Rachel Weisz: 'I enjoy getting older'

Rachel Weisz has a new maturity, which helps her to take on motherhood and bolshie critics, she tells Kaleem Aftab
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Rachel Weisz arrives almost an hour late to our interview. The 35-year-old is extremely apologetic, revealing that it was the demands of tending to her child Henry Chance Aronofsky that caused her delay. The father of the baby and Weisz's fiancé is cult film director Darren Aronofsky, whom she started dating in 2001. It was a relationship that they put the test when Aronofsky cast her to star in the sci-fi romance, The Fountain.

Since principal photography was completed on The Fountain, Weisz's career and private life have been transformed in what the London-born actress describes as "a year full of happy memories". The year started with the actress picking up a slew of awards, including the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, for her turn as a pregnant aid worker in The Constant Gardener. Then at the end of May, Henry was born. She completed the year by returning to work in late summer with a small part in Wong Kar Wai's first English language film, My Blueberry Nights, and plugging her boyfriend's latest work.

The decision to work with Aronofsky was not taken lightly. Originally, The Fountain was going to be a £45m-vehicle starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, but when Pitt decided to pass on the project the money fell through. After a massive reduction in the budget to £30m, the American film-maker decided to ask his girlfriend if she'd like to star. Weisz was a little wary about saying yes: "There are stories of couples working together and it working well, and other couples working together where it didn't work. We made a decision before we started that if we were going to do it we had to have good boundaries. We had to have a good understanding."

While they were working together Weisz moved out of their Brooklyn apartment. "For Darren this film was an immense undertaking, he was really focused and he didn't have any time to listen to what I said about anything. He was doing his job and I was doing mine, the best way that I can describe it, is that I met the director and he met the actress.

"I didn't bring my own ideas to The Fountain. Darren is not a director who lets his actors contribute to the script. I think there are about six words in the whole of this film that I improvised. Darren is the type of writer-director where his sets are not like a naturalistic drama, it is a very controlled universe. So it is not a freestyle time for the actor."

Weisz admits that she prefers to take on jobs where there is room for improvisation, which is why she likes appearing on the stage. She'd been forewarned by friends who had worked on Requiem for a Dream and Pi about her partner's dictatorial style: "I felt nervous because it was a very challenging role. I didn't want to let this movie or myself down. That was one of the reasons I wanted to do it, I don't think I've ever done something on screen, I've done it on stage, where the central character has been so raw and vulnerable."

The Fountain is a fable about a doctor (Hugh Jackman) who is searching for the mythical fountain of youth. Taking place over three separate periods, the doctor believes that the discovery of the fountain of youth will cure his terminally ill wife. Weisz is chameleon-like character moving from a fictional 15th-century Spanish queen to a modern-day writer trying to help her husband accept death as an important part of life by asking him to write the final chapter of a novel. The other section is set in some future time and is replete with hallucinatory visuals and questions about the meaning of life.

The movie jumps between the time and place like an MP3 player on shuffle. When the film had its premiere in Venice it was booed by critics. Weisz shrugs off the damning reception of the film: "I think it is a film that one can see many times and get more from it each time. What I've noticed from responses is that young people really, really like it. They're the ones who think they connect to the wild psychedelic narrative and the ideas behind the film. I find that with my parent's generation, because The Fountain is so visually new and their not accustomed to the style of story telling, they find it difficult." In the US, the box office takings seem to agree with the critical notices, although both Aronofsky's previous films sank at the American box office, before finding cult status on DVD.

Weisz puts great stock in life being about cycles of attitude: "I enjoy getting older. I just think that things get easier and you get wiser and more experienced. In your teens nothing is impossible; in your twenties you realise that not everything is possible. I think in your thirties you get more confident about who you are and I find that a relief. The twenties are excruciating; they were for me."

From the outside it seems odd that the actress found her twenties so difficult. She started modelling at the age of 14 and soon after decided that she wanted to be an actress. Her father, a Hungarian-born inventor, and her mother, a Vienna-born psychoanalyst, divorced when Weisz was 15. She studied English at Cambridge University and helped set up the Talking Tongues theatre company, which in 1991 at the Edinburgh Festival won a student drama award.

Soon after graduating she won the London Critics Circle Theatre most promising newcomer award for her turn as Gilda in Noël Coward's Design for Living and was getting regular gigs on TV. Early films include Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, Mark Pellington's Going All The Way and Michael Winterbottom's I Want You, during which time she had a string of stop-start romances with Alessandro Nivola, Neil Morrissey and Sam Mendes.

More unusually, Hollywood embraced her. She appeared in Chain Reaction with Morgan Freeman and The Mummy movies, which did much for her celebrity status but little for her acting cachet. She reserved her best performance for the stage and was outstanding in Neil Labute's The Shape of Things.

Once Weisz turned 30 she finally started to get the roles that would enable her to display her acting chops. She was beguiling as the single mother who dates Hugh Grant in About a Boy, and in the supernatural thriller Constantine in which she plays both twin sisters involved in a murder rap - victim and detective. She played another victim in The Constant Gardener, a role perfectly suited for her remarkable ability to be both emotionally strong and vulnerable at the same moment.

Weisz was eager to get back to work after her son's birth and didn't give it a second thought when offered a small part in My Blueberry Nights by one of her favourite directors, Wong Kar-Wai. The difference between working with Kar-Wai and Aronofsky could not have been greater. She never received a full script from Kar-Wai, and even the pages that she received were often changed on the day. "Wong would come in and say, 'No, no, no, we're not saying this, just say something else,' so there was a lot of improvising. It was the opposite of The Fountain. Wong just says say what you believe the character will say."

Conversely, at a time when Weisz seems to have finally accepted that she can't do everything in life, everything seems possible. With the additional cache of being an Oscar winner, scripts have been thrown at her. She would love to return to the stage in the near future. But the one thing she says she hasn't decided upon, is a date to marry her fiancée. Having made a film and a child together, it seems the nuptials can wait a little while longer.

'The Fountain' opens on 26 January

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