A diminutive blond with a warm smile, Australian actress Jacki Weaver has made a name for herself over the last four decades generally playing "nice" women on stage and screen. And in her new film, the dark psychological crime drama "Animal Kingdom," her character, Janine "Smurf" Cody, seems to fit comfortably into that oeuvre.
She's a doting mother and grandmother, vivacious and nurturing to her four adult sons, who just happen to be hardened bank robbers living in Melbourne. When she's forced to choose between the well-being of one son in prison and that of her grandson (James Frecheville), who has come to live with her after the death of his mother, Smurf's true nature rears its ugly head.
"The general reaction in Australia to my performance is that they are blown away," said Weaver, 63, during a recent visit to Los Angeles for a screening of "Animal Kingdom," which won the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic world cinema this year at the Sundance Film Festival. "It's terrific that people are being frightened by the character."
First-time filmmaker David Michôd said he wrote the role of Smurf with Weaver in mind.
"I know I wanted that character, complex and dark as she is, to come packaged in a delightful, deceptive frame," he said. "I knew the character would be more interesting if she had those qualities. Jacki has so much experience; she can do anything. I can't think of anyone who does impish delight better than Jacki."
With Michôd's help, Weaver created an extensive back-story for Smurf.
"All of her four children had different fathers," she said. "They were violent criminals. She has consorted with criminals all of her life and has made a living out of the proceeds of criminal behavior — that is why she condones and encourages the boys. I think she's a woman without a conscience, a sociopath."
The writer-director consulted with the actress about any number of small details. It was Michôd's idea, for instance, that Smurf kiss all of her four boys on the lips, a gesture that Weaver believes "speaks volumes" about the power she wields over them.
"For my part I don't think it's incestuous, but it's definitely inappropriate," Weaver said. "I think that that is probably due to the fact that she hasn't had a proper adult relationship herself, and so the intimacy with the boys is some kind of substitute for that."
The duo also worked closely on when and how to reveal Smurf's dark side. "He wanted it to be subtle," Weaver said. "He wanted it to be a gradual realization for the audience just what she's really made of."
"Those initial scenes where she is being a really street grandma, the temptation for the actor is to jump right in and be wicked from the start," she continued. "But because David wanted a serious, really grown-up movie about career criminals, I think that was a good choice to make it a gradual realization. At times I thought, 'Am I being too sweet?' But I realize it was much more interesting to tell the story this way."
Michôd agrees that Smurf is a sociopath, but he doesn't believe she is evil.
"She has had some kind of emotional damage, but I think she generally wants to be loving and connected with her boys," says the filmmaker. "She does genuinely want everyone to be happy. But when she is forced … she is capable of making very cold and pragmatic decisions."
And when Weaver's own adult son finally saw her performance? The actress said that he sent her a text message reading, "You are one sick mother."