'Hello, I'm Mrs Craig' ...
says Rachel Weisz, with mock formality, shaking my hand, then bursting into a peal of laughter.
And indeed it is funny; for naturally I know – who doesn’t? – that she is married to the reigning James Bond, and thus one half of the acting A list’s most intoxicating and glamorous power couples.
Yet there is more to the joke than this. First, of course, Weisz is no mere Mrs Anybody, let alone a Bond Girl, but an Oscar-winning actress who is known for the intellect and intensity that she brings to her various roles. And, then, too, she is neatly parodying the awkwardness that one experiences upon re-encountering a former childhood friend, 30 years after the Leavers’ Disco. For, as teenagers, she and I both attended St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith – she arrived from Benenden to take her A levels – and became casual friends; we went to the same parties, gossiped during breaktimes, swapped books and cigarettes, and sometimes she gave me lifts home.
Even then, as I recall, she seemed a swan among geese; not just clever, which was a given at St Paul’s, but also friendly, which wasn’t; beautiful – she was already a model, almond-eyed and rosy as a wood nymph – and cool, too, a bit of a rebel, often in trouble with the teachers, the first in the class to wear black jeans, the girl who had a pop star waiting for her at the school gate (for I seem to remember Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot of Curiosity Killed the Cat was a friend of hers). She always appeared to be fated for life in the limelight.
In the intervening years, I followed her career with interest and saw her plays when I could get a ticket – she was captivating in Design for Living, chilling in The Shape of Things, heartbreaking as Blanche DuBois in the Donmar’s revival of A Streetcar Named Desire . But I never ventured backstage, because I thought that would be pushy, embarrassing and what would I say, after all?
Too much has happened now on the personal front for us ever to catch up: too many relationships and marriages and divorces, and births and deaths; so what I know about her life has been gleaned from the gossip columns, and from interviews – that is, simultaneously everything and nothing. The only time I have met her since school was in 2015, just after she’d stepped off the red carpet at the London Film Festival, where she’d been promoting The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos’ absurdist film. We talked briefly, but I was nervously conscious of the hovering PR, poised to remove me if it turned out I was annoying the talent.
How much easier it would be, I think, if she were just Mrs Craig, and I was Mrs Pendlebury, and we could chat desultorily about our jobs, and how she met her new husband – what does he do, then? – and swap stories about coping with stepmotherhood; but that’s all off limits and she never talks about her spouse, I’m warned.
When I arrive at the Soho Hotel, I find myself in the middle of a junket for the dark drama My Cousin Rachel, in which Weisz takes the lead, from which she has to be extricated to come and speak to me – a scenario that reminds me a bit of the film Notting Hill, when Hugh Grant pretends to be a reporter from Horse & Hound in order to speak to his friend Julia Roberts.
Weisz seems genuinely delighted to see me again, and as she picks delicately at her Dover sole, she reminisces enthusiastically about the ancient Mini in which we used to hurtle home together to north London. ‘Wasn’t it fun? It was like a Flintstone car, you could see the ground through the floor. Oh, it’s so lovely to see someone who remembers that Mini! It’s an unusual meeting, no? That we were at school together? I love that. You meet people later in life, and it’s not as significant,’ she says.
And then she’s off on a nostalgia trip, recalling our teachers: the head who was reluctant to allow Weisz to apply to university at all – ‘I guess she felt I wasn’t going to represent the school in a good way’; our English teacher, to whom Weisz remains devoted, who set her secret assignments and encouraged her to try for Cambridge. ‘No one before had ever said, “You’re clever.” She really inspired me.’ Otherwise, she teases, ‘I’d have still been driving around in that Mini. I’d have had a courier service!’
Instead, at Trinity Hall, where she studied English, Weisz co-founded an avant-garde drama group, Talking Tongues, and immediately after graduating began to win roles on television: Inspector Morse, Scarlet and Black, and subsequently in films, notably Michael Winterbottom’s I Want You. The part that brought her to mainstream attention, however, was playing a feisty librarian in the comic-horror action caper The Mummy, which became an unexpected international hit.
Since then, Weisz has defied all efforts to pigeonhole her into any genre: her CV runs the gamut from arthouse (The Lobster), thrillers (Runaway Jury), fantasy (Oz the Great and Powerful) and critical hits such as The Constant Gardener, for which she carried off her Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2006. Today, we are discussing two more, very different films: The Mercy, a biopic about the amateur yachtsman Donald Crowhurst’s disastrous attempt to sail around the world in 1968; and the costume drama based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel My Cousin Rachel. Weisz turns in a brilliantly enigmatic performance as the beautiful but potentially murderous title character. ‘I hadn’t read the book before,’ she admits. ‘Too much plot. Virginia Woolf is more my thing – I love a bit of stream of consciousness. But it’s a great yarn, with this really unreliable narrator.’
Although Rachel’s innocence or guilt is left unresolved by both the book and the film, Weisz says she had to decide herself in order
to play the character convincingly. ‘But Roger [Michell, the director] didn’t want to know, so I still haven’t told anyone. I’ll take it to the grave,’ she says, laughing. My guess would be that Weisz believes Rachel sinned against, rather than sinning, for however broad her choice of roles, they have hitherto been united by a thread of feminism. ‘That’s where my interest lies,’ she acknowledges. ‘But everyone has been asking me about playing “strong women” and I find it absurd. You’d never, ever say that to an actor. Speaking as a strong woman? It’s like “speaking as a giraffe”, like some endangered species.’
It’s as if she’s determined to defy even these positive preconceptions of her agenda that she portrays Clare Crowhurst in The Mercy as a surrendered wife, unable to ask her husband not to abandon her and their four children for a quixotic adventure that ended in his own death and subsequent unmasking as a fraud and fantasist.
‘I was particularly interested in it because of that. I’m not an ideologue when it comes to storytelling,’ explains Weisz. ‘It’s quite a different part for me in that she doesn’t have a profession. She’s a mum, and I think she’s a really good mum; and a wife, and I think she’s a really good wife. Her universe was her husband and her children, and because she loved her husband she had to let him go, and she had to forgive him for having gone…’ Her hazel eyes suddenly fill up with tears. ‘I am not capable of that, but for me there’s an intense heroism and nobility, to forgive someone who does that. So actually for me, she’s a very, very brave and strong person. She didn’t and couldn’t stop him and she had to go on living.’
It seems to me that what really killed Crowhurst was not the sea but his own thirst for glory; having made the front pages with false reports of his roundthe-world progress (in fact, he never got beyond the Atlantic), he is believed to have committed suicide when exposure became inevitable. Is too much fame a dangerous thing? ‘I didn’t see it like that,’ says Weisz, ‘maybe because I’m famous? Maybe some level of fame has blinded me to that element?’
Actually, she seems fully aware of the potential danger of too much fame; anyway, she manages hers with extraordinary skill, somehow remaining below the radar even after her marriage to Craig in 2011. The tone was set by the privacy of the ceremony, which took place in a friend’s home and was attended by just four people, two of them their respective children. Today, she dismisses any illusions one might cherish about her martini life as Mrs 007. Apparently, Craig even enjoys cooking, and one can’t imagine Bond in a pinny. ‘I did Lorraine [the ITV breakfast show] this morning, and she said, “So, you’re married to Bond!” And I said, “No, I’m married to someone who pretends to be that character,”’ she says drily.
‘There must be exceptions to the rule, but on the whole, I think fame is a choice,’ she continues. ‘You can dress up like a famous person, with really big sunglasses and a blow-dry and high heels, but if I wash my hair and go out in a pair of jeans to pick my son up from school, people leave me completely alone. So it doesn’t really have a downside.’
But what about the pressure the film industry puts on women not to age, to remain perpetually slender and alluring? ‘Well, it’s like being an athlete, in a way. Your body is your tool,’ she says. So you whack in the Botox? ‘Or you play women who are your age.’ The latter is her choice, although she looks at least a decade younger than her 47 years. ‘I think women in middle age look incredibly beautiful,’ she says. ‘It’s a different moment.’ And professionally speaking, she says she has never been more fulfilled. ‘The roles are more interesting. I’ve just finished The Favourite, playing the Duchess of Marlborough, and it’s like being Bette Davis in All About Eve – one of the juiciest roles I’ve ever had. I couldn’t have played that at 30. I feel like I’m just getting going. I’m better at my job and I’m beginning to fire on more cylinders.’ What’s more, she says, she minds less about others’ opinions. ‘Which is a huge relief.’
Of course, the increasing workload comes at some cost to her home life; and the recent announcement that Craig has signed up for a fifth excursion as Bond won’t help with the juggle to parent Henry, Weisz’s 11-year-old son from her previous relationship with the director Darren Aronofsky. ‘I’ll just have to do more work in the school holidays,’ she says.
The Craigs live in Manhattan’s East Village, where Weisz nonetheless leads a fairly English lifestyle: she listens obsessively to Radio 4, adores Britain’s Got Talent and is hoping to start a trend for Sunday-roast lunches.
Since 2011, she has been a naturalised American citizen, though she retains her British passport. ‘I’m a citizen of both countries, and part of the democracy in both countries. Of course I voted for Trump – shit, I picked the wrong guy there!’ she jokes. But she’s more dismayed by the state of British politics. ‘Trump will serve his term; he might damage the Earth beyond repair, and women’s rights and the Supreme Court – there will be scars, but there will be a new president. But Brexit is final, right? That’s a death, it’s over. I don’t think you can go back.’ As the daughter of immigrants – both her parents came to Britain as child refugees before World War II, her mother from Austria, her father from Hungary – she finds the vote deeply disturbing.
‘They were intensely proud and grateful to be in Britain, and both told stories about how Britain welcomed them. My mum lived off charity: her dad had been a doctor and he was interned on the Isle of Man for two years and then would have had to go back to being a student before he could start practising again, so they didn’t have any money. The village looked after them, and they became very British – different times…’
The following week, I encounter Weisz again, on Bazaar ’s photoshoot at Cliveden. We are an enormous team: hair, make-up, Weisz’s publicist, the photographer and assistants, the art director, the producer and several security guards keeping a close watch on the diamonds borrowed for the occasion.
Clad in a floating scarlet Valentino gown, Weisz strides onto the terrace, remote, beautiful, unapproachable. She has donned her fame for the camera. We are no longer those teenagers, speeding home in the Mini; she is a film star and I must admire her, like everybody else, from afar…
‘The Mercy’ will be released nationwide on 9 February 2018.
‘Trump will serve his term, but there will be a new president. But Brexit is final. That’s a death, it’s over’