Crazy is an appropriate word to describe Cloud Atlas, the epic, time-shifting, character-jumping, makeup extravaganza directed by Lana (formerly Larry) and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). Based on David Mitchell’s book of the same name, the film features six intercutting stories starring a team of A-listers playing numerous roles, including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent and Jim Sturgess. The stories have a linking theme of how our actions can affect future generations.
“That’s the thing that interests me,” says Aussie actor Hugo Weaving, “how the actions you take in your life reverberate somehow, and often the things you are doing in your life are as a consequence of the people who may have been connected to you in time, geography or culture. If you extrapolate that idea, we’re all connected in some way. That butterfly effect. Every action you make has an effect on everyone else in the world, to some extent.”
With so much squeezed in to the script, it’s no wonder Sturgess (who plays seven roles) had a little trouble understanding it at first. “I read the script just before I went to bed, and at that point it was over 200 pages long. It was so hard to link everything together for me. So the first thing I did in the morning was read it again. The second time you read it, you know what the film is trying to do and you can understand the ideas behind it.”
“There is a worry,” adds Jim Broadbent, “about whether audiences will be able to follow it. But audiences are much cleverer than we give them credit for. You have all the different stories going on, yet you know exactly which one you’re in at any time. You can remember where you are in each story. It’s fascinating to see how the human mind works.”
Since Weaving worked with the Wachowskis on The Matrix, they have undergone a transformation of their own: Larry has transitioned from male to female, now going by the name Lana. “I get on extremely well with both of them and I love them very much,” says the actor. “I’m always challenged and stimulated by them and their ideas. I never used to get separate notes from them, which would be the main difference. They’re more individuated than before.
“Their notes are so intricate, detailed and poetic,” adds Sturgess. “They would say all kinds of really interesting stuff, like, ‘Try this line and say it with as much love in your heart as you can conjure up.’ You would think wow. So I started acting specifically for them, just to get more notes.”
Perhaps inspired by Lana’s change, the actors in Cloud Atlas not only played multiple roles, but also different genders and even races. “It’s exactly all the things that I like playing,” says Broadbent. “Different characters, quite extreme characters with different hair, different makeup, different clothes, different ages, different periods. Those are the games I like playing. This was like childhood dressing-up games, but taken to the ultimate degree – the reason why you wanted to be an actor.”
And, Sturgess says laughing, all the different makeup led to some funny times on set. “I would be Asian in the morning and then after lunch I would be transported back to the 1900s. There was a lot of fooling around. There was a real energy on the set because it was just such a new experience for everyone, even Tom and Halle and all these people who have made loads of films before. It was like everybody’s first film all over again. Someone would send you a text of Hugo Weaving dressed as a fat nurse. But the funny bit was when we were doing all the makeup tests; the makeup team would throw everything on you to see what worked. I could show you some pretty funny pictures of me looking a little bit like Michael Jackson.”
“And towards the end, the cameos grew,” adds Weaving, laughing. “All the actors were saying, ‘I want to be in that story too. Can I play… anything?’”
Cloud Atlas premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival to a rousing ten minute standing ovation. “It was a really extraordinary reaction,” admits Weaving. “I’ve never been to a film that had that sort of reaction before. It was wonderful. I suppose all the hard work seemed to pay off with that audience. Not with every audience certainly, but to get that reaction was fantastic. Looking at Lana and Andy and Tom’s face – that was a present in itself.”
Released in the US in October, the movie received mixed reviews and fairly low box office takings. But for the cast, the reaction doesn’t matter. The simple fact that this unique film was made is an achievement. “[Cinema] has been through quite a dull period,” says Broadbent. “That’s why I get so excited about this one, because it really is audacious, doing something different and being really brave. Some of the British films, they are so sort of predictable and pedestrian. They’re only reflecting other films that have been made recently. They’re safe and they’re not very exciting. It would be great if this film stimulated more people to be brave. My favourite period of cinema was the Easy Rider/Raging Bull era. Cinema was so exciting with all those guys. They somehow got in under the wire and were able to do those great, individual, visionary pieces. Like Cloud Atlas.”
BY ALICIA MALONE