Hugo Weaving has played the villainous Agent Smith and freedom fighter V, but in just one film – Cloud Atlas – the Aussie actor has taken on more characters than in his entire 14-year collaboration with directors Andy and Lana Wachowski.
Weaving plays a total of six characters in Cloud Atlas, an ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell's novel that tackles big existential ideas such as reincarnation and the repercussions of actions in one life to another.
Like his co-stars – including Halle Berry, Tom Hanks and Susan Sarandon – Weaving plays a variety of characters, who cross genders, social classes and race over a period of about 500 years.
One in particular is Nurse Noakes, a burly, nasty woman working in an aged-care facility.
Weaving said he was excited as the prospect of playing this "hysterical monster".
"There are roles you kind of get thrilled about," Weaving says. "When Andy [Wachowski] said we want you to play Nurse Noakes, I was like, 'You want ME to play Nurse Noakes? That is fantastic.'
"And then I thought, 'How the hell and we going to do that?' "
With a lot of prosthetics, it turns out.
While Weaving originally imagined the character to be tall and thin, the Wachowskis and co-director Tom Tykwer envisioned her as a large woman.
Weaving had to don a heavy fat suit and facial prosthetics for the transformation, but unlike other characters he plays in the film, he didn't get much time to get used to the costume.
"That was a challenge just to try and forget about it actually and to inhabit it in a way that wasn't too preposterous," he says.
"But no, the idea of playing a different gender, the idea of playing anything is . . . it's thrilling and daunting."
The way characters such as Nurse Noakes allowed Cloud Atlas to cross social barriers, including gender, spoke personally to director Lana Wachowski.
Formerly known as Larry, (she underwent gender reassignment surgery in 2009) she, likewise, says Cloud Atlas is the kind of movie that refuses to be put into a box by social conventions.
"Yes, you're drawn to art that resonates in your own life and my life has been a struggle against a society, a culture that is pathologically obsessed with binary," she says.
"The culture does not want to contemplate the idea of a spectral range of gender."
Cloud Atlas marks the first film Weaving has worked on with Lana since she had her surgery, but the fifth Wachowski film that he has been in – a long collaboration that began in 1999 with The Matrix, followed by its two sequels in 2003 and V for Vendetta in 2005.
It was actually during filming for V for Vendetta that Weaving first came across the novel Cloud Atlas. His co-star Natalie Portman was reading it, so he followed suit and has previously said it became one of his top 10 books.
Reading the script for the first time, Weaving says he was fascinated by how the writer/directors approached the story.
In the novel, huge chunks are spent on different characters, but in the film, the stories are all cut together.
Weaving says Andy explained the film to him by comparing it to a mosaic, in that all the stories are introduced immediately, as opposed to "this Russian Doll of a structure" that the book had.
The Australian actor said he was glad to have already been familiar with the book and seeing what they wanted to do with it.
"You know the world, you know the characters, you know how they parallel each other and interconnect," he says. "So it was a thrilling kind of read because I love the book so much."
Cloud Atlas is out now.