Free Spirit Inside the intelligent mind of Rachel Weisz
Rachel Weisz has never settled for the easy option, nor relied on her undeniable beauty, choosing instead to take on more challenging films. In doing so, she sidesteps Hollywood sexism, while also rising above the stereotyping that might otherwise accompa
“She’s uncontrollable, fearless, and not composed, but in the best sense.” – Yorgos Lanthimos
There is a circus in Chiswick, says Rachel Weisz, to beat all circuses. It’s not your average big-tent affair – morose animals, sparkly leotards – but a wonderland. There are Middle Eastern funk bands and African acrobats, clowns (proper clowns, not the disturbing, flower-squirting imitations). It’s the best live show she’s ever seen, she says. Weisz is utterly seduced. Sitting in a comically oversize chair in a Camden pub near her London home, drinking milky breakfast tea, she is momentarily seized by a desire to juggle. “I’d love to join the circus,” she says.
It’s hard to imagine Weisz as a clown. In person, she is hushed, occasionally sweary, but even then, somehow instilling her swearwords with a sort of high-class grace. She’s dressed casually – in tight blue jeans and a sweater, dark hair loose around her face, plus a multicoloured Swatch watch which, thanks to its berserk design, she can’t actually use to tell the time. But she moves with a delicacy that suggests a dancer (her secret dream, she says, is to perform in a Pina Bausch show, even though, much to her regret, she can’t dance). She talks with a lightly worn intellectual heft, weaving into conversation references ranging from the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgard to American comedian Jill Soloway. Not that she’s overly serious: Weisz is more than ready to find herself ridiculous, and is uncomfortable talking about acting – about how she acts – because, she says, “you tend to sound like a bit of a jerk.”
She doesn’t sound like a jerk – she’s too self-aware for that – but Weisz does take her work seriously. Over the years, her choices have tended towards the earnest and difficult. There have been exceptions, of course – The Mummy and The Mummy Returns – but somehow Weisz always seemed a little out of place in an Egyptian-themed archaeological romp. Her Oscar, for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, was picked up in 2006 for her portrayal of Tessa Quayle, a murdered humanitarian activist, in The Constant
Gardener. In The Deep Blue Sea (2011), she played Hester Collyer, a woman tortured by an impossible passion for a dastardly pilot, played by Tom Hiddleston (the performance won her a Golden Globe nomination). In her most recent film, The Lobster, directed by the young Surrealist Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, she plays the part of an anonymous woman living deep in a forest, banished by a dystopian society that rejects, and hunts, single people who refuse or fail to have a relationship. Weisz spends most of the film in layers of black waterproof gear, make-up free in a film shot entirely in natural light, straggly-haired, with a constant look of forlorn hope on her face. She falls in love with David, played with almost unrecognisable gentleness by a portly and bespectacled Colin Farrell. “I saw him in Cannes,” says Weisz. “He’d lost all the weight. But he’ll always be that lovely, pudgy, tender sweetheart to me.” In the film, Weisz is allowed brief moments of joy and absurdity, but this is typical territory for her: way off-centre, intense, romantic, tragic. If she’s a clown, then she’s the quietly weeping one.
Weisz likes to take risks. At this stage in her career, aged 45, critically acclaimed, a long scroll of films to her name, the challenge is to find them. She wants the unusual parts, thorny women, complexity. The
Lobster came about because she’d watched an earlier Lanthimos film, called Dogtooth, and was smitten by his weird, original vision. She invited him to tea – here, in the same Camden pub – and suggested he make a love story with her in it. To her delight, he agreed. For one reason or another, it never came to pass, but he sent her his next script. For Lanthimos, the chance to work with Weisz was a boost. “I knew she was a very good actress beforehand,” Lanthimos told me on the phone. “But to work with her, I realised how much more potential she has, and how uncontrollable she can be, how she can go into these different directions if you allow her to. She’s kind of fearless, and not composed, but in the best sense. She can really go for stuff.”
Acting, for Weisz, is about switching off the analytical side of the brain, the side that was fine-tuned at Cambridge, where she studied English Literature. She works on impulse. “If I start thinking about things, I won’t be able to act,” she says. According to Hiddleston, her former co-star: “She works in a purely instinctive way, which is honest and lacking in vanity.” He continues, in an e-mail: “I get the feeling she’d hate to be defined by labels and social paradigms. She’s a free spirit.” These are all characteristics that made The Lobster an ideal project for Weisz – unglamorous and strange, with a director playing by his own eccentric rules. There was no outline for her part, no name even, so Weisz was free to create – perfect for someone like her, who has a low opinion of the kind of character descriptions you’re usually given in scripts. “I mean, I read them for a lark,” she says. “You know, ‘with a faraway look in her eyes’, or, ‘sexy without trying to be’. They’re just to help the reader along, I suppose, but they are really, really silly.”
She never went to drama school, but she had experimental training of sorts at Cambridge, where much of her time was spent devising plays with her friends. Her theatre company was called Talking Tongues, and they took shows up to the Edinburgh Festival, where they’d plaster the town with flyers, trying to convince unenthusiastic members of the public to go and see an avant-garde piece of theatre at 10 in the morning. “It was immensely, immensely fun,” she says, and then turns comically grand. “Actually, I believe some of my finest work was there.” She means it: an experimental show of her creation allowed Weisz to do all sorts of things that Hollywood doesn’t often permit. She and her friends came up with a name for their theatrical style: “fraught naturalism”. “We’d have gestures that would be very naturalistic, like, I shouldn’t have done that,” she explains. At this point, she hits herself in the face. “Oh, I shouldn’t have done that.” She hits herself again. “And then the gesture would get stuck, and it would become weirdly robotic or dance-like.” It’s obvious she finds the memory amusing, but she’s nostalgic for it, too – the freedom and weirdness, the possibility.
Lanthimos was a joy to work with, says Weisz, not just because of his unfettered imagination, but also his attitude. “He’s immensely gentle and very respectful,” she says. “He’s just really comfortable around women, and that isn’t always true of directors.” Many, she says, can be oddly shy, perhaps not fully abreast of the idea that
“Janine Bond ... it would be great to have a woman who’s a spy with a sexual appetite.” – Rachel Weisz
women can be just as brave and free-thinking as their male counterparts. “I think women are, you know, quite radical,” she says. Weisz, like many of her fellow leading female actors, is increasingly vocal on the subject of sexism in film and the narrow imagination of an industry that still – in its most mainstream form – cannot easily conceive of a woman being much, other than a sidekick or love interest. The parts are often limited in scope. “What I see is a lack of women with appetite,” says Weisz. Recently, by way of example, she showed her nine-year-old son Henry the film National
Velvet, in which Elizabeth Taylor – as a young girl – wins the Grand National. “Watching Elizabeth Taylor at 12, or however old she was, that creature burning up with passion ... I thought, ‘God, you just don’t see that, you don’t see that appetite.’” Weisz is visibly frustrated. “It could be appetite for anything, it could be for becoming a jockey, or swimming the Channel, it could be for becoming an alcoholic. It could be anything, but appetite, appetite, appetite!”
Instead, Weisz says, parts for women have become ever more saccharine. “I’ve noticed in my career this tendency towards wanting women to be likeable in a way that’s not asked of men. I don’t understand how that’s happened. You know, if you look back at Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis – they were difficult, difficult women, and they were iconic and worshipped.” There are moments of reprieve amid the blandness – Lena Dunham’s Girls, for example, which offers up an array of gnarly, unpredictable female parts, like Dunham’s own character, Hannah. “She’s impossible,” says Weisz, “but it’s such heaven to see something like that.”
Henry, in all honesty, was bored witless by National Velvet (though, to his credit, he did ask what other live-action films had a girl as the lead). He is also, says Weisz, “completely, fabulously, uninterested” in what she does for a living, even though the industry shaped his childhood, to some degree. “When he was little, he could come with me everywhere. It’s like the circus,” she says. “Children and animals welcome.” Once he was at school, though, the travelling had to stop, and from then on Weisz has endured the inevitable sensation of all working mothers – “the tug”, as she describes it. “It’s a huge, huge struggle.” Especially as she’s suddenly acutely aware how fast he’s growing up. “Time is just gone,” she says. “Twice this, and he’ll be an adult.”
Henry’s father is Weisz’s former partner, the director Darren Aronofsky, from whom she split in 2010. In 2011, she married fellow actor Daniel Craig. Marriage was never the intention, she says now. “I couldn’t imagine doing it, like picking out the dress,” she says, bemused at the thought. “I didn’t relate to it as a rite of passage as a woman. I saw all those romantic comedies and I’d just sit and go, ‘Huh?!’” There was no profound reason why, no principled objection to the social institution. “Maybe it hadn’t been idealised to me by my parents,” she says. Weisz’s parents divorced when she was 16 – her father is a Hungarian inventor turned documentary-maker, her mother a teacher turned psychotherapist. From a young age, then, marriage seemed vulnerable and flawed. She and Aronofsky got engaged, but that was as far as it went. Craig, it seems, convinced her, and they held a small ceremony in New York, attended by their children. “It, just at that moment, became the right thing,” is how she explains her change of heart.
Craig and Weisz have worked together a few times – most recently in a Broadway production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a destructive tale of infidelity told in reverse. Before that, there was
Dream House, in which Craig played the deranged and grieving husband to Weisz’s murdered ghost-wife. Their taste is, perhaps, equally intense. More light-hearted was their first project, 20 years ago. A production of Les Grandes Horizontales at the National Theatre Studio in London involved Weisz playing a 19th-century French courtesan, one of an extraordinary cast of women – Frances Tomelty, Janet McTeer, the late Katrin Cartlidge – to Craig’s amorous intellectual. “I remember this improvisation where we all had to try and seduce Daniel,” says Weisz, “and me and Frances and Janet were heaving our bosoms around, and we were really flirting, and Katrin just watched us all, I’ll never forget this, and she picked up this big bottle of mineral water that she had – she was wearing this little vest and no bra – and went to sit in front of him and poured it all over her head, so that she was dripping with water and her nipples were sticking through.” Weisz is still deeply impressed. “We were like, ‘OK, you win.’”
Being married to a fellow actor must have its pressures, a latent sense of competition, perhaps. They don’t talk shop at home, she insists, and there are no notes given after a screening. “No. God, no. By then, it’s too late, so definitely not.” She finds watching his work exciting. “You have an understanding of what must have gone into it to make it thus.” As for any competitive spirit, well, they don’t fight over the same parts, obviously, though a female James Bond, I suggest, would be no bad thing. “I think you’d have to create a new franchise,” says Weisz, deadpan. “Janine Bond.” And then, the idea works its way into her imagination and she runs with it. “It would be great to have a woman who’s a spy with a sexual appetite – you know, unable to marry, imprisoned by this glamorous life. Yeah! Please write it. Please!”
If she wanted, Weisz could make the film herself. Latterly, she has started producing – finding novels to adapt, developing scripts. It’s a way of engaging the other side of the brain, the intellect, and she’s excited by the prospect of being “passionately involved in something from start to finish”, rather than the dip-in, dip-out life of an actor. It reminds her of those Edinburgh days, when you did everything from inventing the show to selling its tickets. Although, the budgets this time round will probably be bigger.
But producing is also about taking control – finding and making the kind of films she wants to exist, with the kinds of parts she wants to play. Towards the end of our conversation, she recommends a recent Chilean film called Gloria, about the amorous adventures of a 58-year-old divorcee in Santiago. This is the kind of story she’d like to tell: a full-length portrait of a middle-aged woman falling in love – the kind of character who would usually be a bit-part, a sideshow. She wants to make films where “women are doing the desiring”. She wants to play that woman, communicate that desire, show how it burns, however old you are, whatever you do. “Female sexuality,” Weisz reflects. “There’s not enough of it on-screen. Just not nearly enough.”