She might not shout about her achievements, but never underestimate Oxbridge theatre star turned Hollywood heroine Rachel Weisz…
Words: Jane Mulkerrins
Very quietly, modestly, and by stealth, Rachel Weisz has become a serious Hollywood player. This is not a sudden, overnight success; the film we are here to discuss – The Bourne Legacy – is her 45th screen role to date. That’s not counting her cameo on The Simpsons – the true marker of someone who has made it. Brought up in London’s Hampstead Garden Suburb, Weisz is one of many Oxbridge-educated exports (she studied English at Trinity Hall, Cambridge) to succeed in the film industry. And not always by choosing the most cerebral projects; it was as Egyptologist Evy in 1999’s The Mummy that she first broke Hollywood.
But one Oscar (Supporting Actress, The Constant Gardener, 2005) and a prestigious Olivier Award (for playing Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009) later, Rachel is sat opposite me in New York’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, sipping green tea in her skinny black jeans and embellished Isabel Marant jacket. Leaning forward, I catch a flash of her discreet wedding band. Last summer she married fellow Brit actor Daniel Craig – yep, James Bond himself – in a low-key ceremony in New York, attended by only four guests, including Craig’s 18-year-old daughter, Ella, and Rachel’s six-year-old son, Henry, from her previous relationship with Darren Aronofsky, director of Black Swan.
When she talks about phoning home in terror after completing dangerous stunts on the set of the fourth instalment of the action-fuelled franchise opposite ‘new’ Jason Bourne, Jeremy Renner, she does not reveal how 007 responded. But unlike some in the public eye, who appear to make a point of remaining aloof in an interview situation, Rachel seems as interested in me as I am in her. Perhaps she is simply being polite, but minutes into our interview, she asks, “Are you from north London too? You sound as if you are.” Then, “What’s your status in the US? Can you vote here?” She genuinely wants to know. And when a pair of workmen clatter into the room without warning or apology, looking for “Hayley” they fail to recognise the Oscar-winner on the sofa. With perfect manners, Rachel smiles, says sorry, but no, she isn’t Hayley, and carries on sipping her tea…
What attracted you to the role of Marta, and to an action film?
I really like the idea of an action movie that is realistic, rather than a superhero movie, or people with magic powers. And I thought she was a very well-drawn, complicated character, which you almost never get in a genre picture. As Marta, I’m a civilian – a scientist. I have a gun because I live alone and this is America. I love that as an audience member you can identify with her and think, ‘That could be me. What if I was in that situation?’ You get to see the evolution from normal bod to action heroine – she becomes a kind of warrior. And she gets put though a lot.
Would you ever be tempted by a less complex, more pure action part?
I don’t know. I loved Salt, but apparently Angelina Jolie’s role was written for a man. And she just said, “I want that role please,” because she can. I thought she was absolutely fabulous in it. So yeah, I don’t think I’d mind being front and centre, kicking ass
How physical did you have to get for Bourne?
Very. Actually, the stunts were terrifying. There were weeks spent on the back of a motorcycle, with Jeremy riding it, jumping over intersections and down staircases, and jumping off bridges in harnesses and onto moving buses. It was a challenge. I was genuinely scared – I didn’t have to do any acting at all when we did the action scenes! I would be phoning home saying, “I’m terrified”. I’m sure it must have been safe, but it didn’t feel it.
Were there any times when you didn’t feel terrified?
I loved working with the director, Tony Gilroy – it was probably one of my favourite experiences with a director. He is incredibly bright and verbally skilled and a great writer, but he loves chaos at work. And I love chaos too. Normally when people are very cerebral, they try to control everything, and he’s not like that.
“The stunts were terrifying. There were weeks spent on a motorcycle… jumping off bridges and onto moving buses”
You’ve also just finished filming Oz: The Great And Powerful, next year’s prequel to The Wizard Of Oz. How did making that compare to Bourne as an experience?
That was the most flat-out fun I have ever had making a film. It’s all in the Emerald City. James Franco is the Wizard and I am the Wicked Witch of the East, Mila Kunis is the Wicked Witch of the West and Michelle Williams is Glinda the Good Witch, very saintly and put-upon and beautiful. I got to shoot lightning out of my fingertips, fly around in a black sequined dress and wear lots of red lipstick. It was a complete antidote to doing Bourne – not that Bourne needed an antidote.
Have you ever had a game plan for your career?
Yes, but it never worked out. I’ve had times when I think I want to do something specific next. After The Constant Gardener, I wanted to do a comedy. I just couldn’t take anything else intense for a bit. So I turned down everything to do a comedy, which is a ridiculous game plan. And then a role comes along that you never thought of doing, and you connect with it, and you end up doing it.
When did you know you wanted to become an actress?
My parents took me to the theatre when I was young, but I wasn’t the star of the school play – Rebecca Cragshaw was. She was the great actress, whereas I was a bit too shy and wooden. It wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 that I started to be inspired.
Just feeling more comfortable about making a fool of myself, which is what acting is really all about. You have to be willing to stand up and make a fool of yourself and not care. Not taking yourself too seriously helps – and that comes with age
Did that happen at Cambridge? Did you enjoy your time there?
Yes, I loved it. I made a lot of really good friends, and had a very charmed life for three years there. It’s a very romantic place to study – beautiful, and small, almost like a little village with everyone riding their bicycles everywhere. And everyone has their independence for the first time. When I tell people in America that I went to Cambridge and that it was free, they can’t really imagine it. Even with fees, it is still so much cheaper than studying in America.
You became an American citizen last year. Was that an important step for you?
I did it because I thought I would go back to England for a while, and lose my green card. I’m not going back now, but being a citizen means I can vote here, which is exciting; not just being an outsider. When I come back into the country now and they stamp my passport, they say, “Welcome home Ma’am”. I think that’s a lovely formality. No-one in England would ever say that, would they?
Would you ever go back to London?
Oh, yes. I still have a place and love spending time there. I miss my friends who I grew up with; my girls. It’s a different relationship.
Is your son Henry interested in acting at all?
He is really into science and batteries and magnets and how things work. He is just finding his own way, but he has so many people around him in the arts that he will probably rebel and become a banker. I don’t push him towards anything. I just let him be.
“Acting is about being willing to make a fool of yourself. not taking yourself seriously helps, and that comes with age”
Would you ever be tempted to write or direct, as well as act?
I actually wrote and directed a short film, 11 minutes long, called The Thief, the year before last. Joel Edgerton played my thief, and it co-starred Rosemarie DeWitt. I really liked the writing part, and the directing part, but I didn’t enjoy the post-production bit. I got frustrated – it was so boring. With acting, I definitely appreciate the fact that you do it, and it’s done, and somebody else deals with the rest of it. With post-production, there was endless poring over takes and I just didn’t have the staying power. Plus, I don’t think I’m controlling enough. As a director you have to really control it – it’s your vision. I would just enjoy the experience so much that I didn’t really care. Obviously, I’m not a director; or at least not a goal-orientated one.
Not wanting to control – do you think that’s a ‘female thing’?
I was totally thinking that, and wasn’t going to say it. We don’t think about power in the same way. We have a completely different way of wanting power, which doesn’t serve us well in this world, because it has been set up in a certain way. We are more collaborative, probably, and non-linear and comparative, and identify with other people. We like sharing ideas, and chatting about everything.
Since your marriage to Daniel, do you feel like you are under more scrutiny?
I don’t think so. Not that I’m aware of, anyway. Maybe I’m deluded? I don’t know…
How do you feel about attention and paparazzi?
God willing, so far, I can’t really complain.
How do you feel about the by-products of your career, like premieres and parties?
You can be a purist or judgmental about it, but I think every job has a political aspect to it. Most jobs, you have to go to something, whether it’s the work party or whatever, that’s a bit of a drag. But unless you’re a genius, you want to do things that will help you and your work get noticed. People network in all sorts of jobs. Would I rather no-one ever had to do it? Yes. But I guess that’s not reality.
How do you relax when you’re not working?
With difficulty. I’m not brilliant at being on my own – I don’t have a hobby. I don’t play guitar or knit. I’m better with people. My son and I hang out, take trips, go to the park. I find the school run relaxing, because that routine is very comforting. When I’m working I can’t do it, which is sad.
Words: Jane Mulkerrins
Picture credit: Rex Features