Rachel Weisz interview: The actress on subverting Hollywood ageism by turning filmmaker

The actress tells how age and experience make life better – after all, these days if she likes a character in a  book, she simply buys the rights

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Film-making is a tough business for an actress, especially once they hit their mid-forties and they become too old to play the parts that Hollywood traditionally writes for women. 

Rachel Weisz is luckier than most, because she can still pass for at least a decade younger than her 45 years, and gets winning roles, such as playing a revolutionary in the quirky The Lobster, but the Oscar-winning actress is taking no chances with her career. She wants to keep acting and so is going by the book, in the literal rather than metaphorical sense, and is buying up the rights to novels.

“So far it’s just been books where I can see parts for me to act in,” she admits. “It’s been interesting. I’ve done enough films that I have a sense of what I want to do. I’ve read enough scripts. I can’t write, but I can develop.” 

One of the books she has bought adaptation rights to is Thirty Girls, by Susan Minot. “It’s about an American journalist, who I would play, who goes to Uganda to interview some of the girls after they have been part of the Kony's Lord Resistance Army, and there is an Italian nun - it's based on a true story. I know in Nigeria recently there was a big thing - Bring Back Our Girls. It’s a different story, but set in Uganda.... I mainly chose it because it has three great female roles – the journalist, a 13-year-old African girl, and an Italian woman who is the guardian of the girls that get kidnapped.”

She wants Haifaa Al Mansour, whose debut film was Wadjda, about a girl looking for a bike, and was the first film shot in Saudi Arabia, to direct. Weisz was mesmerised by Wadjda and sought out the director. Indeed, calling up directors is how the actress has been getting jobs in recent years, but, with a surprisingly limited hit-rate, she seems to have become a producer out of necessity. “I definitely seek out people that I want to work with. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes they don’t admire me back.” 

It’s an odd thought that directors wouldn’t want to work with the actress, who picked up a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2006 for her turn in The Constant Gardener, in which she plays an Amnesty employee who has been murdered in Kenya, and whom we get to know in a series of flashbacks. More understandable would be a fear that Weisz doesn’t belong to that elite group of actresses whose name could open a movie. That’s by dint of the fact that Weisz is an actress whose career highlights have all come in appearing in interesting indie movies such as The Shape of Things, Constantine, My Blueberry Nights, The Brothers Bloom, The Whistleblower, and The Deep Blue Sea rather than huge blockbusters. The Mummy and its sequel, made in 2001, are the only blockbuster franchises to her name, and those were Brendan Fraser movies. In recent years, the flop Oz the Great and Powerful, a misguided Wizard of Oz prequel, is the only mainstream Hollywood film she has appeared in. 

Rachel Weisz

One director who saw beyond the finance executives and looked at her performances was Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director who made The Lobster. She saw his brilliant film Dogtooth, about a family permanently locked up in a house by their father, and was wooed by the fact that it was a high-concept movie that didn’t rely on special effects, spaceships, or prosthetics. “But it’s sci-fi, it’s still a different universe.” 

The same could be said of The Lobster, which has a rather amazing concept. It is set in the near future, where single people are encouraged by “The City” to get married and procreate. It’s a place where Tinder doesn’t seem to work, so singletons are sent to “The Hotel”, where they are given 45 days to find a partner or they are transformed into an animal and sent to live in “The Woods”. The Hotel is a place completely devoid of any emotional resonance, so the inmates resort to charade to escape a transformative fate. 

“There was no way for preparing for this role. I just wanted to be part of his universe

Rachel Weisz

Weisz plays a character, known as Short Sighted Woman, who also acts as the narrator. With admirable understatement, she says: “There was no way for preparing for this role. I just wanted to be part of his universe.” The film is wildly ambiguous and that’s part of its charm, but not even Weisz has come up with a way of matching up the first half of the film that takes place in The Hotel and the second that occurs in The Woods. 

“I think my interpretation will change every time,” she says. “There is no point in telling you mine, because everyone that sees it has their own interpretation and no interpretation is right. I think it’s very romantic.” 

When I say that I believe her character symbolises love, she lets out a gentle “awww”, the kind of sound that is reserved for children when they do or say something endearing. In keeping with the surrealistic nature of the narrative, the love affair between Short Sighted Woman and David, played by Colin Farrell, is largely abstract. Even now, Weisz is not quite sure what the nature of their relationship is. 

“I think they do love each other,” she says. “I think that when we set up immense obstacles and love is forbidden then you have the possibility of a romantic love story. Romeo and Juliet is romantic because it’s not allowed. This is different because it’s love that comes against intense rules and regulations.” 

It’s hard not to think of her marriage to the actor Daniel Craig when she says this. Old friends, their love blossomed while they were working on the set of the horror film Dream House, which came out in 2011. It was, seemingly, the only positive that came out of that movie. Yet at the time Weisz was living with Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky, with whom she has a son, Henry, and Craig was engaged to his partner of seven years Satsuki Mitchell. They kept their relationship secret until after their wedding announcement in June 2011, which came as a bolt from the blue.

The couple appeared together on Broadway last year when they starred in Mike Nichols’s adaptation of Harold Pinter’s 1978 play Betrayal. Rafe Spall played the third wheel in a three-hander that met with mixed reviews. But the experience seemed positive, a contrast to when I spoke to Weisz after she made The Fountain with her then-beau Aronofsky. 

“There are stories of couples working together and it working well and other couples working together when 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 a very good understanding. For Darren, this film was an immense undertaking, he was really focused, and for him he really didn’t have any time to listen to what I had to say 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.”

Weisz was born in Westminster in 1970. Her father is a Hungarian inventor and her mother Ruth, a psychotherapist, is described by her daughter as being Austrian/Croatian/Italian. The east European heritage is evident is Weisz’s dark features. It’s also something that plays a bigger part in her life than seems evident at first: “I’m from England, but I’m also culturally from east Europe, there is a cultural life. I’ve been to Austria and Hungary many times. I don’t speak the language, I just speak French, my parents didn’t raise me and my sister to speak Hungarian or German. I wish they had, it would have been really handy to speak it.” 

She talks about her life growing up being awkward, especially in her twenties, which started with her reading English at Cambridge University. It was there that she began acting, mainly winning parts on television. “In your teens you think nothing is impossible. Then in your twenties you realise everything isn’t possible. I think in your thirties you get more confident about who you are and I find that a relief. The twenties are excruciating. At least they were for me, anyway.” Does she find it easier now? “Definitely. I know I’m doing more than when I started. Does it get easier? Do you really know what you are doing? It’s all about roaming around, trying. It’s not very scientific.” 

The lessons of her career have taught her to always be on her toes. “Every actress is worried about being unemployed, even if you’re doing very well,” she told me after appearing in The Deep Blue Sea in 2011. And this was true even after she won an Oscar. “Maybe not right after it. I mean it’s not a safe profession, yours isn’t either.” 

What’s always evident when chatting with Weisz is that she seems immensely curious. She’d rather be the one asking questions than being on the receiving end. 

When she made Oz, it was shot in Detroit, but she complained that the actors were all being holed up in the richer suburb of Richmond, and what she really wanted to do was go downtown and explore the burnt-out and abandoned buildings. It’s this side to her character that she seems to keep hidden. 

She says she’s not good at looking back over her career, “Sure, over time everything gets different. I’m not good at reflecting back. Starting out I did every job I was offered just to pay the rent, but now I have the luxury that I can choose which is a good position to be in.” 

Yet she also knows that nothing is a sure thing. “You can have a good script, good actor, terrible film. In the case with Yorgos’s script, it was just interesting and weird. It was just great being in a wood in Ireland, where there is a micro-climate, and being covered in mud and not having to sit through hair and make-up, and dancing alone listening to electronic music. How often do you get to do that at work?”

And that seems to be the guiding force for Weisz, the desire and need to do unique, interesting work. It’s no wonder that she can’t face being a blockbuster actor following set plot-lines, cliches and explosions. Imagine her angst if she ever had to play Bond.

‘The Lobster’ is released on 16 October