Film Rachel Weisz talks about life, love and The Lobster
Rachel Weisz is all classical beauty and f-words. And with six projects on the boil, she has never been more in demand, writes Tom Shone
Wearing a floral-print dress in the middle of New York’s East Village, Rachel Weisz exudes the same Englishness as always — with her floating posh-common Golders Green accent, self-deprecating humour and crafty, camouflaging manner. I’ve interviewed her four times over 14 years and I’ve grown fond of our huddled tete-a-tetes and the time-lapse image they have offered me of her life and career.
The first time we met, The Mummy had just laid siege to the box office; someone sent a note from another table in the place where we were having lunch, telling her she deserved “all the glory” coming her way. Five years later, she won an Oscar for The Constant Gardener.
The second time we met, in 2010, she’d just got back from Malta, shooting Agora, in which she played a Greek astronomer protecting the Library of Alexandria; also on the trip were her fiance, the director Darren Aronofsky, then editing The Wrestler, and their son Henry. She was excited about an upcoming film with Daniel Craig.
The third time, in 2012, was the tensest. She was in the middle of the tabloid scrum surrounding her after she left Aronofsky for Craig, with whom she had fallen in love while shooting Dream House. Sequestered at the back of the Mogador, we prowled around the edges of the conversation cautiously, like Cold War spies. “You can’t choose who you fall in love with,” she said. “It isn’t a choice. Love happens.”
The fourth time, it turns out, is the charm. With the tabloid heat on her somewhat dissipated, we sit up-front, chatty as boxers who have gone a few rounds with one another and grown familiar with, even fond of, each other’s jabs. Weisz is 45 and her beauty, after loitering in its dewy nymphet phase for longer than seemed decent, has bedded down into the kind of full-bore sultriness enjoyed only by true marathon runners such as Liz Taylor and Charlotte Rampling.
“Yeah, still married,” she says with a laugh when I ask after Mr Bond. This weekend, she’s going to their farmhouse in upstate New York — “Go out, cook dinner for friends, have friends over for dinner parties” is how she describes their routine. “I’ve been watching a lot of old movies recently. Have you ever seen All That Jazz? F..k me. It’s, like, one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. Unbelievable. Network, I had never seen Network. Terrifying, terrifying.”
That’s Weisz — all classical beauty and fwords. That dissonance has never been better represented on screen than in her new movie, The Lobster, a wonderfully dizzy and surreal satire on nuclear coupledom by the Greek writerdirector Yorgos Lanthimos. Colin Farrell plays a sad, mild-mannered man whose wife has just left him for someone better at maths. Like every other singleton in this dystopian future, he is shepherded into a damp, aggressively beige seaside hotel where he must find a mate or, at the end of 45 days, be turned into an animal of his choosing and released into the wild.
Out in the woods, rebellious singletons live like anarchist loners, chastely listening to electronic music on their iPods, forbidden to kiss. Farrell eventually escapes to meet one of these beautiful loners, played by Weisz. “I saw it as very romantic, actually,” she says. “I’ve heard, like, a thousand interpretations, which is really interesting, because it’s very open, but I do think it’s about how you have liberty of thought. How do you have an original thought, or an original start, or an original point of view? There’s something about that sheeplike quality we all have in our lives. I saw it as a kind of rule-bound world that made true love difficult, so I thought it was kind of romantic, because obstacles to romance are what make stories romantic.”
The story of how she got the part tells you a lot about the proactive energy with which she seeks out roles these days. She got in touch with Lanthimos after seeing his 2009 film Dogtooth. It turned out that they shared an agent, and that Lanthimos lived in north London. Weisz was in Camden at the time, so they met in a pub to talk. “He said, ‘I’m writing something. Can I have your email?’ I said yes, and he said, ‘I’ll send it to you when it’s written.’ So he sent it to me at the end of 2013, and I read it, and how did it read? It was a proper page-turner. I couldn’t put it down, because it was just so ...”
She pauses. “It was just unlike anything anyone had ever written, but I didn’t actually think I would know how to play the character. I wrote back and I just said, ‘I love it as a thing. I want to see the film, and I love you, and all I want to do is work with you, but I don’t know who she is.’ Yorgos absolutely did not try to persuade me to do it. He just went, ‘OK’, then I went on Christmas holiday. But while I was on holiday, I kept thinking about the story, and I wrote him an email saying, ‘I’m dreaming about rabbits, because the character likes rabbits to eat, and is it still available?’ And he went ‘Yeah’, and that was how it happened.
“I still didn’t really know how to play it, but I suddenly thought, ‘All I really want to do is work with him, and it doesn’t matter.’ Working with him and entering into his universe became more important than my fear of the unknown.
“It’s like finding a groove in a record, and you do it again and again until you’ve sort of found the groove without — I don’t know how he did it. It’s eerie and uncanny how a director can find a tone. It’s weird … No wires, no discussion, no analysis, no talking in advance. He came to look at the costumes, but there was no discussion. Nothing, zero. Just show up. We showed up and just did it, so it was very raw and very scary.”
The film plays to the gnomic side of Weisz — the smarty-pants, in love with the high-concept and avant-garde — but also to her romantic aspect, the keeper of secrets and midwife of forbidden passion in The Constant Gardener and Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea, which won her best actress from the New York Film Critics Circle in 2012. “It was important to me,” she says of the film now. “I think Terence is really brilliant, very special. All that British repression is lovely to play. Americans tend to say what they really mean, and we have a lot more politesse and subtext, I think. Do you agree?”
I tell her it’s one of the reasons British actors do so well in Hollywood: the natural consonance between the unshowiness of the British temperament and the minimalism favoured by the screen. “I wouldn’t say I have my niche, but I agree with you,” she says.
She points me towards her other big film of the season, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, a likely Oscar player starring Michael Caine as a retired conductor submitting to the Proustian ravishments of time’s march at a Swiss spa resort. Weisz plays his estranged daughter who drops by, worried about her father. In one remarkable scene she delivers a three-page monologue while lying next to him, covered in mud, “basically going off at my dad for every single thing that he’s done wrong during my life, and to my dead mother. There were constraints. I couldn’t move, so it’s one take.”
What’s impressive about her slate of films is that it comes at an age when most actresses are finding themselves cast into the ocean, certainly in Hollywood. Weisz’s intellectual curiosity has served her well.
Last year she started collaborating with a couple of producers, one in New York and another in London, to develop material from a variety of sources and now has six projects on the boil, at various stages of readiness. They include an as yet untitled movie about the yachtsman Donald Crowhurst’s tragic attempt to win a roundthe-world race in 1968, with James Marsh directing and Colin Firth as Crowhurst, as well as Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans, a “big, passionate epic” set in Australia just after World War I, with Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender. “It’s period, but very Derek in that it’s real, not chocolate-boxy.”
Finally, there is a David Hare script Denial, a courtroom drama about Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies who was sued for libel under English law by Holocaust denier David Irving. “Basically, what happened was the Holocaust was on trial — did it happen or didn’t it happen?” says Weisz, whose Hungarian-Austrian parents both found refuge in London at the outbreak of the Second World War. “I haven’t met her yet. I think she’s really from Queens, listening to her accent. She’s a ballsy lass, a toughie. It’s got big implications. She says at the end, ‘Look, I believe in freedom of speech. People can say whatever they want, but I will not debate facts, and there are some facts. The Holocaust happened. Slavery happened.’”
As Weisz says this, her voice rises, her tone acquiring resonance, force, moral clarity. I can almost see her in the dock. The performance has begun.
The Lobster opens on October 22.
Rachel Weisz at the New York Film Festival and, far left, with Colin Farrell
in The Lobster