In the powerful and inspiring “Cloud Atlas,” Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play multiple, gender-bending roles encompassing a range of genres that are set simultaneously in the past, present and future. Directed and written for the screen by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Andy Wachowski based on David Mitchell’s best-selling novel, the film illustrates how events and decisions made by the people in one period can reverberate in unforeseeable ways across the timeline to touch the lives of others as characters meet and reunite from one life to the next.
At the film’s recent press day, Weaving and Sarandon talked about the opportunity to be in an epic film with an extraordinary cast. They discussed the challenges of playing a variety of fascinating roles, what it was like working with different directing teams, why they found the filmmaking process an unusually memorable experience, how reading the novel gave them valuable insight into their characters and the film’s complicated storyline, and why they were excited to make a movie that invites audiences to see film in a new and different way. Weaving also revealed his approach to portraying a villain, and Sarandon explained why she thinks this will be the first time that a film turns into the ride at Disneyland instead of the other way around.
Question: In a film this epic, you have to have the right people to go along for the ride. How did you feel when you knew you were chosen for these parts?
Susan Sarandon: I said yes before I even knew what the parts were because I just wanted the ride. I knew that it would be something special because of who they were. I’d read the book already. They’d given me the book when I was doing “Speed Racer.” I just thought that it’s an impossible task and you have these fabulous people. How great to be part of Camp Cloud Atlas and just go and jump and do it. So, I didn’t even know. We had a limited amount of time that I could give them. I just said “I’m yours, whatever you can find for me, I’m happy to be there.” Then, when I read the script, I was amazed that they had managed to do it. Of course, they didn’t have to use the same actors going through. I think the fluidity that gives for the themes is really special. I don’t know who came up with that at what junction, but that was so unusual. To join this film rep company, which you never get except in theater, we all knew that something very special was happening, and no matter where it went, just organizing it that way and inviting these people who had to have a certain spirit – and you’re talking about Halle Berry and Tom Hanks who normally aren’t playing little, tiny parts – the spirit that they entered in was very, very special.
Hugo Weaving: If they’d wanted an actor and met them and didn’t feel like they were there for the ride of it, it wouldn’t be in the film. Very much they needed people who were prepared, who wanted it and who were open souls, and people whose work they liked or maybe they’d worked with some of us before. [They wanted] people who were open to possibilities, open to others and open to the journey that we were going to be making, which was very much into territory that filmmakers haven’t really gone into before. I think that spirit of inquiry and adventure and the idea that it was a voyage, if the actors weren’t prepared to embrace that idea, not just embrace it but actually be eager to be part of that, then I don’t think Tom or Lana or Andy would have [chosen them]. None of the actors would be there and that’s why we’ve got an incredibly harmonious and joyous group of people. We’re being cast because…I mean, there are great names in the film, but it’s not just let’s get all these names, and let’s do all this, and let’s get all this money, and let’s package this up. None of those people know each other or think alike or get on at all. This is a group that’s come together over time who have a similar sense of wonder and delight in exploring the world and trying new forms and that’s why it’s been such a great experience for all of us. I think that that desire and that joy translates onto the screen in a very physical way. And that, I think, is so great. That’s the thing that surprised me when I saw the film was I knew we had them, the fact that it was somehow bubbling up there in a very playful way, and you don’t get that in film. You don’t get that sense of oh these are actors putting on things. You don’t really get that sense of play.
Sarandon: Especially in a big budget film.
Weaving: You do in the theater, but you don’t in film. Film has a tendency to be limiting in some way and it shouldn’t be. It’s a form that can be explored and changed, and there are languages within film which we haven’t found yet, and this is a new language. It has a new syntax to it.
Sarandon: That’s a good way to describe it. And then, it invites people to see a film in a different way. It invites you to be open and kind of loose and to surrender to it. It works because of the clever way that they have dovetailed the stories, so instead of having blocks and entering each one, it reinforces this notion of gender and race and age and periods and time being something that’s fluid. And so, you absorb the film in a way that reinforces the idea that, no matter what wrapping this all has, they’re all the same and we are connected as much as you’re told that’s not true. As much as people want to make us polarized, the film encourages you to understand what it feels like to forget about all those things – what you look like, who you sleep with, where you’re from, and all that. I really liked that.
Q: How was it working with the directors and having two units?
Weaving: It’s wonderful to work with Tom and Lana and Andy. As I said, they’re very like-minded people. There’s a great energy and joy when the three of them are together. I love being with the three of them. I really do. That transmits itself to the set, even though when we were actually filming after all the work that they’d done together preparing the film, during the actual process of filming the thing, they would separate from each other. Lana and Andy were on one set and Tom was on the other set. On any one day, my experience of working with Lana and Andy, I felt very safe in that world and able to explore and enjoy whatever character it might be we were doing on the day. And with Tom, for me, it was getting to know him, getting to know how he worked, and I adore that man. He’s just great and his team that he’s worked with for many, many years – his D.P. and the art department and his first assistant director – they’re a really well-oiled unit of delightful, very lovely people. It was a very calm set. That experience was really fantastic, too. I just wanted to work with them more and more. We got to the end of the shoot, and it had been three months, but honestly there were a lot of people that didn’t want to go home.
Q: Hugo, is it a coincidence that you’re playing a bad guy again?
Weaving: Only occasionally do I go “Okay. This is a villain. This character is a villain.” But I didn’t think about that for this film. I mean, you think these are all people in different times of life. Old Georgie is not a person, but these are all people and they have their reasons for doing things. What are those reasons? What are they trying to hold onto? What are these men or women trying to protect? Why are they repressing people? Why do you need to keep people enslaved? Why do you need to annihilate people in order to maintain your position in life or in order to maintain the status quo or in order to not be challenged? Or why do you not question something because you’re afraid of being persecuted yourself? Or why do you uphold a particular view of the world in which races exist on different rungs of a ladder and God is at the top? Why do you think that? Maybe it’s because it gives you a certain sort of credibility in the eyes of other people or that’s the view of the world which protects your interest as a businessman. So, there are reasons why people do things and yet they’re still fathers themselves. They still have relationships. They’re human beings who believe in a certain way because that’s the way they’ve been brought into being. That’s their journey and that’s their life and maybe their minds are more closed off than other people. But, I don’t see them as villains. There have been times I’ve seen in a cartoon-like “Captain America” where Red Skull is a villain. I mean, this is a man who thinks Adolf Hitler is a pussy. He’s just a cartoon villain and the requirement there as an actor is just to enjoy that. You don’t have to go deep into a psychology of someone really, not particularly.
Q: Were you familiar with the novel before the script and did that influence your work?
Weaving: Certainly it influenced the way I read the script. Absolutely. I think if I hadn’t read the novel, I would have read the script in a very different way and it would have been a much more difficult read. Just to follow each story as a read without seeing it would have been much more complex. I know some people in Hollywood who read it and they did find the script very difficult to read, but having read the book, every character comes up. You know who they are and which story they’re in and you know the arc of that particular story. That doesn’t mean that the film is difficult in that way, but without the images, the script could be potentially difficult.
Sarandon: I think the film is easier because you have faces to associate with it. I mean, if you can get past the first four minutes and not panic because you’ve never seen anything like that. If you’re like my sister who goes to a foreign country and asks for pizza and is really disappointed when it’s different in Paris than this place. But, if you can wait until the first few minutes, then I think it’s easier to see the faces. I also had read the book. They gave it to me after I did “Speed Racer” not telling me that it was going to be a movie. They just loved the book so they gave it to me as a present. I was part of it before I even knew what I was playing or had even seen the script. Then, when I saw the script, I thought wow this is going to be really interesting to see how they pull this one off. And they did.
Q: Hugo, you have some interesting costumes and make-up in this film. Which character was your favorite and which one took the longest time to get into?
Weaving: Nurse Noakes took longer, for about 4-1/2 hours, and Georgie took a while. Georgie was a most interesting character for me because he’s actually the only person who’s not a person. He’s a character, and he’s very character full, and he’s certainly character full on the page, and his language is fantastically rich. He’s very colorful and muscular and vicious and bilious. The fascinating thing for me about Old Georgie was that he was inside Zachary’s head. He was the voice of control and the voice saying “Don’t do this!” That was really interesting to me playing inside. I thought I’m going to have to really get into Tom’s head and what Zachary’s thinking. What are his thought patterns? Because I need to understand how Tom is thinking as Zachary, and what’s going on in his head, and why whenever he feels fear in any way, bang, Georgie’s there. And once Georgie’s there, telling him something, what are the non-scripted reactions inside Zachary’s head? The way in which we shot that I was often hovering around Tom’s ears or looking at him.
Sarandon: It seemed to me that every time that he had an opportunity to trust or to love, then that voice comes in and says “Don’t trust her. Don’t take this chance.” I’ve heard that voice before.
Weaving: Absolutely. You’re right. It happens whenever something is awakening in him.
Sarandon: Seriously, when you’ve starting a relationship and you’ve been burned before, and you’re wondering “Oh my God, is this going to …?”
Weaving: It’s not just that one voice. There’s a number of different voices.
Q: Who would burn Susan Sarandon?
Sarandon: (laughs) Yeah, right. “Maybe you better check up and call and see if he really is where he says he is,” and then my little voice says “No! Shut up, shut up!” Especially with the scene with Halle where he says “Stab her!”
Weaving: “Pick up your spike and slit her throat!”
Sarandon: “Don’t trust this girl.”
Weaving: It’s incredibly intense and violent language. Zachary is so conflicted because everything he’s been brought up to believe is being challenged in a massive way. His whole life is being challenged, and he’s in there, and he doesn’t know what to do. “Do I destroy this woman because she might be destroying my whole civilization? Or do I allow her to teach me and do I learn from her?” I mean, that’s the conflict that we all face in life. Do you remain open to the possibility or do you shut yourself down. Georgie is that voice, and that’s the voice that affects all these characters. The first line of the whole film is “All voices, all voices, tied up into one. One voice speaking out there.” That’s Georgie’s voice. That is Georgie’s voice inside everyone’s head. That’s the opportunity to either shut yourself down and shut your life down and stop being interconnected, or let that voice go, let Georgie disappear, and make that brave choice that means Georgie is dead.
Q: This film is so huge and so different, after it was finished, was it hard to leave it behind and did you want to hold onto some aspect of these characters?
Sarandon: I wanted to hold onto the experience of being there, because as an actor you can sometimes forget how much fun it is. You can forget that your actors are your way into learning something new and surprising you and everything else. Occasionally, you work with people who are competitive and actually set out to make your job harder. I’ve run into that a little bit. But when you have this kind of very rare repertory company, I was sad to leave that. I hadn’t seen Lana and Andy in a long time or Tom. I had hung out a little bit with Tom during “Speed Racer” and we keep in touch a little bit, but I hadn’t seen them and so I was really happy to be there. And then, we had to leave and I left. But I felt that. Not so much the characters. I felt very at home with the characters, and I was proud to be the bearer of those lines like “Our lives are not our own,” and I felt really cool to hear that in the trailer. I was like “Oh wow, I’m in the trailer!” I liked being the one that got to say that, even if I don’t see me that much in the movie saying it. So, I could leave it. And then, they did the sweetest thing. When the film was finished, they invited just the cast and crew to Chicago. They flew us into Chicago so that we could experience it all together privately, which is another example of how thoughtful they are. I mean, almost everybody was there.
Weaving: It was wonderful. Unnecessary, unnecessary.
Sarandon: Totally unnecessary.
Weaving: But they respect and love that unit.
Sarandon: They took us to their house in Chicago. Mostly everybody was able to be there, and then, we all went to Toronto where it was then like birthing in public, and it was so warmly received. I felt like we had had our opportunity to be together. Of course, when we saw it, we were laughing at things, just seeing some of the people looking the way they were. When we went to Toronto and showed it in front of the audience, the response was people were booing, and hissing, and laughing, and applauding when they’d break out of the old nursing home – stuff that we hadn’t responded to.
Weaving: The audience was riding the film. The film is a ride and you could audibly hear that ride happening literally. The roller coaster metaphor is used too often, but it felt like that. What was coming out of the audience was actually informing us of the way in which that journey was being taken.
Sarandon: I think it will be the first time that the film turns into the ride at Disneyland instead of the other way around.