Who definitely isn't behaving badly

Interview: Rachel Weisz (that's 'vice' to you) is not your usual cover-girl pretty actress. Charlotte Moore finds her revelling in the frumpy character she plays in her latest film, 'The Land Girls', and determined to beat the tabloid rap

One sexy thesp

There are two things that make meeting Rachel Weisz awkward. First she looks distractingly exotic, and second she has a surname that suggests a thousand different pronunciations. "Vice", she replies in a surprisingly plummy English accent, when I ask. "Vice" it may well be - she is from Hungarian stock - but it is the relish with which she expresses it which gives you the first real indication as to how the new Brit actress on the A-list block would like to be regarded.

And when we meet for that most English of things - tea - in the discreet yet plush Covent Garden Hotel, vice, or the lack of it, is firmly on the agenda.

We are meant to be here to talk about her new film, The Land Girls, in which she stars alongside Anna Friel, Catherine McCormack and Stephen Mackintosh, but Rachel, it seems, is suffering from first-brush-with-the- tabloids stress. But another subject has come up. "I really don't want to talk about it," she says tetchily, brushing a shiny black wisp of hair from her eye. "At least tell me whether it's true," I pester.

What exactly she won't talk about is her alleged affair with Men Behaving Badly's Neil Morrissey, with whom she starred in the BBC's pre-World Cup puff, My Night With Des in May. "I mean, the whole thing, well, it's just ludicrous. There are wars and things going on - haven't they got anything better to write about?"

Pause... I can sense that there's a rant brewing.

"I can't tell you how bizarre it felt, I mean the front page of the Daily Mail. This morning I rang up my mother and just had to say sorry. I mean she didn't know anything about it." And now, initial flurry of emotion over, we're friends and ready to share our pot of Earl Grey.

It's not difficult to work out why everyone is so interested in Weisz - affair or no affair. In 1995 she made her screen debut in Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, almost stealing Liv Tyler's thunder as a first-class bitch, immediately followed with a starring role opposite Keanu Reeves in Hollywood blockie Chain Reaction. Today dressed neatly in black bootleg trousers, a tiny, tight black T-shirt and tailored leather jacket, she is at once cool London and authentic English beauty, and with all the curvy credentials to make it to the front cover of a men's mag.

And despite all the recent kerfuffle, she is refreshingly aware of all that being the next big thing in British cinema entails. "One shouldn't be too precious about being portrayed as a sex bomb," she laughs. "In Amy Foster [in which she played Vincent Perez' mute and moody lover] I was totally unsexy, but I just thought that if I have to wear a sexy frock for a photo-shoot, to get people to see the film then I'll do it.

"I would draw the line at FHM or Loaded," she adds, almost spitting. "I mean, I'd rather be in a porn mag than in a porn mag that is masked as something that is meant to be high culture. Can you believe it, they did this essay - deconstructing the breast?" she laughs. And she's off again putting the world to rights.

But like it or not, it's this spirited intelligence and emotional involvement in everything that she does that makes her just that little bit more captivating than your average new starlet.

She grew up in north London, her dad a Hungarian-born inventor, her mum an Austrian psychotherapist. "It's hard to say whether your parents [divorced] are whacky when they're your own parents," she muses. "I think they're quite moral and old-fashioned in their own way."

A story most often told about her is that she turned down a Richard Gere movie when she was 13, because her father believed education came first, although, also at 13, he allowed her to enter a Harper's and Queen model competition which she won. "It allowed me to do some modelling in my school holidays, it was a brilliant way of getting pocket money, but it had absolutely nothing to do with acting," she says in a "this is totally irrelevant to what I'm doing now" kind of voice.

Her father's persistence with her education paid off. At Cambridge she studied English and started her own award-winning theatre company, Talking Tongues. "Amongst the thesps we were well-known," she chatters, pleased to be back on familiar territory - but the rest of the students probably just thought we were terribly dull and boring." Everything in Rachel's life is either "terribly", "frightfully" or "awfully", and who ever heard of anyone calling actors "thesps" these days? Half an hour into our chat and it's easy to see why she was cast as Ag, an eccentric, upper-class intellectual in The Land Girls. "I was like 'thank you, thank you, thank you' when I got the part," she smiles. "It was so great to play the frumpy intellectual."

"Frumpy intellectual in a beautiful body? Is that how you see yourself? I ask tentatively. "God it sounds so pretentious to say so, but yes, yes I suppose I do," she admits, momentarily shy.

So we slip back to her blossoming career instead. She tells me that she is flying to Morocco next week for a film called Allummy - "a kind of Indiana Jones-type thing set in 1950. Very Hollywood. I get to play this girl with glasses and a bun who flings her hair down and turns all sexy." It all sounds very familiar.

After that it's Sunshine, an historical epic about three generations of a Hungarian-Jewish family, in which she stars alongside Ralph Fiennes. Yet another in a long line, including Ewan McGregor (with whom she appeared in the BBC period drama Scarlett and Black) of male totty with whom she's shared the screen.

"People always ask me what it's like to work with all these gorgeous men," she chuckles. "And of course it does happen that you fall in love with someone you're working with. But when it's someone like Keanu, he's such a star, I never really felt that I was his normal mate or anything because he's such an impenetrable person."

Once you've forgotten the plummy accent and lavish looks, Weisz is more like a girl who really wants to be your "nominal mate", as she says, than anything else. "Someone came round to my flat the other day," she babbles, "and I was going to cook, but all I had were these crappy Tefal pans that I'd had since I was a student, and they were all burnt. So I went out to buy some stainless steel pans and can you believe how much they cost? I couldn't." Notions of Keanu and Ewan are out the window. But I insist. "Don't you get invited to loads of celebrity parties?"

"I find it exhausting - getting all dressed up just to be photographed so you are seen in a newspaper." So blase at just 25, it's amazing. I venture back to her relationships. "No," she says looking directly at me in the eye. "I have never been out with someone high-profile. "No," she adds defiantly, bored with my insistence, "I'm not a starf***er."

IN HER OWN WORDS

On her love live:

"I really don't want to talk about it"

On tabloid speculation:

"I mean, the whole thing, well, it's just ludicrous. There are wars and things going on - haven't they got anything better to write about?"

On her image:

"One shouldn't be too precious about being portrayed as a sex bomb"

On parties:

"I find it exhausting - getting all dressed up just to be photographed so you are seen in a newspaper"

On Keanu Reeves:

"He's such an impenetrable person"

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