When Hollywood needs a villain they have one man on speed dial. Hugo Weaving has battled Captain America, led the Decepticons against the Transformers, kung-fu kicked Keanu Reeves through the increasingly baffling Matrix films as Agent Smith and even snapped at sheepdog wannabe Babe.
The Nigerian-born, English-raised, Australian actor has a broad range: from Elrond in the Middle Earth sagas to drag queen Anthony in cult classic The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but it’s his explorations of the dark side that linger longest in the memory.
“I suppose the big-budget American things tend to be higher-profile and tend to be very dark,” Weaving says. “If you put all of my work together, they’re a pretty broad range of characters. Some are very dark, some less so. Some are quite boring and mediocre, some are really lovely.
“I am drawn towards complexity and contrast. Someone who is either haunted by something inside them that they don’t quite understand – as we all are probably – or has buried something inside them. It’s a journey of discovery of what that thing is.”
In Patrick Melrose, Benedict Cumberbatch plays an upper-class addict, deeply damaged by a traumatic childhood. His problems stem from the years of sexual abuse he faced at the hands of his father, David, a role that takes Hugo Weaving to dark new places. But he was keen to resist a one-dimensional depiction.
“I’m never interested in doing that really,” he says. “Unless it’s a cartoon, unless you’re in the Marvel Universe or the requirements are to twiddle your moustache and be Dr Evil, that’s fine.
“This is a monstrous human being, a sexual predator, a misogynist. He’s cruel, contemptuous, a snob. He’s full of self-aggrandisement but he’s incredibly smart, creative and utterly charming. He’s a man who’s incredibly damaged. If there is such a thing as evil it’s probably the damaged individual who cannot help themselves.”
The series is based on the books by Edward St Aubyn. Although they are not strictly autobiographical, they contain a lot of autobiographical content and allowed Weaving access into the real-life basis for David Melrose.
“The book starts off with a portrait of David showering ants with a hose, this godlike sadist in a dressing gown and cigar,” Weaving says. “I read passages aloud to myself again and again. It is such a black story, such a serious piece. Edward St Aubyn is a man who’s gone through so much pain he’s been reborn. And the tone of the telling shifts from the first book to the fifth. Compassion and humanity emerges. You can see the writer being healed by his own writing, someone is writing this to save their life, but it’s told with such lightness and humour.”
The TV show does not attempt to explain David Melrose’s behaviour beyond the implication that the terrified become the terrifying, meaning he was also a victim in his past. And it is Weaving’s responsibility to find the humanity in even the most inhumane of characters.
“As an actor you have to be intrigued by the other,” he explains. “I have to work out how someone can be like that. What lies do we have to tell ourselves to deal with our hideousness? You want to work out what makes someone tick and by doing that I suppose you disappear yourself.
“His complexity is the thing that saves him, to me anyway. There are glimpses of a man lost inside him.
“He’s a lot like the rest of us really,” Weaving continues. “Depending on the situation we are one thing one moment, something else the next because we’re revealing different sides of ourselves. We are many things and affected by many outside forces: people, weather, stresses, lack of sleep – all sorts of things make us who we are in any one moment.
“It is the contradictions and complexities that make us human, even if we are monstrously human.”
Patrick Melrose is out now on DVD – head here for the chance of winning one of five DVD copies
Image: Still from Patrick Melrose