Jacki Weaver on political thriller Secret City’s secrets, lies and making Canberra look ‘racy’

Sarah Thomas

30/05/2016

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At the time of filming Secret City in Canberra, a real-life political thriller was unfolding at Parliament House.

As the new Foxtel six-part drama was playing out its story of secrets, lies, betrayal and murder, Tony Abbott was also facing some classic political skulduggery in getting turfed out of the prime minister’s role in the Liberal leadership spill last September.

Jacki Weaver, as Attorney-General Catriona Bailey, was filming in the Parliament House hallways just days before the spill.

“We were running up and down those corridors with a Steadicam and I was sacking people here and there, just a few days before that other sacking.“[When it happened] I was glued to my hotel room in Canberra like everyone else in the country, but it was weird thinking there they all were walking down that same corridor.”

In fact, the only thing missing from the real-life political dramas at the time, compared to Secret City, was murder. “Well, you don’t know that [was missing],” says Weaver, mischievously.

Political wranglings and infighting feature aplenty in Secret City, but the bigger picture is Australia reaching crisis point as it’s drawn into the crossfire of Chinese-US tensions, and there’s the mystery of a dead body discovered gutted in Lake Burley Griffin.

Secret City is a slick, stylish and ambitious thriller directed by the highly acclaimed Emma Freeman (Hawke, Offspring, Puberty Blues). It comes from the award-winning stable of Matchbox Pictures (Wanted, Glitch, The Slap) and is part of Foxtel’s drive to ramp up local productions over the next few years. It’s based on the novels The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code by political journalists Chris Uhlmann (currently the ABC’s political editor) and Steve Lewis.

Weaver says what drew her to the role was the “good story, good character and it had such a ring of authenticity about it”.

“I mustn’t give too much away because it’s a thriller but a lot of treachery goes on. There’s a lot of the machinations, the Machiavellian ins-and-outs of the whole thing.”

It has a cast of stellar local talent Anna Torv, last seen in Australian drama The Daughter, plays journalist Harriet Dunkley, who is doggedly attempting to uncover the true story about the murder. Other familiar faces included Damon Herriman, Alan Dale, Alex Dimitriades, Benedict Samuel and Miranda Tapsell.

As the steely Attorney-General, Weaver unleashes foul-mouthed tirades to colleagues not seen since Peter Capaldi sprayed his fiery rants as Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It.

“Better get yourself a raincoat, Mal,” she tells Dan Wyllie, who plays the Minister of Defence and her main internal combatant. “Because you’ve unleashed a shitstorm of biblical proportions.”

Her character, she says, is single-mindedly interested in power. Weaver references “weasel speak” and Don Watson, Paul Keating’s speech writer who wrote a polemic against jargon, Death Sentences: How Cliches, Weasel Words and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language.

“You get some politicians talking on the television and all they’re doing is policy, they’re not talking like real people,” she says. “You see my character doing both. I had quite a few speeches that were jargon, jargon and then other speeches that were very real … We all do it to a degree, just spout what’s expected.”

Weasel speak aside, Weaver says the show is going to throw new light on the capital city.

“It’s going to show Canberra looking quite sexy and racy. People might want to go and live there when they see this series. It’s beautifully shot, it does make Canberra look fabulous.”

The crew gained unprecedented access to Parliament House, which Weaver says is very “’80s … a lot of people think it’s old-fashioned now, but I rather like it, it’s a stunning building.”

“They’ve only ever shot news or documentaries there, so it was unique, no one had done it before. It was like getting into Fort Knox, I might say. I’ve been to the White House and it was easier to get in,” she says. “Paranoia!” she adds in a pretend dramatic voice.

Another face that crops up in the show is Weaver’s husband, Sean Taylor, who plays the ASIO director-general, Paul Wheeler.

“We did have one scene where we had to face-off with each other and quarrel. It was very funny. The crew thought it was hilarious, they thought ‘I wonder if that’s like their home life’.”

Most recently her life has been split between her Darlinghurst home and a base in LA following a huge boost in US work after Animal Kingdom (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), both of which scored the 68-year-old Oscar nominations.

“The more variety, the better, I love it. Even though I haven’t done much here in the past couple of years, I always joke it’s nice to talk in my own accent because I’ve been talking American for the past four years.

“I do meet people in America who don’t realise I’m from Australia because they’ve only seen me in American films.”

She says she’s continuously looking at multiple projects – later this year she’ll be seen in James Franco’s comedy-drama The Masterpiece, playing an actress in The Room, the cult film regarded as the worst movie of all time.

“Every time I get another script, I’m delighted and thrilled,” she says. “I get at least one a week and I want to do them all because I want to fit in as much as possible before I can’t put one foot in front of the other.

“But, I mean, who knows, it could all evaporate tomorrow and they could suddenly stop offering me stuff, or it could go on for another 10 years.

“You get little lulls, you get a few months here and there where there’s no work. I’m not talking about the last five years, I’m talking about the previous 45 years. And I keep waiting for that to happen again, but it hasn’t happened yet.”