For actor Hugo Weaving, the distance between his farm in Sydney, Australia and Los Angeles isn't just 7,500 miles, give or take. It's the distance between his identities as a pop culture icon and as a conservatory-trained actor who revels in the classical canon.
Both of Weaving's faces are on prominent display in the Baltimore area this month.
As a cartoon villain with inverted facial features in a red rubber mask, Weaver is stomping around the screen in the dozens of movie theaters where "Captain America" is now showing. (Weaving portrays Cap's nemesis, Red Skull.)
And as Astrov, a driven and outwardly cynical physician with an underlying melancholy in Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," opening Saturday at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Weaving gets to make love to Cate Blanchett, who portrays Yelena.
"I kind of like the challenge of jumping into totally different spaces and styles and figuring out how to fit in," Weaving says. "It's great to blow the image that people have of me out of the water. It's one of the reasons I do it."
"Vanya" is coming to the Kennedy Center courtesy of the Sydney Theatre Company, Australia's premier troupe, run by Blanchett and her husband, Andrew Upton. Washington is the show's sole U.S. engagement.
The production follows the company's 2009 visit to the Kennedy Center in an acclaimed production of "A Streetcar Named Desire."
Blanchett, who starred as Blanche DuBois, decisively laid to rest any lingering doubts about the ability of an Australian movie star to command the stage for three hours in the inhumanly demanding, quintessentially American, role.
In "Vanya" she's cast very differently, as the bored and idle trophy wife of a Russian intellectual.
"Cate is incredibly intuitive, highly intelligent, physically free and playful," says Weaving, nothing that like all the actors in the Sidney troupe, Blanchett is classically trained.
"She has good theatrical sense, and she keeps her feet on the ground. And, of course, she's just gorgeous."
Bad productions of Chekhov suffer from the ailment that afflicts his characters. The shows can seem enervated, dour and depressed. Adult men and women complaining endlessly about their inability to act while gazing listlessly out the window, not unlike "Hamlet" minus the ghosts, the mad scene and the swordplay.
Tamás Ascher, the acclaimed Hungarian director and Chekhov interpreter, doesn't want his version of "Vanya" to fall into the same trap. He has set the play in the 1950s and enlivened the proceedings with pratfalls, drunken dancing, and even a pillow fight.
"Chekhov is brutal and dark, but he also can be really funny," says actor Richard Roxburgh, who plays the title role. "It's quite fascinating the way he combines all those different elements, and we try to bring them all out in this production."
That would have been a challenge under the best of circumstances, but Ascher speaks no English, and his cast, no Hungarian. Though a nimble translator helped to explain the actors' meaning to the director, and vice-versa, there were unavoidable communication glitches.
"It was hard not being able to talk with your director about things in a text you didn't understand," Weaving admits.
"If you can't quite figure out how to frame the question in your own language, you can't figure out how to frame it in another language. There'd be times when Anna would translate what we were trying to stammer out, and Tamás would just look bewildered."
This isn't the first time that Blanchett and Weaving have played opposite one another — they starred in "Hedda Gabler" together on stage in New York as well as in an independent film called "Little Fish" — and it's easy to understand his appeal as a stage partner.
With a deep tan, shaggy brown hair and overgrown beard, Weaving calls to mind the caveman from the Geico television commercials. But when a question captures his interest, Weaving leans forward and his eyes lock in with an almost audible snap. The speed and intensity with which he engages is a bit startling.
For Astrov, he's trying to tease out the seeming contradiction between his character's hidden depression and very real vitality.
"Astrov is a very busy man and a very clever man, but he's so driven and exhausted by his incessant working that he thinks that he can't love anyone," Weaving says.
"He says he doesn't have anything to look forward to. But he's also visionary, soulful, and he's a life force. The women in the play talk about Astrov's charisma."
Because of that duality, it's more comfortable for an actor to live inside Astrov's skin for an extended period of time than it would be to inhabit, say, Vanya's.
"Luckily, Astrov doesn't know he's depressed," Weaving says with a laugh. "Denial works for him."
The same force of intellect and emotion that Weaving brings to the stage might be why directors of big budget films often cast him as the villain. Bad guys are always maniacally committed to their evil plans. They're willing to go further than ordinary people — and so is Weaving.
Weaving is a fan of the "really funny and sharp writing" in the "Matrix" movies, where he portrays Agent Smith. But for his other big screen roles — for the Red Skull in "Captain America" as Elrond in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and as the title character in "V for Vendetta," — he's happiest when he can hide behind latex or stage make-up.
It makes it easier for him to avoid the cult of celebrity that he perceives to be a kind of death knell for serious actors. A performer can't be effective, Weaving says, if his off-screen image transposes itself between the audience and the character he's playing.
"You stop being able to create another human being," he says. "So I rather like playing the roles of masked characters. It allows me to maintain a certain private life. People are more likely to pass me on the street without recognizing me, and that's good."
Though Weaving says that such big-budget fare as "Captain America" can be a lot of fun – not to mention lucrative – these movies don't present the kind of acting challenges on which he thrives.
"I think I've about had enough," he says.
"I'm not sure how many more of them I'll make. It doesn't feel to me as though they've been the majority of my work, though that's probably the way it seems to most other people."
Far more to his liking are small, independent films along the lines of the recently released "Oranges and Sunshine." The Australian movie, which Weaving made with Emily Watson, tackles child deportation.
"The great thing about stage is that you have a live audience," he says. "Your performance is never static, but you have to blow everything out because people are sitting at a distance.
"Film provides a breathing space for an actor that I've always loved. When the camera is in your face, it provides for a privacy and a complexity that it's very hard to capture on stage."
If you go
"Uncle Vanya returns at 1:30 p.m. Sunday and runs through Aug. 27 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. N.W., Washington, DC. Tickets cost $59-$135. Call 800-444-1324 or go to http://www.kennedy-center.org.
Home: Sydney, Australia
Current Gig: Performing the role of Astrov opposite Cate Blanchett in "Uncle Vanya" at the Kennedy Center.
Big Screen Roles: Red Skull in "Captain America," Elrond in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Agent Smith in "The Matrix" movies, Tick in "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," and the voice of Megatron in "The Transformers." He's also made a number of small, independent films.
Personal: He and his longtime partner, Katrina Greenwood, have two grown children