Rachel Weisz tells our film critic why she’s tired of the need to have conversations about older women in films
Tall, elegant, resplendent in slacks and a demurely striped shirt, Rachel Weisz greets me with profuse apologies for being five minutes late. She’s 47 but looks a decade younger, and we’re in London to talk about her new film, My Cousin Rachel. But the subject of age quickly provokes what she later describes as “a rant”.
Her recent film work has involved brave choices and real departures, and I wonder aloud whether she has deliberately planned a path to such interesting roles at an age when many movie actresses find themselves cast on the scrapheap. I soon wish I hadn’t.
“You know it’s becoming just a bit tired, this conversation,” she says, “and I’m mainly tired of it in the sense that, how sad that it has to be had. I don’t know how you consciously approach getting older. I think film thinks about women differently to men irrespective of age. I’m the age I am and I’m finding the work I’m finding, so it’s hard for me to experience another experience other than the one I’m having.
“There aren’t enough stories being told by women as directors, writers, producers, so it’s about point of view. But the problem is not just in films, or entertainment, the problem is the whole of planet Earth. There aren’t enough women in politics, in boardrooms, it’s everywhere, but I guess it’s an easier place for it to be talked about.
“And the thing that I find almost absurd, actually, is that we have this conversation about women over 40 as if it was some tiny outlier minority – we’re half the population! It’s not like if you were talking about say, a role for a trans-black, now-woman-of-colour who’s converted to Islam. I understand the urgency of that conversation, but I find it so absurd that we’re talking about women. I feel like saying giraffes, or you know there aren’t enough roles for pandas. We’re women – I find it bonkers.
“Sorry,” she says, smiling disarmingly, “I had a bit of a rant there.”
To the film at hand, My Cousin Rachel, Roger Michell’s elegant and very satisfying adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s classic novel set in 19th-century Cornwall. Sam Claflin co-stars as Philip, an orphan raised by a kindly older relative who’s devastated when his protector dies in Italy shortly after marrying a mysterious cousin, Rachel. Philip is convinced she poisoned him, but when Rachel (Weisz) turns up in Cornwall, the young man falls head over heels in love with her.
“I never read the novel when I was younger,” Weisz tells me, “though I should probably pretend that I did, shouldn’t I?”
She was drawn to the story by the opaque nature of Rachel’s character: during the film we never truly come to understand her, and her motives remain a mystery. Did she decide whether her character was good or bad?
“Yes, I did, I decided whether she was guilty or innocent, and Roger Michell asked me not to tell him because he wanted it to be a secret also from him. I guess he didn’t want to direct it in the knowledge that he knew.” No chance of her telling me, then.
“I’ll take it to the grave,” she says, smiling. “Have to kill you first.” Indeed.
Whatever her deeper motives, the character of Rachel has a lot to contend with: her late husband left no will, she’s alone and penniless, with an uncertain future and no respectable means of making a living.
“The story brings up all sorts of questions about the position of women in the middle of the 19th century,” says Weisz, “including the idea that a woman was a possession who wasn’t really allowed to fend for herself – well, she does mention giving Italian lessons, which really pisses Philip off, but it was very hard to be an independent woman at that time. And I guess because the novel was written in the 1950s, Daphne du Maurier expressed quite radical ideas about sexual and financial freedom. It asks all these questions about women’s sovereignty, and women’s desire for independence, power.”
The most appealing thing about the character, and Weisz’s performance, is a sphinx-like aura of mystery. “It was the way Roger directed it,” she says, “it was the way he directed and the takes he chose. You can’t really play mystery.”
Perhaps not, but there are telling inconsistencies to Rachel’s character that keep the audience guessing. “There are constraints of the period, the corsets, the formality. But then she can be quite extravagant and exuberant and lose her temper. She’s lived in Italy, she speaks a foreign language. She doesn’t feel quite British, and I can relate to that.”
Weisz was born and raised in north London, but her background is distinctly central European. Her father and mother hailed from Jewish communities in Hungary and Austria respectively, and their families fled to Britain in the late 1930s. Raised in Hampstead, she attended several exclusive schools in North London, and was interested in drama from an early age.
She studied English at Cambridge and, almost immediately after graduating, began landing acting roles. One of the first was a part in the classic TV series Inspector Morse.
“At university, I had an avant-garde theatre troupe, myself and another girl, and it was very experimental physical theatre. But I remember in Morse they asked me to play a student, which is all I’d been up till that point, and it was so hard for me to be like a girl in a skirt, naturalism, it was impossible.
“I think I was probably very bad, very wooden, because I didn’t know how to approach it. And it was a big deal I got a job on TV, I was able to pay the rent, but I wasn’t naturally good at it.”
Through the 1990s, Weisz got the hang of it, and steady TV and stage work led to larger film roles. In 1996, she starred opposite Keanu Reeves and Morgan Freeman in the espionage thriller Chain Reaction: it wasn’t very good, but did get her noticed in America. She worked with Bernardo Bertolucci on Stealing Beauty, and with Michael Winterbottom on I Want You. Then Universal cast the young actress opposite Brendan Fraser in The Mummy, a jokey horror reboot that grossed $400m at the box office. “I love The Mummy,” she says. “I’m immensely proud of it. It’s funny, and charming and entertaining I think, and when I first read the script it reminded me of the kind of Saturday morning TV I used to watch with my mum, these old black-and-white adventure series, like Zorro. That’s the thing I’m still best known for.”
The strange term ‘English rose’ was thrown about in the media, but in the early 2000s Weisz began to prove there was a lot more to her than that, widening her range in grim dramas such as Beautiful Creatures and Enemy at the Gates, and co-starring with Hugh Grant in the soulful comedy About a Boy. Then came a game-changing role as the politically engaged wife of a staid British diplomat in Fernando Meirelles’ acclaimed 2005 drama The Constant Gardener. It won Weisz a Golden Globe, and an Oscar.
Some actors say awards don’t matter, but Weisz is not one of them. “I’ve never said that. It’s a huge accolade and something you don’t think is ever going to happen to you. I’d never even been to the Oscars before, and it’s a very surreal experience you know, but there’s only an upside.”
At that time, she was engaged to director Darren Aronofsky and in 2006 they had a child, Henry. The couple announced they had split in 2010 and shortly afterwards she and Daniel Craig became an item. They married quietly in New York in 2011, and have since become extremely adept at avoiding a prurient media.
Meanwhile, Weisz’s career has blossomed. She played Blanche DuBois to great acclaim in a West End production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and has done some of her best screen work in the past five or six years in films such as Terence Davies’ Deep Blue Sea, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, Mick Jackson’s holocaust drama Denial, and Yorgos Lanthimos’s surreal comic drama The Lobster. “I pursued Yorgos before he had written it and told him I wanted to work with him. I’d seen Dogtooth and sought him out. He’s a master film-maker.”
Carefully avoiding the subject of age, I wonder what’s kept her going as an actress. “The desire and the appetite and ambition to do it has to be enormous in order to stick it out,” she says, “and to stick out all the initial rejection.
“For me, there wasn’t one defining moment when I decided acting was for me. I just love stories, I love watching films and being transported by stories, so I just always felt I’d like to be telling them. I’m not a nurse or a teacher, which probably, if there was a hierarchy, would be more important, but I think humans need stories.
“We just need to tell them, so I feel that I can sleep at night knowing that, yeah, I tell stories.”