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Animal Kingdom’s Jacki Weaver on Her Oscar Campaign

In an Oscar season full of bad moms, Animal Kingdom's Janine "Smurf" Cody is surely among the worst. Played by Australian actress Jacki Weaver, Smurf is the calculating matriarch of a Melbourne crime family strained by internal conflict and on the run from police. We spoke with Weaver — tipped as a strong contender in this year's wide-open Best Supporting Actress race — about her Oscar campaign and Kingdom's creepy kissing scenes.

This is your first film role in twelve years. What was it about the script that lured you back into movies? Did you expect the international attention and Oscar buzz?
I just knew it was a great script and I wanted to do it. But I didn’t dream that it would get such a lot of interest and excitement. I’m more thrilled for the filmmaker, because he’s such a clever young man. He’s so modest and unassuming.

How did you get the part?
I hadn’t ever met David Michôd, but he sent me the script. I do get quite a few scripts from young filmmakers, but never good as this one. I’ve worked mostly in the theater in Australia. I’ve been a theater actress for nearly 50 years. I’ve done about 100 plays, and I’ve only done about fifteen movies. I’ve been in television, but not a lot. I told him I’d love to do it, but then I didn't hear anything for years. When he finally contacted me, I’d almost given up hope. He was really sweet and said, "I wrote it for you, and if you don’t do it, I don’t want to do it." Which is pretty flattering. I don’t think anyone’s ever said that to me.

Sony is pretty serious about pushing you for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Are you ready to hit the campaign trail?
I’ve done publicity before, but not on the scale of what goes on in America. They flew me out to do some publicity for the movie before it opened, but since then I’ve been tied up with previous commitments in Australia. I’ve got this play until December. And it’s huge, because Cate Blanchett is in it, it’s been sold out for months. And we don’t have understudies. So I don’t know if I can get to America until early January. And it would involve canceling several shows or having somebody replace me, and I don’t know if they can.

You play a pretty evil person in Animal Kingdom. Is it hard identifying with a character like that?
Yeah, well, I do think she’s despicable. I think she’s really a horrible piece of work. But you can't judge from the outside. You’ve got to try and get inside the character. I’ve got a couple friends who are clinical psychologists. I talked to them about how these people operate. They convince themselves that they’re not sociopaths. But they are careless and they probably have some drive in them that they’ll do anything to get what they want. Also, the roles that are most interesting and satisfying are the ones different from you. I'm not trying to tell you that I’m not a murderer — well, I'm not. But I am a middle-class, law-abiding girl. My brother’s a lawyer, my father was a lawyer. Not to prove to you that I’m not a criminal, but I usually used to get all these sweet roles. So to play someone as vile as this one was a real gift.

So are you now being offered more villain roles?
Well, suddenly I’m getting scripts for disgusting people. The criminals. It’s quite exciting and totally funny. People are seeing me in a new light.

In Animal Kingdom, we don't really find much out about the family's backstory. Did you invent one?
David gave us several pages of backstory and it was open to discussion and disagreement. All those boys came from different fathers, [Smurf] had probably grown up with a criminal element. She’d been told at an early age not to have a conscience, or she was born without one. And because all her adult relationships failed, the intimacy that she had with the boys, while not being incestuous, was certainly inappropriate. She kisses them on the mouth, for instance.

I was going to ask about that. The kissing is pretty creepy ...
Yeah, that was a directorial choice. That wasn’t my idea, but I thought it was inspired. Even though it was a small gesture, it spoke to how huge her relationship with her sons was, and also to her power over them. I’ve got a son in his 30s and I love him very much, but I don’t think I’ve kissed him on the mouth since he was about 2 years old. It’s something we don’t do here and I don’t think you do in America either. Maybe a few Europeans kiss their grandsons on their mouth, but I doubt it. It’s a little inappropriate.

So what's next for you? Have you picked your next project?
Well, I’ve had a lot of heat, and I'm still considering the options. And there’s the possibility of a couple more plays next year and I’ve also had a few American agents approach me. It’s a bit bewildering at this age because I’m 63 and I’ve been acting for 48 years.

Photo: Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images