Celebrity interviews

Cover story

Rachel Weisz

The Times

July 28, 2012


Who’s the better hero, Bourne or Bond? “That’s an unfair question,” says Rachel Weisz. “How do I answer that? My loyalties lie with both.” Wearing a patterned blouse with her tamed tumble of dark hair, and in a Manhattan hotel suite that could win awards for drab airlessness, Weisz, star of the latest Bourne film and since last year wife of the latest James Bond, Daniel Craig, is looking more demure English rose (well, slightly wilting – she’s been incarcerated here for hours) than action-movie heroine. Oddly for a star, usually so primped and well lit, she is as beautiful up close as she is on screen, with a British chippiness to offset the bee-stung lips and perfect skin. She is equal parts vamp and bluestocking. Her accent is posh, but with roughened edges.

How’s married life? “I’m enjoying it, yeah, yeah, very much,” she says, meaning, “No intention of telling you.” This is your first marriage, I say, to check that it is, although Weisz mishears or I stress the wrong word (“first”) and she looks stricken. “Correct. Don’t say it like there are going to be more.” Laughing, she accepts I was being “diplomatic” in case there had been more than one. Hey, I say, there could have been a teen marriage that had gone hopelessly wrong. “And we married on the Heath Extension under a tree,” she continues, imagining these nuptials, laughing. “Have you been to Hampstead Garden Suburb [where she grew up]? It’s a funny area, designed with no pubs. People congregated to smoke at the phone boxes in Golders Green.”

Weisz, 42, is warm but wary (possibly appreciative that anything Bond-related immediately becomes a headline). There is something crackling in the dead air, if not hostility then maybe her quite understandable boredom at having to play show pony. She is probably more wary since marrying Craig.

Had she ever thought about getting married younger? “In my twenties I never imagined I would marry or be a mother. I didn’t… you know… I think some young women imagine their wedding dress. I think it’s an enjoyable idea. I just didn’t have it.” Why? “Because I was unmarriable in a Jane Austen kind of a way.” Meaning until Craig she hadn’t met the person she wanted to marry? “I didn’t say that.” I didn’t say she did; what does she mean? “I don’t know. I don’t know why I hadn’t before, but I did other things. I had a child and had a life.”

She has a six-year-old son, Henry, with her former partner, the director Darren Aronofsky. Was becoming a mother significant? “Yes, it did become important. There was a moment when I really thought I wanted to be a mother and I was surprised. It wasn’t something I had thought about.” Was it down to the tick-tock of the child-bearing clock? “I just think it was instinct.” Would she like to have more children? “I don’t know. Actually, I think of all the questions in the world, I find that the most incredibly personal, to be honest. I can’t really… I suppose it’s none of your business.” She laughs and looks triumphant, as if she has somehow vanquished me, which is puzzling on at least two counts. In another part of our conversation, she draws a link between my spirit of inquiry and her own when researching her roles, and anyway, I was just asking a question: no tricks, no desire to trip her up.

When I ask how her parents reacted to her desire to act, Weisz scoffs: “I’m too old to be asked questions like this. Do you ask people who are 60 this?” She is smiling but bristling. Yes, I say nonplussed, I do – and it seems like a normal thing to ask.

Weisz grew up in Hampstead Garden Suburb with her parents – George, a Hungarian-born inventor (most significantly of an artificial respirator), and Edith, an Austrian-born teacher turned psychotherapist – and her younger sister, Minnie, now a photographer and curator. “I was very tomboy. I wasn’t very girlie. I was climbing trees all the time with my sister, scraped knees and odd socks.” Weisz “really wanted to be a spy, detective or scientist. It was the feeling there were secrets to be found out. I was a paranoid child, convinced of conspiracies all around.”

Her parents separated when she was 15, after she had been ejected from a series of schools because of “disruptive behaviour”. “When I was young, I felt people were not really saying what was going on, that a lot was being kept from me, which turned out to be quite accurate,” Weisz reflects. “When you’re a child, you don’t know anything. You’re not supposed to tell children anything.” On the understandable but wrong-headed principle of “protecting” the child, I suggest. “Of course, but I didn’t know what that meant.” What was she being protected from? Weisz laughs drily. “Well, I guess the secrets of how the world worked, what it was to be an adult, how dangerous the world was.”

She performed in school plays, she says, “but I wasn’t the star. A girl called Suzannah Clayman was the star of junior school. She was Alice in Alice in Wonderland and I was the Dodo. I don’t think I even had a line. I was quite shy about performing. I wasn’t really like, ‘Get out there with jazz hands.’ I secretly wanted to act, but it took me a while. I was shy.”

Weisz and her mother watched “a lot” of Elizabeth Taylor and Bette Davis movies. I ask who her inspirations were. “Watching Tom Petty as a young man sing Breakdown live – nothing phoney or fake. That is a pure, abandoned performance. I only saw it for the first time last week on YouTube, so I wouldn’t say it’s formative, but it sums up my answer. Watching other performers is my main inspiration, and mostly it’s music that inspires me. Watching Patti Smith sing live, or Martha Wainwright – they are probably the most inspiring female performers I have ever seen.”

Before studying English at Cambridge, Weisz turned down a role in a little-known Richard Gere movie, King David. At university, “in awe of [experimental theatre company] Théâtre de Complicité”, she and some friends formed a theatre company, Talking Tongues. “It was very avant garde with some improvisation,” she says. “We thought we’d go around Europe doing avant-garde theatre, but we went off in different directions. I have sold out steadily ever since.” I had read of her “headbanging in Berlin nightclubs”. What was that like? “Fun. I loved it.”

So is she happy to have “sold out”? “Right now I’m looking for a play, preferably off- Broadway. I don’t want to sound too worthy but I like interesting characters: you have to play that person, dress and speak like them, get their accent.”

Her character in The Bourne Legacy appealed because she is “massively morally compromised”, while director Tony Gilroy is “very edgy. There’s a big dose of rock’n’roll in him and that’s how I like to work: ‘This isn’t a seminar, this is acting. Let’s do it.’

“I think acting is similar to what’s manifested in you,” Weisz continues, meaning journalism. “You seem to have an instinct to get inside someone’s skin.” She researches every role, for Bourne talking to female scientists “about every part of their lives” to play one herself. In it, we watch her ride pillion through the streets of Manila as Jeremy Renner, who has taken over from Matt Damon as the lead in the franchise, tries to evade a villain. You can almost hear Weisz and Renner’s bones crack and judder as their motorbike flies through markets, into buses and up and down steps.

“I’ve never done ‘action’ like this film,” she says. “It was properly frightening. Sometimes I’ve done ‘action’ and had to act scared.

This time I didn’t have to act. It was terrifying. The motorbike chase took place in a very uncontrolled environment: I had to just hold on and trust Jeremy. It was very easy for something to go wrong. I was way out of my comfort zone.”

There were a “lot of stunts” she says – jumping over railings wearing harnesses and being dragged along the ground by ropes. “I just identify with the realism,” she says. “It is not fantasy. It could be happening around the corner. That is exciting to me.”

But Weisz’s most lauded film roles are firmly from the art house: she won an Oscar, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award for her role in Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener (2005), was seen in Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea last year and also features in Meirelles’s forthcoming ensemble drama, 360, scripted by The Queen screenwriter Peter Morgan. Weisz plays a cheating wife married to Jude Law. Meirelles says Weisz is an actor who “hates” cliché and understands “immediately the intention of each line she has”. She “experiments and goes with the flow”, he says. “On Rachel’s first day, she had a sex scene with Juliano Cazarré, a Brazilian actor that she had met half an hour before having to kiss. It’s a hard situation, but both of them were very open to try a connection, and in few minutes they were able to create very good chemistry. It’s a very good scene.”

Weisz is measured about success. Of her Oscar, she says: “You might fantasise about something like that happening but never think it will happen in reality.” Such ceremonies are not favoured habitats. “There are moments when the agreement is, I will turn up on the red carpet not with dirty hair and no make-up – that’s part of the contract of my job,” she says so tonelessly I summon up an image of agents and assistants shoving her into couture and, rictus-smiled, out of the limo. “I can think of other more pleasurable things,” Weisz says archly. “It’s not relaxing, it’s not like being at home, putting your feet up and watching TV.”

Weisz does, however, like designer clothes (“I love Rick Owens, The Row, Stella McCartney, Narciso Rodriguez, Alexander McQueen, Rag & Bone, Hussein Chalayan, Jason Wu”). But “finding comfy shoes that look good is the challenge. Living in New York, I definitely appreciate comfortable shoes as you walk a lot in the city.”

New York’s energy propels her, “but it’s also the thing that can drive you crazy”. She adds, “Everyone should have a child born in Manhattan.” Her son “likes graffiti and wears a baseball cap”. She smiles. “It’s so different to growing up in Hampstead Garden Suburb.” She and Craig live in the East Village, where, “There are so many ethnicities and foods, it’s impossible to be bored.” Do they share movie stories, or do they avoid work chat at home? “I think talking about acting
is actually very boring, so we don’t talk much shop at home. Acting is interesting to do, but not really to discuss.”

Weisz and Craig are frequently “papped” walking on the street, but, she says, it is easier to deal with living in New York. “I see my professional life and my personal life as two separate things. I cannot say that I am not a celebrity at this point, so I know not to show up at the places where I know I will be photographed. It’s fairly simple. I love that, in New York, no one cares about celebrity. You can maintain a certain level of anonymity and go about your day with your friends or family. In New York, everyone is the star in their own life – they are not too impressed by celebrity.”

Neither is Weisz. She knows the game, she’ll play her part, but off screen this natural rebel strives for a normal-ish life. One hopes, away from this airless hotel suite, that still includes the odd night of riotous headbanging.