Jacki Weaver: I do love seeing men transform themselves into drag

Jacki Weaver stars as a conservative Texas choir director who inherits a San Francisco drag club in new film Stage Mother. The 73-year-old Australian theatre, film and TV star tells Laura Harding all about it

Australian actress Jacki Weaver in Stage Mother
Australian actress Jacki Weaver in Stage Mother

LIKE so many people, Jacki Weaver is missing the cinema. She is pining for the chance to sit in the dark, hunkered down in a comfy seat, the crunch of popcorn under foot, amid the collective sounds of an enthralled audience.

"I probably see 250 films a year and I would much rather see them in a cinema," the veteran star says wistfully from her home in Los Angeles, where she has been quarantining as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage.

"I've got a huge TV screen here but screeners don't do it for me the way a cinema does. I love the cinema and it's very sad they're closed here, I think it's going to go on for quite a while."

The Australian actress, who has been famous since the 1970s in her home country, is best known in the UK for her Oscar-nominated roles in crime thriller Animal Kingdom, playing Janine 'Smurf' Cody, the terrifying matriarch of a mob family, and drama Silver Linings Playbook, where she played Bradley Cooper's ever-anxious mother. Her recent show-stealing performance in Canberra-set political drama series Secret City can currently be seen on Netflix.

Now she is excited that at least audiences on this side of the Atlantic will get to see her new film Stage Mother, featuring her first lead role in some years, on the big screen.

Sydney-born Weaver (73) plays conservative, Texas church-choir director Maybelline Metcalf, who is devastated when her estranged gay son dies. She travels to San Francisco to attend his funeral, which is resplendent with drag queens, and learns that not only did he own a drag club, but she has inherited it.

And as she attempts to save the club from bankruptcy, she finds a new meaning in her life.

"I love a transformation story," Weaver says, "and Maybelline goes from being a very sheltered, narrow minded woman to being den mother. "Also, like any parent I know what unconditional love is, and I can imagine how awful it would be to be estranged from your child.

"I only have one child [a son, Dylan] and he is an adult now, but I do remember when he was only little saying to my mother, my very sensible English mother, who I saw cry about once in her entire life, 'Do you think I'm neurotic? I keep imagining different ways that he might die'.

"And she said 'No, we all do that'. And I thought, coming from her, that means it must be universal.

"And so I had no problem in the scene where I'm told he's dead, I had reams of imagination to draw on for that, though – touch wood – it's never happened to me.

"I like the idea of a parent seeing this film who is estranged from their child, because the child has come out or the child is frightened about coming out, I liked the idea of it making a parent think about what they are missing out on if they have indeed rejected their child because of their sexual orientation." She pauses.

"I'm old enough to remember when it was illegal. At least it's no longer illegal but there is still a stigma attached, especially in some countries and in some societies, and America is such a vast place and it runs the gamut from everything from completely permissive to being very, very narrow-minded.

"So apart from being a heartwarming story I like to think it's got something to say about kindness and transformation and illumination and enlightenment."

Weaver has had a long relationship with the gay community, from her role in a stage production of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert to being queen of Sydney's Mardi Gras.

"My husband and I love going to drag shows," she says happily, "and I've always been part of the gay scene as a silly old straight woman for 50 years or so, so it's always been close to my heart.

"I've always moved in those circles and I've always found drag fascinating. I come from the same country as Barry Humphries [best known as his alter ego Dame Edna Everage] and he's a friend of mine.

"We are diametrically opposed politically but he is a charming and dear man and I'm very fond of him.

"He dressed up as a woman for a living and he was a great lover of women, which is interesting, I think every person's sexuality is unique to themselves, I don't think you can generalise about sexuality."

She remembers it was a battle to get the stage version of Priscilla up and running, after the film starring Terence Stamp, Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving was such a hit.

"When they were developing the show in Sydney they had a lot of growing pains. It took them weeks and weeks and weeks to get going technically, they had a lot of problems."

But all the effort was worth it and the show was a huge success, running for two years in Sydney and another 18 months in Melbourne.

"When I was going into the show I wanted to learn the routine by just watching it from the audience and I never tired of it.

"I always thought it was such fun and I love drag, I do love seeing men transform themselves into something completely different. I often don't recognise my drag friends when they are out in drag, they have to say 'It's me!'

"Of all the drag queens in the film, the only one that wasn't new to drag was Jackie Beat, who makes her living as a drag star, and they all loved it.

"In my experience, boys who get into drag for the first time can't get over themselves, they have to keep looking at themselves, they didn't imagine they could be so pretty."

:: Stage Mother is in cinemas in Northern Ireland now.