. There’s always 28 ways to strangle a goose… that’s a stupid metaphor. [laughs] Especially with something that’s well written, there are endless possibilities of how you can interpret it. She’s different from Pauline’s version, my Susan.

BROWN: Is she inherently different because she’s an American woman as opposed to an English one? Or does that not really matter?

WEAVER: It certainly affects attitudes, speech patterns, and backgrounds. It’s very different in the dialogue. We have two great writers working on it apart from the original [writer] Chris Chibnall—the Englishman. We have Anya Epstein and Dan Futterman, who is famous for doing In Treatment and was nominated for an Oscar for the Philip Seymour Hoffman version of Capote. We’re all similar in many ways but there’s no doubt that our cultures are unique.

BROWN: Do you generally live in Australia?

WEAVER: I seem to spend more time in America at the moment because of work. I’ve been coming to America for many years— since 1972—’cause I was a New York addict. I just loved New York and I used to come every year, sometimes more than once. I never spent much time in Los Angeles. I was a theater animal—I’ve only made, at last count, about 31 films, but I’ve been in about 100 plays.

BROWN: What was the best play you’ve seen in New York?

WEAVER: I’ve seen so many. My record is that I saw 30 in three weeks because I was able to do three matinees and seven nights.

BROWN: Oh my goodness.

WEAVER: [laughs] Yes, overload. My taste is very eclectic. I love musicals, but I also love the classics. I’ve seen some fantastic productions. I was in a musical for 600 performances in Australia that I first saw in New York. That was back in the ’80s—Neil Simon, Marvin Hamlisch, They’re Playing Our Song. I was also in a long-running production in Australia of Shadowlands, which is a C.S. Lewis story, that I saw Jane Alexander doing in New York. And I was very different from Jane Alexander, but she was brilliant. I was in Six Degrees of Separation, and I saw Stockard Channing play that role. Sometimes I see the productions in America after I’ve done them in Australia, and that’s also interesting.

BROWN: Is it strange?

WEAVER: I wouldn’t say strange. It’s fascinating. It’s also exhilarating when you see people making the exact same choices that you’ve made. It kind of validates what you’ve decided to do. [laughs] I saw a wonderful production of Jessica Lange doing Streetcar with Alec Baldwin. It was gorgeous. It’s a measure of what a great classic that is, that our Cate Blanchett also did an absolute amazing Blanche in Sydney, as well as in New York. I think Meryl Streep said it was the finest performance she’d ever seen on stage. It transports itself over several cultures. Even though Australia is terribly influenced by America, it still has a very strong culture of its own.

BROWN: You’ve been in some wonderful films over the last four years: Animal Kingdom, obviously The Silver Linings Playbook, Stoker. Did you make a conscious effort to do more film?

WEAVER: To be embraced by Hollywood when I’d been acting professionally for almost 50 years seemed unbelievable. I’ve been so welcomed in such a warm, generous way—it seemed crazy not to take advantage of it. I hope for another 20 years where I can still keep going. Look at Betty White! But while America is offering all these interesting characters to play, I’m going to keep taking them. It would seem ungrateful not to. I did go home to Australia to do a film—my first in Australia for four years —earlier this year. I got teased a bit by the crew saying, “Where’s your Australian accent? You sound American.”

BROWN: Was Animal Kingdom the film that changed things for you?

WEAVER: Oh, yes, undoubtedly! David Michôd changed my life, quite literally, along with the chaps at Sony Pictures Classics. That’s what set me on my way. I thought we did good work and had a good film, but when it was so praised at Sundance that year that’s what really started the ball rolling. We all paid our own way to Sundance. When the film won the Jury Prize, we’d already left because we didn’t expect it to do so well. A few American critics said to me, “This is award material for you.” I thought they were just being terribly kind as Americans generally are, [but] they were proven right.

BROWN: Over the years, what’s the best career advice you’ve gotten?

WEAVER: I’ve had lots of good career advice over the years. I’ve learned that you must always arrive knowing your lines, you must hit your marks, you must be punctual and cheerful and kind. I’m always irritated with young people who misbehave and young actors who are temperamental. I don’t think there’s any need for it.  

BROWN: Do you think that people are less well behaved now than when you started out?

WEAVER: No, I don’t think they’re more temperamental people now. With social media we hear a lot more about it. The nastiness you get online, there were always mean girls—always—they didn’t have such a big forum as they do now. Mean girls ought to get a life, I think. [laughs]    

BROWN: Did you ever feel like you were ever typecasted over the course of your career?

WEAVER: When I was a teenager and in my 20s, I had a baby face and I was playing people much younger than I. I was still getting children’s roles when I was 30, and that used to be the bane of my life. I used to long to play a fully grown, real-life women. When I was 37 or something, I was playing a 17-year-old virgin, and I had already been married three times. [laughs]

BROWN: Do you watch any television shows regularly?

WEAVER: Well I love Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Bill Maher. I love satirical stuff. I love Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. I love Jimmy Fallon. I think he’s gorgeous.  

BROWN: He seems so charming.

WEAVER: He seems adorable, doesn’t he? He seems like the kind of son I would love to have.  

THE FIRST EPISODE OF GRACEPOINT AIRS TONIGHT ON FOX.