The actress Rachel Weisz has always managed to plump for parts in films which sink without trace. Jasper Rees wonders whether there is method in her madness

HOW FAMOUS are you if you're Rachel Weisz? In her own estimation, the answer is scarcely at all. "I'm not famous," she insists. "If you asked an actor who I was they'd know, but if you stopped Mr Bloggs in the street they wouldn't have a clue. I don't ever get recognised or anything like that. Literally never." I met Weisz out of rehearsals in the Old Vic one sunny Saturday afternoon. She's wearing a beige jumper from Browns, black tracksuit pants and is carrying a leopard-print shoulder bag. The cafe crawl we go on in Waterloo would tend to confirm her assessment. In the first place we enter there is not a flicker of recognition. But then we move on to the Young Vic. The woman serving behind the counter has one of those "I'm-not-going-to-let-on-that-I-know-you're-Rachel-Weisz" looks on her face.

It's probable that at least part of Weisz wants it this way. Her mother is a psychotherapist, and she was weaned on the key precepts of analysis. "I pretty much think that the unconscious rules," she says. "It's a way of interpreting the world where everything is subtextual and there is no such thing as a mistake. If you lost your house keys it means you didn't really want to go home."

Let us apply this Weltanschauung to Weisz's film career. First off, Chain Reaction, a snowbound Hollywood thriller in which she was cast opposite Keanu Reeves. She buries her head in her hands. "I was crap in that." Then there's Stealing Beauty, Bernardo Bertolucci's tour of Anglo-Saxon platitudes in Chiantishire. I'm telling her that I didn't much like the film, that it was Bertolucci's ... "Wank?" she interjects. And as for last year's The Land Girls, she makes one of those wordless off-the-record grimaces that film stars use in interviews when they don't want to be explicitly disloyal.

So, no hits there. Even when Weisz has made a far bigger emotional investment in her work, the films have not come off much better. Twelve months ago everyone was saying that 1998 would be Rachel Weisz's year, but both Amy Foster and I Want You, arty films made by arty directors, ran aground on the rocks of critical hostility and public apathy. You could argue that Weisz is therefore famous not because of her work but despite it, and that she has made her choices specifically because she doesn't want to be Kate Winslet. You lose your key because you don't want to go home. You do films that no one will see because you value your anonymity. I wrap this suggestion in the delicate filo pastry of a polite joke: the thing to do is not be in any hits. "I was going to say that before but not as a joke," she admits. "In a funny way it's rather nice. You keep doing these big things but you never get any hassle. No one takes a picture of you looking shit coming out of your house. You just lead your own little life."

If so, Weisz's unconscious made its big mistake about a year ago when she started dating Neil Morrissey, her co-star in the BBC film My Summer With Des. The tabloids swooped, with the result that this interview was green-lit only with the proviso that there was to be no interrogation about her "own little life". She seems very keen to stress that the rottweilers are no longer on her case. "They were interested in me for about five minutes, and then they went away and they have never bothered me since. It was a few days. It was definitely not nice, but they've gone and forgotten all about me now. I wasn't meant for them. They really have gone."

Maybe 1999 will be her year instead. Of the two films awaiting release, the one that should up her pavement recognition rate is The Mummy, a $90m 1930s Egyptology caper in which she plays a dusty bluestocking who lets her hair down in the Sahara. The other is Sunshine, directed by the eminent Hungarian auteur Istvan Szabo and starring Ralph Fiennes. But before that her name will be up in lights in the West End when she appears in Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer, which hasn't been performed in London since 1956. She plays Catharine, the role taken by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1959 movie. It's a showy part - Catharine is one diagnosis away from a lobotomy - and will remind West End regulars of what they first saw in Weisz five years ago, when she appeared in a sinuous and frankly lewd production of Noel Coward's Design For Living.

Weisz was 22 at the time, with no training behind her. The previous year she had attended an audition at the Royal Court and was told by a director that "only the truly truly truly great stars will ever make it without training". Sean Mathias, the director of both Design For Living and Suddenly Last Summer, remembers being begged several times by Weisz's agent to let her client audition: "I said, `No way, she's just too inexperienced.' Finally I caved in and said `I'll see her, but she's not going to get the part.' She came to see me and was wearing a long, brown, very sexy, almost see-through dress and no bra. It was a very hot day." Presumably even her unconscious wanted the part.

Weisz is probably the brainiest woman ever to have done one of those phwoar shoots in GQ. Studying English at Cambridge, "I got very into my work. I got into the whole thing: feminist literary theory, Barthes, Derrida, the whole lot." She considered staying on to do a postgraduate degree. The Henry James Quarterly wanted to publish her dissertation on Henry James's ghost stories. "It was called `The Pursuit and the Flight of Self and Other: Haunted Fictions'. In The Turn of the Screw I decided the reason why the governess saw ghosts was that she was so lonely she needed to have eyes gazing upon her to feel herself." Not unlike a film star, perhaps. The first time a film audience clapped eyes on Weisz she was draped like a panther along the fringe of a swimming pool in Stealing Beauty. She embodied a certain type of Englishwoman: bored, laconic, plummy, fantastically at ease with herself, jaded with disdain for the foreign surroundings in which she baked her largely naked body.

In fact, Weisz is no more English than a meal of goulash and sachertorte. Ever heard the one about the Hapsburg prince? Someone comes up to him and goes, "Did you watch the Austria-Hungary game last night?" "No," he replies, "Who were we playing?" Weisz is in the same mittel-European boat. Her parents both came to London as children: her mother is of Viennese Catholic stock; her father's family were Jewish refugees from Budapest. She and her younger sister grew up listening to their parents chat in German. Her education funnelled her through some very English institutions - Benenden, St Paul's, Cambridge - and she can "speak posh", but she is a cultural fruit salad. She looks foreign, with what she calls her "big old features. Big face, big nose, big eyes, big mouth, big brows. My nose isn't like a little aquiline English nose." And she feels foreign. "I really love England - I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. But my parents are not English at all. And I don't just mean because they've got thick accents. Going home is like going to another country."

Her parents separated when she was 15. Her mother moved to Cambridge "when I went there, coincidentally". Her father is a medical inventor. "He invented a pioneering artificial respirator that was pneumatically powered by its own oxygen cylinder," she says. He remarried a Hungarian psychiatrist, and lives mostly in Hampstead but also in Budapest. It's interesting that she returned to Budapest to make Sunshine, set in precisely the milieu of 1930s anti-Semitism from which her parents fled, and "ironic", she says, that she plays the only Gentile.

She first travelled east when she was 18. She and some Cambridge girlfriends bought railpasses and went through the Iron Curtain to watch theatre. They incorporated the avant-garde techniques they came across into an experimen-tal theatre company they set up called Talking Tongues. They took a show to Edinburgh and won an award on the festival fringe. "It is probably the most exciting time I can ever remember. It was all ours, and that's never been repeated. We did some of the best work I've ever done, which probably about 100 people ever saw." Although I've seen it suggested that Weisz broke up the group by pushing off to do television, she says, "the other actress went to Rada after Cambridge, so it was she who first left the company, if we're going to lay blame down. Then I did some TV, so I completely sold out. All my friends at Cambridge just thought I was the lowest of the low. It's only recently, since they all started selling out too, that it's become all right." In fact she could have sold out much earlier. At 14 she was offered a role in King David, a flop starring Richard Gere. Betraying an early attraction to films that sink without trace, she wanted to do it, but was overruled by her parents, who preferred her to stick to her education.

After their divorce, she seems to have gone through a rough patch, but erects a barrier when I try to ask her about it. "Coming from a family of millions of shrinks," she says, "I'm resistant to you putting me on the couch about my adolescence, just because I don't think you'll do it that well." She adds that "all children will unconsciously try to reunite their parents for the rest of their lives. I guess that's how it affected me." On a more practical level, she also failed all her exams at the end of her first A-level year at St Paul's. "The headmistress didn't want me to try for university because I wasn't a good student. But then this lovely English teacher, who is now the headmistress, took me under her wing. It's one of those fairytale stories of the teacher who inspired you. I went for an interview at Cambridge and got a conditional offer, so I had something to work for."

What is she working for now? Another Hollywood movie? "I really don't care who's paying for it. It really doesn't interest me. You have to want to do it. You have to spend five months of your life away from your home doing it." But she also says, "I can imagine home anywhere. I do feel like a chameleon. I can sense quite quickly how to fit in." So maybe she is ready to lose the key. 2

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