Compiled by: Jack Foley
Q You're obviously offered a lot of scripts. Why this one?
A. You see what happened was that Peter was pursuing me for
about a year and I kept saying 'no', because I didn't like the
script as it existed.
Q. So you actually turned it down at first?
A. Yes, but I couldn't get over the thought of working with
Peter. I mean, that's been something that's been on my mind since
I was an eight-year-old kid, you know, since I saw The Cars That
Ate Paris, and then it was Picnic At Hanging Rock, and then with
The Last Wave, which was one of the scariest moments of my childhood.
Being in a cinema, and seeing not a red London bus, not a yellow
American school bus, but the blue and white New South Wales transport
bus was the one being flooded in the movie. It was like 'that's
the bus I catch to school every day..' And that impacted on me
And Gallipoli, obviously, had a big impact on me as well.
Q. So what made you change your mind?
A. I couldn't get past that. I would be waking in the middle
the night going, 'I'm turning down this opportunity every actor
I know worth their salt would simply say 'yes' to'.
There are very few directors like that - Scorsese, Kubrick until
his recent passing, and definitely Peter Weir. So it kind of got
me back on the phone again.
And we met up for a talk in Sydney and he came over and we sat
on the balcony of a place I had in Elizabeth Bay, which has a
Marina in front of it - a ridiculously opportune place to have
a conversation about this with the lapping of the sea and the
movement of the rigging on those yachts down below us.
Q. And, presumably, the character, Jack Aubrey, is a large
part of it as well?
A. Of course. I loved the image that Peter put in my head
when we talked about this man, a sailor with calluses on his hands,
who has grown up in the navy and knows every part of his ship
- if the sails aren't going up fast enough, he will jump down
and grab the rope and see what is causing the problem.
And those same callused, thickened hands then pick up this delicate,
feminine instrument, the violin, and he will play from his heart
the things he can never say.
And every time I saw future problems, I couldn't walk away from
that description of the
And the fact that Peter was directing it, so, yeah, I was seduced.
Q. Let's talk about the violin. You play guitar, was it easy
learning the violin?
A. I certainly wouldn't say it was easy [laughs]. The violin
was very difficult to start with. I think it took me six or seven
weeks to get over the top of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star [laughs].
I started off working with Richard Tognetti (virtuoso violinist
with the Sydney Chamber Orchestra, who also composed music for
the film's score). Peter (Weir) met Richard and this period is
his forte, he was able to introduce him to a lot of eclectic composers
from the same period. And Peter has a wonderful ear for music.
Q. So what helped you master the violin?
A. It's funny because there was one point when we were on
set where I had this thing with my voice going. I mean, we were
getting aviation gas thrown at us (jet engines were used during
filming of the storm sequence) from a very short distance, and
I was shouting these orders during the storm sequence, so I kind
of thought it was that, not unusual, really.
But then I realized that I stopped breathing when I played the
violin. It's true [laughs]. So I had to work out a way to continue
the violin and not damage my voice, because I would play until
I was desperate to breathe and completely dry out my throat.
So what I did was, basically, get some rock candy. If we'd been
in Australia, it would have been Barley Sugar, but you try finding
Barley Sugar in Mexico [laughs].
But I did find Vick's Menthol Drops. So what I would do was put
one between my teeth and play until I felt my teeth bite down,
and I had to breathe.
Q. And after that it became easier?
A. Yeah. It's like singing. You have to take a deep breath
for a long phrase. It's a really expressive instrument, if I take
45 minutes warming up, then I can make it sound really beautiful.
You have to treat it with respect.
It's a very mysterious instrument in that sense, you can't be
aggressive towards it, because it will stop giving you a sound
but it likes you to be strong, so it's very feminine in a way
Q. And Jack's love of music is a big key to his character...
A. Yes it is. After I had done a couple of scenes, Peter came
to me and said 'what I'm thinking about Jack is that he doesn't
fit into any political description that we currently have'.
Yes, you could say that he is a conservative, but he is not a
Tory. And he is not a republican.
He is a man of great charity, a man of great sensitivity, or he
couldn't play the music he plays. The violin requires strength,
If you are aggressive with the violin, it stops making a sound,
so you have to have strength and control.
Q. I remember talking to you around the time of A
Beautiful Mind, and you said that growing your finger nails
long helped give you a way into the character of John Nash. Presumably,
with this one, there are a lot of physical pointers to the character
of Captain Jack Aubrey?
A. Well, for a start, I've got very long hair, so that's going
to remind you on a daily basis.
But there's a whole swag of stuff from the time I knew I was doing
it. As usual, a lot of reading and this time some adventures at
sea, whether it was doing basic sailing training in Sydney Harbour.
Or in the Bahamas, where I went before we started filming. But
we had bad luck in the Bahamas and hit a very large storm, and
we didn't get to do the sailing there I was hoping to.
But all of that helps in the preparation.
Q. Had you done much sailing before?
A. I grew up in the two cities in the world that have more
pleasure craft per capita than anywhere else, Sydney and Auckland.
I think Auckland is the number one in terms of the number of yachts
per head of population. So you always do little bits.
I think at the age of six, I rode a dinghy from Parsley Bay to
Watson's Bay and scared the shit out of myself.
To the adult eye, it doesn't look like a big journey, but as a
kid it felt
like the open ocean.
When I was between six and nine, I lived at Watson's Bay, which
is a little fishing village on the south
head, right at what they call the Gap at Sydney Harbour, so I
spent many an hour gazing out at that horizon.
But I have never considered myself a sailor, in fact, I thought
I was pretty bad on boats.
I think mainly connected to experiences that my mother had had
and I would hear about them, so I just assumed that I would be
bad on boats too.
Q. So your mother isn't too keen on the water?
A. No, but for her birthday, I took her out on a boat when
she came to visit the set for Master and Commander and she was
fine, that was the first time in her life she had ever been on
a boat and not had a problem. At one point, we were surrounded
by seals, so she loved that. It was very cool.
Q. Any other sailing experiences you want to share with us?
A. Only bad ones [laughs]. When I was 14, we took what was
laughingly described by my father as a cruise ship, a Russian
cruise ship, from Sydney to Auckland, via the Bay of Islands.
It was a tug boat with a couple of bars. I remember going down
to the docks at Sydney, and, on one side, was the glorious Oriana
and I thought 'beauty', towering above the docks, and we walked
down and it was like 'no, turn right here...'
And on the other side of the dock there's this 'cruise ship' that
barely makes it above the dock.
It was called the Felix Jazinsky and four hours out, we hit 22
foot swells, so after the first day, there was so much vomit and
blood on the decks of the corridors, because people were bashing
their heads, so there was blood smears everywhere, so it smelt
and felt like a hospital ship during the war and the stairwell
was just covered in vomit.
So I kind of thought that I wasn't really going to be a good sailor.
But in the month building up to Master and Commander, I kind of
got over that, and one day out here on a particularly rough swell,
and everybody was having a problem, and I was still doing the
thing of helping people with the transfers (from the support vessels
on to the Rose, which doubles as HMS Surprise), so somewhere along
the way I must have got my sea legs.
Q. I'm told that on the first day you went out on The Rose,
you had a rough day and were out for a very
A. Yeah, about 20 hours. Pretty much everybody got sick except
about half a dozen of us. The actual cast is 26, and the crew
on my ship is 197 souls, as we say. So that's been an interesting
development [laughs]. And I've done a lot of what other people
see as silly stuff. I do all my rigging climbing myself, I do
all of my rope slides myself.
Q. Was that your decision?
A. Yeah. My stunt double was there. But the point is, if somebody
else does it, it takes away the opportunity for the director to
have a 100 per cent shot, so we came up with the idea of this
shot from the top of the main mast.
And I asked James D'Arcy to do it with me, because if it was going
to be me, plus a stunt guy up there, a stunt guy doubling him,
it wouldn't be the same thing, and he came up with me.
Q. How far up did you go?
A. 137 foot. Quite a swell.
Q. Wasn't that a bit frightening?
A. No. Not at all. You just do it. My thought process wasn't
anything other than what the shot would look like and what the
character I'm playing would be comfortable with. And quite frankly,
I think it's a lot easier being up there without a safety line
on, because you don't know what you are going to get caught on,
there ropes running everywhere.
Rule number one is hold on, it's as simple as that, and get about
your business. And I'll tell you, it's a wonderful view up there.
And it's the same with the rope slide. If this character has been
at sea since he was nine-years-old and served once before on the
ship when he was a younger man, knows every inch of the ship,
and he's an involved captain he is part of the pursuit, he's not
objective, he is the one driving it, that's his love. So all of
those things suits being as involved as you can be.
Q. Earlier, you mentioned the storm sequence when HMS Surprise
navigates Cape Horn. Can we talk a little more about the filming
A. We had these six huge fans, the largest you can get, and
we had four dump tanks, which carry about 1,200 gallons in each,
and they pull a level and all the water comes out at once.
But that wasn't a furious enough storm for Peter [laughs], so
he said 'what can we do? How can we step it up?'
And they brought in these two jet engines, one at a time, so we
could go up another gear.
So you would be doing dialogue four meters away from these two
jet engines, with the fans and the water hoses on top of them
blowing in your face, and the dump tanks, and you are shouting
into the wilderness, soaking wet, because you really cannot hear
any dialogue because of the deafening noise.
So you have to have rehearsed it pretty well. And you could say
that was pretty challenging. It took 11 days. And it was very
Q. So it's been a very physical shoot?
A. Absolutely. I think Ron [Howard, director of A Beautiful
Mind] put it best in an e mail. I'd sent him one and he sent me
one back during shooting and he said, 'I kind of get from your
email that it's the same old mixture of joy and torture..'
And that's what it is. But as long as you know that the torturous
aspect is worth it, then that's OK. You have to be patient with
the medium because it's a complicated medium.
Q. I guess that could apply to most of your films...
A. I don't think there is any single movie that I've ever
done that has been happy 'la, la, la' all the way through.
I don't think that happens. Maybe it does if you are outside of
it, if you are not concerned enough to bother spending that time
process, then fine and dandy, you can probably live in that bubble.
But I'm hands on, I'm at the coal face. I want the smell of it
in my nostrils and I want to know what it feels like to stand
on top of the mast, 137 foot above the sea, in a rolling ocean,
because my character would have known that.
Q. Let's talk about working with Peter. Did it live up to
A. Yes it did. Peter is very much a man who makes decisions,
which is great, because that is what you want to work with.
But I knew from our conversations that there was room for me,
I could bring something to it and that he would allow me to work,
which is also what I need, because I need the guy I'm working
with to know that as ideas come up in his mind, so they will in
And I need to know that I have a forum for those options.
Q. So it was a good, strong collaboration?
A. Yes. I work for the director. I bring my energies and everything
else to somebody else's vision, we are making his movie but it's
very difficult for me if the person I'm working with is not open
to me bringing whatever I've discovered to him.
Peter used to come into my trailer every morning during the shoot,
we'd have a cup of tea and talk about things, you know 'what do
we do about such and such?'
And he came in on the third or fourth week, I think it was, and
said 'you know, I've never experienced this thing where I feel
like I've got an extra pair of eyes..'
We had our ups and downs and whatever, but nothing has to do with
anything but what is the best idea? You know, 'if something is
missing, how do we get it? How do we solve it'?
And after a few weeks working like that, our relationship was
completely understated. You witnessed it.
We have some very full and specific conversations that can last
a few seconds, because we were already at the level of understanding
what we were doing in the moment.
It was tweaks, really. And it's not a f****g oil painting, it's
a movie, a motion picture, and Peter had to discover what he could
and couldn't shoot in the environment he was in.
Q. There are a lot of Patrick O'Brian fans out there. And
they're certainly showing a lot of interest in the film, judging
by all the activity on the internet. The story in the film comes
from a couple of the novels, not just one. Are they going to be
happy with that?
A. The bottom line is Patrick O'Brian has met his demise (the
author died in 2000), and there will be no more books.
And, apart from what he has written already, this is the only
way these characters survive and go on for further adventures.
So I think Peter's decision, at the end of the day, not to be
faithful necessarily to any of the books, is totally the correct
This way, he gets to live in the period and indulge his love of
detail and yet, at the same time, he has freed himself up with
the characters and the geography of where they go to.
And you know, a lot of those books feature gigantic battles, with
nine or ten ships, and if the budget for this film is what it
is with one ship, you couldn't do it.
Q. They are going to want to see this film, that's for sure...
A. Well, quite frankly, this is where they are going to get
their sugar from, so take it or leave it.
I think if you work towards O'Brian obsessives, or you work strictly
for them, then you are really limiting yourself, and without them
knowing it, you are limiting their enjoyment as well.
But they would argue against that if they are true obsessives
Q. O'Brian puts Aubrey through quite a lot of changes in the
A. He does. At one point his weight goes up to 17 stone, or
something. I was going down the road of playing Jack with all
the physicality he has in the books.
Yeah, I was really enjoying myself [laughs]. And the larder door
But then Peter had a change of mind and said 'you know what? I
don't want to go into that area.'
He said 'I want Jack as a competent man, a man who is all over
the ship, who knows every part of it, and is physically capable
when we meet him.
If we end up making 20 movies, we can degrade and age as we go
along, but at the beginning, we should have him, if not young,
then at least fit and strong. So I pulled it back a bit.
Q. You worked with Paul Bettany in A Beautiful Mind and you're
obviously happy to be working with him again..
A. Yes. At the end of the day, it was Peter's idea, but I
just agreed with him. Paul is a very good musician. He, as I did,
spent a lot of his younger years busking in the street to earn
So we have a big connection there, we both faced that level of
poverty, where that's the only way you can get a few shekels,
by setting up outside of a railway station, or a shopping mall.
We get along very well. Very well. He's a lovely bloke.
Q. There are a lot of books to draw from and there's bound
to be talk of a sequel. Would you be interested?
A. It's purely down to economics and mathematics. If this
one makes X amount of dollars, there would be the ability, the
chance to make a second one. I went into it, and I don't see this
as being cynical or mercenary or anything, but there are certain
characters you play you are quite fond of, and you could stand
to take the character somewhere else, keep expanding it.
Q. Finally, making a movie a long way from home. It's a bit
like going on a long voyage isn't it?
A. Oh yeah. I mean, you can make lots of connections and analogies
to voyages and going away to shoot a film for six months in a
'exotic locale' [laughs].