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Interview

Rachel Weisz Is Flying High in 'Oz the Great and Powerful'

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Rachel Weisz Is Flying High in 'Oz the Great and Powerful'
Photo Source: Blake Gardner

When Rachel Weisz wants you to leave the hotel bar and meet her in her room, you do that. The call comes from a rep, or maybe it’s a rep’s assistant, and it’s prefaced with an apology—“Rachel is soooo sorry about this,” as if being summoned to a third-floor hotel suite to meet an intelligent, gorgeous lady with an exotic (or English, anyway) accent is akin to being summoned to an alimony hearing or the rector’s study. The bartender intuits that something awesome is happening and tells you the Arnold Palmer is on her. You book it to the elevator.

Upstairs the doorbell is rung, and Weisz opens it a moment later barefoot, in gray pants and white button-down. Inside, a table is weighted with the remains of room service. Weisz is sharing dim sum with an old friend from London who stopped by for a visit—a wonderful human being who offers up a plate of dumplings and a cup of tea, laughs at a few jokes, then excuses herself to the balcony to smoke and talk on the phone. “She just came and tidied up my room and told me I need to write more,” Weisz says. She’s on the tail end of lunch, picking at her food as she talks about her new film, “Oz the Great and Powerful.” The movie, a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz,” is directed by Sam Raimi. Though it stars James Franco in a pleasingly meta turn as the titular huckster and fraud, the film belongs to Weisz, Mila Kunis, and Michelle Williams as three witches whose personal rivalries drive the story. It premiered a night earlier, and in a few hours she’ll go do her bit for it on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

“I really wanted to do something fantastical,” says Weisz, who plays wicked witch Evanora. “I wanted to get off the earth. It’s not often you get to leave the earth.”

Weisz’s career has been more earthbound than one would expect at a time when Hollywood’s top female actors are drafted into service as the girlfriends of superheroes played by second-tier male actors. The Brit’s résumé is heavy with films about mortal women with mortal problems—“The Deep Blue Sea,” “The Whistleblower,” “The Constant Gardener”—and she cites “Norma Rae” and “Silkwood” as her two favorite movies. Aside from her Hollywood breakthrough more than a decade ago in “The Mummy,” she has relentlessly pursued the kinds of roles that Sally Field and Meryl Streep built their professional lives on. So it’s eyebrow raising to find her flying around the Emerald City, terrorizing the bejesus out of man and Munchkin. How she got there raises brows further.

“I auditioned,” she says. “I don’t think Sam maybe thought I was right.” A New Yorker who admits to being “a bit crappy” at auditioning, Weisz flew to L.A. to meet with Raimi and casting director John Papsidera—the first time in years she had read for a role. “I was just really in the mood for doing something really light and fun and sweet—even though she’s evil, it’s Disney evil.”

Whatever doubts Raimi had going into the meeting were swept away.

“When she was auditioning for the role, she really made it real for me,” the director says. “What was important about casting Rachel was that this woman, you had to really believe that she could rule the Emerald City, and Rachel has a place within her that she can pull upon where she can exhibit a great sense of power.”

But power alone does not a Sam Raimi villain make. Weisz delivered with style points. 

“I loved how Rachel chose to relish in her wickedness, relish her evil,” Raimi says. “It made it really fun for me to see her enjoy being cruel to Glinda, enjoy ruling with a wicked hand. It gave her performance a sick kind of flair that was delicious and frightening to behold.”

For Weisz, wicked fun was the role’s allure. “It’s not like you’re going to find out that her father beat her,” she says. “She’s sociopathic. She gets turned on by being nasty.” And there’s something freeing about playing a sociopath who shoots lightning bolts from her hands. “There are no rules. I mean there are rules—without my amulet I lose my power. Otherwise everything’s up for grabs.”

Unlikely as it seems, Weisz has no trouble drawing a line from the magical unreality of her latest project to her roots as a member of an experimental theater troupe during her days studying at Cambridge. While still a teenager, Weisz and her fellow company members toured Eastern Europe, visiting places such as Budapest and Warsaw where, prior to Communism’s fall, theater filled a cultural void left by film and television’s scarcity, and often took adventurous forms.

Her voice grows excited and her words come quicker as she describes going to the Edinburgh Fringe, where she took a play that she co-wrote in 1991. There she saw the final production by Tadeusz Kantor’s troupe. The Polish theater director, known for standing onstage with his actors and shouting at them during performance, had died and in his will ordered that his company disband one year after his passing. In the performance Weisz saw, the actors navigated the stage around an empty chair. 

“It was magical,” she says. “It wouldn’t have the mass appeal of ‘Oz,’ obviously, but they’re related.” But even though past may be prologue, it’s also past. “I still feel experimental, in terms of trying out different things—trying out a fantasy picture with Sam Raimi, even though it’s a mainstream family movie that Disney’s funding. But no, I’m not part of the experimental drama world. I’ve sold out at this point. I’m joking, but I’m also not joking.”

Though she’s left the realm of the physical-mental behind, she hasn’t left the stage. Her professional career was launched from a Donmar Warehouse production of Noël Coward’s “Design for Living”—“We did Noël Coward highly sexual; I don’t know if he would have liked it, Noël Coward”—and she has returned to the stage often since. If all goes according to plan, she’ll make her Broadway debut this fall in a Mike Nichols–directed revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” alongside husband Daniel Craig. “I saw it on Broadway in my 20s, and the acting was brilliant,” she says. “Liev Schreiber was in it; he was incredible. But I didn’t understand what they were talking about. Psychologically, I didn’t understand being married.”

Though Weisz insists that a wicked witch is “not a psychological part,” her turn as Evanora fits nicely alongside the modern-day Norma Raes and the Pinter and Coward characters she has spent her career playing. She describes seeing “The Wizard of Oz” for the first time at nine years old in a theater, straining to peek over the seat in front of her, and being terrified by the witches. In preparation for her own journey to the Emerald City, she researched L. Frank Baum, the man who created Oz, the Wizard, and those witches. What she found suited her.

“I read a lot about him,” Weisz says. “He was part of the suffrage movement. He was politically very radical, and a feminist. He wrote powerful female characters. And I guess witches are powerful women, aren’t they? They literally are women with powers.”  

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