Jacki Weaver Talks ‘Stage Mother,’ the Evolution of LGBTQ Rights, and Why She Doesn’t Dwell on the Past

Sometimes it takes a tragic event, like the death of a loved one, to move someone to take stock of their life and change, and this happens in a huge way for Maybelline (Jacki Weaver). The heroine of the dramedy “Stage Mother,” Maybelline is a cheery Baptist choir director who travels to San Francisco following the untimely death of her son, Rickey (Eldon Thiele). Losing a child is an excruciating experience under any circumstances, but it’s especially brutal for Maybelline, who, under pressure from her ultra-conservative husband (Hugh Thompson), had been estranged from Rickey for ten years due to his being gay.

What was originally meant to be a short trip to attend Ricky’s funeral turns into something else entirely after she discovers that he owned a drag bar, one which she, as next-of-kin, has inherited. Full of regret and sorrow, she decides to take over the club in honor of her son which initially irks those who work and perform there, especially Rickey’s longtime boyfriend (Adrian Grenier). However, Maybelline comes to embrace a lifestyle that revolves around love, acceptance and creativity.

Weaver, who has been a national treasure in her native Australia for almost half a century, crossed over to Hollywood a decade ago, after her performance in the crime drama “Animal Kingdom” caught the attention of the Academy. After moving to Los Angeles, she went on to earn another Oscar nomination for “Silver Linings Playbook,” and have memorable roles in films like “The Disaster Artist” and “Bird Box.” Weaver recently had a Zoom conversation with Entertainment Voice in which she discussed “Stage Mother,” the evolution of LGBTQ rights, her admiration for the drag scene, and her thoughts on the impact Covid will have on the future of live theater.

What attracted you to “Stage Mother”?

The gay world has always been very close to my heart. I loved the way the character makes a journey. I always like to play characters who start out one way and the arc of their story transforms them. I liked that aspect of it, and I liked the fact that she adored her son, but her heart was broken for many years because she was estranged from him because her husband was domineering and intolerant and bigoted. 

And I like the way it took a tragedy for her to find the courage to defy her husband and go to San Francisco. Even though she’s shocked at first and it takes a while, she makes new friends; she has her mind broadened enormously. And from tragedy, there’s eventually joy. And I like the way the story can make you cry and can make you laugh, because I think that’s what life is like, tragedy one minute, hilarity the next.

As you mentioned, Maybelline goes on a journey, and she displays such a range of emotions, from those fun moments in the club to those more intense scenes, such as the one in which she confronts her husband. Which one was your favorite?

I loved the scene where she warns the mother of one of the boys who is also estranged from her son, “Make friends with him again. Take him back into your life before it’s too late, because you might lose him and this might be the only life we have. Life’s too short.” In the next scene you see the mother in the club watching the boy perform, and I find that very touching.

We see Maybelline channel her grief for her estranged son into the club. Have you ever had a similar experience where you took something you regretted and turned it into something positive?

When you get to my age, life is full of disappointments, and you look back and you think, “I wish I hadn’t done that.” But I’ve learned with age, that that’s the way to madness. You can’t keep looking back. You gotta move forward. You should apologize for things you’ve done wrong, but I don’t think you should dwell on your failings. It will only make you sadder and sadder, and that’s not the way to live your life.

Do ever find yourself playing the role of den mother, like Maybelline, when you’re working on a project? Or do you prefer to just focus on what you need to do?

I don’t think I’ve ever been regarded as a den mother. I think I’ve always been just as irresponsible as the youngsters. I think they look at me more as a partner in crime than a den mother (laughs). I think my adult son probably thinks of me the same way, and so does my grandson. I’ve never been a bossy one. I’ve never been a follower, but I’ve never been a leader, either. I’m more like one of the gang.

You stated in your autobiography that you’ve been called “the smallest fag hag in Australia.” Tell us about that, as well as how you’ve seen the LGBTQ scene evolve over the years?

I’ve been telling people that we’ve come a long way. I remember. I’m old enough to know when homosexuality was illegal. People would be jailed for it. In fact, one of the states in Australia, Tasmania, which is a very awful place, not so long ago it legalized it, fairly recently. I’m young enough to remember the Stonewall riots, and we had similar things going on, marches, protests, and people jailed and beaten back in the ’60s and ’70s. I remember all of that. I’ve seen things come a long way.

I also think, as far as gay marriage goes, 20 year ago the majority of people were against it, and now it’s the other way around. Most people accept it, because we have shows like “Modern Family” and “Will & Grace.” I think, generally speaking, society is becoming more tolerant and realizing that people’s sexuality is their own business, and every single one of us is an individual and our sexuality is unique to us, and we just have to accept other people and love them, no matter what, and not judge them.

Did you have a lot of experience being around drag shows before “Stage Mother”?

Oh, yes. I love drag shows. The first one I went to, I was 15. It wasn’t tacky. It was a very glamorous drag show that was quite an established nightclub in Sydney called Les Girls. It was very glamorous; they were like Las Vegas showgirls or Rockettes. They were just stunning. One of the characters who was the star of that became the basis for the story of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” I’ve always enjoyed drag. My husband and I still sometimes go to drag. I’ve seen Jackie Beat at Hamburger Mary’s. She’s brilliant.

And you got to work with Jackie in “Stage Mother.” You two had some wonderful scenes together.

I think she’s wonderful when she plays the sad man, when we see her as her sad male self.

You’ve had a long and illustrious career in Australia, but Hollywood only took notice of you about ten years ago. What was that transition like, how does working in Los Angeles compare to working in somewhere like Sydney or Halifax, where “Stage Mother” was filmed?

This is a multi-billion dollar industry here in America. It’s much tinier [in Austalia and Canada]. There are 25 million people in Australia, 35 million in Canada. There are 370 million, I think, in America. So, it’s a different ball game altogether. You have a lot more options. I get sent a lot of scripts all the time, more than I could possibly have the time to do. That’s a wonderful feeling, very lucky.

You’ve also had an extensive career in theater. How do you predict the live theater world will evolve post-Covid, from the small drag venues to major theatrical productions?

It’s hard to predict, isn’t it? There are all of these beautiful theaters in New York. Things are going to have to change drastically for them to be able to reopen, at least for a couple of years, I believe. I see a possible future for more outdoor entertainment, especially in places with a great climate, like California. It’s a very vexed question, and I think Covid is with us for a while, I’m afraid. I hate to sound pessimistic. 

I had four films lined up this year that were shelved, and I have another film I’m developing for next year, maybe a bit of television, but it’s going to have to be a completely different way of working, with precautions.

Are there any projects that you worked on pre-lockdown that you can talk about?

There are two. One is called “Never Too Late,” where James Cromwall and I are a love match. He’s wonderful. He’s theater and acting royalty, James Cromwall. And there’s another one called “Penguin Bloom” with Naomi Watts. I play her mother, and she’s just wonderful in it. I haven’t seen either film, but it certainly was great working on them, especially with James and Naomi. They were both great. They should be something worth seeing.

Stage Motherreleases Aug. 21 on VOD.