Rachel Weisz on playing Clare Crowhurst and her latest role opposite Rachel McAdams in Disobedience
Rachel Weisz is back on screen as a loyal wife. But it's her next role, as a lesbian Jew, that could land her in deep water, says Elizabeth Day
On her way to meet me in a north London pub, Rachel Weisz stopped off for a Brazilian wax. The beautician told Weisz she reminded her of someone. "She said, 'You really look like an actress'. And I went, 'Oh, OK. Who?' And she went, 'Salma Hayek'." Weisz breaks into laughter. "I said, 'Oh, thank you. What a fantastic compliment'."
Weisz is so often referred to as "an English rose" that it's become a cliche, yet the comparison with the 51-year-old Mexican star is not as absurd as it sounds. When Weisz first went to Hollywood in her early 20s, she often auditioned for the same roles as Hayek. Film producers noted her light-green eyes, high cheekbones and dark hair and, she says, put her in the Hispanic category "because I looked 'exotic' is what they said".
Occasionally, she would even be asked to adopt "a cod-Mexican accent", something that now, "would be completely un-PC".
At 47, but looking a decade younger, Weisz is naturally reserved and finds the whole interview process slightly absurd. You can see her thoughts forming before she speaks, a slight wrinkle appearing on her forehead as she searches for the right word. She has a habit of stopping her own answer mid-sentence if she decides she doesn't like the question.
"It's a funny thing, isn't it, that you become an actor and you get asked about important things in contemporary culture, like the end of the patriarchy," Weisz says at one point, in response to a question about post-Weinstein Hollywood. "And actually there are so many people better equipped than me to speak about it."
While she says she has never experienced harassment in the film industry, Weisz concedes that, "the world is still structured in a completely patriarchal way. There's no question about it... but I think we've come a long, long way in a short space of time and we can be optimistic".
Weisz is most comfortable talking about her work. As an actress, she has always liked "getting in the skin of other people" and it is a skill that has served her well in box office fodder such as The Mummy (1999) and About a Boy, the 2002 adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel, as well as in artier pieces such as The Fountain (2006), directed by her then-partner Darren Aronofsky, and The Lobster, opposite Colin Farrell, in 2015. Along the way, she has won a best supporting actress Oscar, for The Constant Gardener (2005), portrayed the Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt in Denial (2016) and last year starred in a new version of My Cousin Rachel, based on the Daphne du Maurier novel.
In The Mercy, released this week, she plays Clare Crowhurst, the widow of the failed amateur yachtsman Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth), who in 1968 took part in a race to circumnavigate the globe single-handedly, in the hope of winning a cash prize. Alone on a hastily built boat, Crowhurst soon ran into difficulty and began forging his logbooks to make it look as though he was faring better than he was, before apparently taking his own life to avoid public indignity and the shame he would bring on his wife and children. It's a story that has held considerable allure for writers (another film, Crowhurst, is set for release later this year).
"The daring to dream, the hubris of it," Weisz says, pouring herself a cup of tea. "I think we've all been in a situation where you've got yourself into a corner and you have to keep going. It's just human."
Clare Crowhurst, now 86, is reportedly unhappy that the film was made. Weisz never met her. Instead, she studied television news footage from the time.
Did she feel an additional responsibility portraying a living person?
"I mean, there is a responsibility, but then once you act you have to be irresponsible," she says. "Because I think acting is... you can't try and please anyone. Otherwise you'll be Not Good. For me, anyway. Between action and cut: that's the only time that you're doing the real work."
Her Clare Crowhurst feels like a character from a different age - the loyal, uncomplaining wife - and we start talking about what makes a "strong woman". Weisz says the term alone "always makes me laugh. You know what it is? It's that no one ever says that to a man". Her voice has dropped to a low murmur. "I don't know why I'm whispering. Could be arrested," she jokes. "I don't think my husband, who is an actor, has ever been asked, 'Do you like playing strong men?'"
Ah, yes: the husband. Weisz is married to Daniel Craig, the current James Bond. The pair had been friends for years before falling in love on the set of the 2011 film Dream House and tying the knot later that year. They live in New York - Weisz has an 11-year-old son, Henry, with Aronofsky, who is based in the city - but still have a home in London, just around the corner from the pub we're now in.
As a couple, they keep a low profile. In the past, Weisz has said it's a "choice" to be famous, and she remains resolutely un-starry, arriving for the interview without a publicist in tow, dressed in jeans, a long winter coat and not much more than mascara in the way of make-up.
I ask her if it's helpful to be married to another actor. She looks quizzical. For example, I clarify, do they go over their lines together?
"No," she guffaws. "Definitely not. No. No. I don't think... I mean, it doesn't not help." To change the subject, she pulls an iPad out of her handbag and starts searching for the title of a book she'd mentioned to me earlier.
Instead, I ask if she thinks there should be a female 007. Well, she says cautiously, Ian Fleming "devoted an awful lot of time to writing this particular character, who is particularly male and relates in a particular way to women. Why not create your own story rather than jumping on to the shoulders and being compared to all those other male predecessors? Women are really fascinating and interesting and should get their own stories."
To that end, Weisz has started developing and producing films. A few years ago, she bought the rights to Naomi Alderman's debut novel, Disobedience, which tells the story of a lapsed Orthodox Jew returning from New York to her native London. In some ways for Weisz, the film (for which she hired the Chilean director Sebastian Lelio) was a return to familiar territory.
She was raised as Jewish by her parents, George, an engineer and inventor, and Edith, a teacher-turned-psychotherapist, who both came to Britain as child refugees just before World War II (her mother from Austria, her father from Hungary). She mentions her concerns about the recent increase in anti-Semitic attacks: according to the Community Security Trust, incidents in the UK rose by 34pc in 2017 to an all-time high.
"The rise of any kind of racism - not just anti-Semitism but racism towards non-Jews from Eastern Europe, Romanians, Poles, people of colour, Muslims, all of it. All of that is very, very worrying," she says. "I do find it really upsetting."
In another sense, Disobedience takes Weisz to places she's never been before. At its Toronto Festival premiere, the most talked-about moment - "the heart of the film", according to Lelio - was a six-minute sex scene between Weisz and the American actress Rachel McAdams, who plays the ultra-Orthodox wife of a friend and the teenage lover of Weisz's main character.
As well as consulting with Orthodox Jews on the film's depiction of their community, the director sought advice from lesbian friends on how best to choreograph the scene, in which "everything trembling under the surface comes into the light".
"I would ask them: 'Would you do this? Would you do that? Would you spit in her mouth?'," he has said. "They would tell me what made sense." When it came to the shoot, Lelio used drawings to show his actors how the action should unfold: "First, kisses standing up against the table, then you take off her wig, etc. So we agreed to everything before we shot it."
I ask Weisz how it felt to be directed by a man in such a vulnerable situation.
"Sebastian just really loves women," she replies. "Properly, in the way that he respects their minds. He's a very gentle man. It was a complete joy to work with him."
As salacious as it may sound, the film has received praise for its sensitivity as well as its raw eroticism; the coupling of the Rachels has already been called the best movie sex scene in years.
Weisz, for her part, read 1950s and 1960s lesbian pulp fiction to prepare for the role, including Ann Bannon's Beebo Brinker Chronicles. Has she ever had a same-sex experience herself?
"I beg your pardon?" she says, laughing. I tell her she's bound to be asked.
"Oh really? Do you think I will be?" She appears half-appalled, half-delighted by the idea.
"I've never really spoken about my private sex life, so I guess I won't begin now... but thanks for warning me. Am I really going to be asked that? Really? I'd better warn Rachel [McAdams]..."
She buttons up her coat, ready to go back into the biting cold. Before she leaves, she gives me a hug. Rachel Weisz might not like interviews, but her dislike is elegantly and sweetly expressed.