For fifty years, Jacki Weaver had been an acclaimed actress of stage and screen in Australia, despite being seldom known outside of the continent. That changed two years ago, when universal acclaim of David Michod’s Animal Kingdom led to Weaver receiving Critics Choice, Golden Globe, and Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress. Since the release of Animal Kingdom, Weaver has continued filming a string of movies, including Silver Linings Playbook, currently playing in limited release. Silver Linings Playbook, from Oscar-nominated writer/director David O. Russell (The Fighter), follows Pat (Bradley Cooper) through the holidays at home while he attempts to win back his estranged wife and manage the symptoms of his Bipolar Disorder. Also suffering the affects of his illness are his father, Pat Sr. (Oscar-winner Robert De Niro), his mother, Dolores (Weaver), and new love interest, Tiffany (Oscar-nominee Jennifer Lawrence), whose attempts to push Pat out of his comfort zone may ultimately lead to his salvation. I recently had the chance to sit down with Weaver, and ask about how Animal Kingdom changed her life and filming Silver Linings Playbook. Here’s what Weaver shared with about making a film that deals with mental illness, working with the legendary De Niro, and capturing the essence of family in Silver Linings Playbook.
Jackson Truax: How did the international success and acclaim of Animal Kingdom change your life or career? And more specifically, how did it lead to you being in Silver Linings Playbook?
Jacki Weaver: The attention I got in America for Animal Kingdom really did change my life. I haven’t changed. But my life has. I went from being a perfectly contented working actor in Australia to someone who gets offered work in America… I get sent fantastic scripts all the time that wouldn’t have been sent to me before. And that’s to play a whole range of Americans. That’s not unusual for me. I’ve often played Americans onstage in Australia… I was always familiar with becoming American characters. But I never thought I’d get to do it for American audiences. It’s been a real adventure. And a really gratifying one. I’ve also done a few American films now, including Silver Linings Playbook, where I had to be a Philadelphian. And I wanted to be as authentically Philadelphian as I could. So I did a lot of my own research, observational research. I spent a lot of time in Philadelphia wandering around, listening to people in bars, in restaurants, in cafes. I also had a really good coach for a while named Susanne Sulby. And she was very strict with me. Also, Bradley Cooper…he’s a true Philadelphian. I met his mother, too. So I got some pretty good research done.
JT: In Mark Joffe’s 1996 film Cosi, you showed a mastery of a comedy that, while dealing with mental illness, felt much broader. The comedy in Silver Linings Playbook veers much closer to drama and an emotional, gritty realism. What are the different challenges in these roles and how do you navigate what will play as funny in that particular film you’re making?
Weaver: I think life is tragedy one minute and hilarity the next. Even in the saddest of situations, like when people are seriously mentally ill. There can be wonderfully buoyant and uplifting moments of humor. Cosi was written as a play first. It had already acquired an audience. People knew where the laughs were. It was based on the experiences of Louis Nowra, one of our best playwrights, who actually had spent time working in a mental hospital… He was essentially the Ben Mendelsohn role, going in there and [directing theater]… It was how he put himself through university. My character in Cosi, the homicidal nymphomaniac, she was a wonderful character. And based on a real person. I think they all were… It was probably a bit more exaggerated. Because you have to remember all these people were hospitalized. And it was back in the seventies when mental patients tended to be more isolated. Now we to welcome them into the community. It’s probably better for everyone… I’m no expert. But I think it’s much better to integrate people with any kind of illness into the community, provided they’re not a danger to themselves or to other people. Back in the seventies, maybe Bradley’s character would have still been locked in the home. In fact, nowadays, he still would have been if I hadn’t, if the mother, hadn’t gone in there and dragged him out and insisted on getting him out of there because she thought it wasn’t doing him any good.
JT: That segment sets up an interesting dynamic in the film, in which you’re playing the mother of a character being treated for Bipolar Disorder. When building your character, was it important for you to do a lot of research and understand people with Bipolar Disorder and how they might act in some of these situations?
Weaver: I certainly did research. But you have to consider that the mother in the case, she might not have done any research. So, I think it would have been perfectly valid for me to play the role without knowing much about Bipolar…except what she might have been told by the doctor. My through line with the whole thing was that I just loved that boy so much and I wanted him to be happy and healthy and get on with his life.
JT: You mentioned spending a lot of time in Philadelphia and picking up the accent. In addition to the vocal aspect of your character, how immersed did you try and become in the Northeast, working class, football culture?
Weaver: That’s kind of universal. I think all over the world there’s a football culture that borders on the religious. In Australia and England and Europe and China, there are no exceptions to that kind of zeal that people experience for a football team. It’s a tribal thing. It can be very primitive. But ultimately, it can be a very uniting thing for a community. So Philadelphia’s not unique in being religious about their football. Also, I think every family’s got problems. Some family’s have bigger problems than others. Whether it’s our own family where we’ve seen this kind of problem or neighbors or relatives. It wasn’t hard to relate. And that’s why, I think, even though Silver Linings Playbook is such an American film – I did an interview with a British journalist last week… I said, “Did you find the movie hard to relate to because it is so American?” He said, “Oh, God no. No, I identified with every character…” So I think the film speaks to every kind of culture. Because of the family thing, and the football and gambling thing, and the OCD thing, and the Bipolar thing. And the rage of the two men who have anger management problems. And my character, the sweet woman who just treads on eggshells all the time trying to keep the peace.
JT: Speaking of rage and anger management, one of the most show-stopping scenes in the film is when Bradley Cooper is looking for his wedding video in the middle of the night, and you and Robert De Niro try and calm the situation and he flies off the handle. That becomes a scene with a lot of physicality. How choreographed was the fighting in that scene, and how did you prepare to shoot it?
Weaver: We did have a stunt coordinator on board. Because I’m a tiny woman. I’m under five feet tall. Bradley’s a very big lad. He looks 6’4’’ to me. I’m not sure how accurate that is. But he’s pretty big. He did have to throw me on the ground. It did have to be carefully choreographed so that I wouldn’t get hurt. But all the same, I did get a few bruises. The emotional tension was enormous. So whether or not you get physically hurt, your psyche gets bruised as well.
JT: You’ve worked with some really acclaimed directors, over the course of your career, as well as recently. What it is about working with David O. Russell that’s unique, and how did he help this group of actors give such remarkable performances?
Weaver: David does this thing where you stick to the script for the first few takes. And then if he deems it appropriate, you will go off-script. It’s adventurous and it can be terrifying. But it’s very stimulating and exciting. And you can come up with some wonderful stuff. That’s one of the things he wants to make sure you’re very comfortable with doing, is improv. Being able to go off-script, as he calls it. You do have to be on your toes, and step out of your comfort zone, and be ready for anything. But it is exciting. And when it works it’s wonderful. That’s one of the advantages of an auteur director. Because it’s his script, he can call the shots literally and say, “You can change lines here and there and change the emphasis of a scene.” It’s very exciting. I love working the other way too, just going in there and shooting the script exactly as you’ve learned it. But being taken out of your comfort zone can produce wonderful results. I know that from being mostly a theater actor. I’m used to having six weeks rehearsal where you try every possible permutation of how a scene can be done and then make your final choice.
JT: Every actor that you work with brings a series of different things into a scene with them. What was it like for you, having Robert De Niro as your husband and scene partner? What did working with him add to your performance?
Weaver: Whatever part of the arts you work in, to be in the presence of a master is always pretty inspiring. First of all, you have to force yourself not to be so overwrought that you can’t work yourself. On the other hand, it’s just such a privilege… He’s such a gentleman. He’s very quiet. He keeps his own counsel. He’s so kind. And he’s extremely generous, both as a person and as an actor. And David wanted it obvious that we’d been married for forty years and there was a familiarity and we were still in love. I think that comes across. We still care about each other. I’ve only seen the film twice. But there’s one scene where he puts his arm around me and kisses me. I find it so touching each time I’ve seen it. I don’t remember shooting that. I remember shooting that scene many times. It must have been a spontaneous gesture on his part that overwhelmed me.
JT: Later in the film, there are lot of ensemble scenes, like making the bet and the parlay, that involve a lot of actors saying a lot of lines very quickly, and with very specific comedic timing. How do you approach a scene like that as a group of actors, and get the rhythm down so it feels as funny as possible while still feeling very human and truthful?
Weaver: That was tricky. But when you’ve got several actors together that are all pretty good at their jobs and who aren’t just trying to do something for themselves, they’re trying to make the group thing work, it’s a magic that happens. And David O. Russell who’s so inspiring got it working. Those big group scenes, he lights it so the camera can go anywhere. And he’ll say, “Go to Shea [Whigham]. Go to Paul [Herman]. Go to Jacki.”
JT: Since the release of Animal Kingdom, you’ve been shooting so many projects, and I know have some more that you’re getting ready to shoot. Is there anything you have coming up that you want to give AwardsDaily readers a proverbial sneak peak of?
Weaver: I’ve got a film called Parkland coming up that Peter Landesman (Trade) has written and will direct, about the JFK Assassination from the point of view of Parkland, the hospital where in the space of thirty-six hours, they brought in JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald and it’s the same doctors who had to deal with [them both]. I will be playing Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother, which I’m really excited about.
JT: As Siiver Linings Playbook continues to open in theaters across the country and more people get a chance to see it, is there anything in particular you hope audience members will be thinking or feeling as the credits roll?
Weaver: I think they might feel fantastically uplifted… Even though the subject matter sounds a little gloomy, life can be very gloomy, but it can be wonderful as well. I think that’s what Silver Linings Playbook reflects. You’re going to see some great acting from Jennifer Lawrence. And that darling Bradley Cooper, he’s so good. There are no passengers in the film. You’re going to see that every small role is fulfilled really beautifully by a wonderful ensemble of actors. So you’re going to get a great laugh. And you’re going to get a bit of a tear. In the end, I think you’re going to feel that life’s good.