Rachel Weisz (pronounced "vice") has quietly built a body of impressive work. Best-known on this side of the pond as Evelyn Carnahan/Princess Nefertiri in blockbusters The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, Weisz has also made her mark in quieter fare, including a turn as Hugh Grant's love interest in About a Boy and the female lead in Runaway Jury.
But Weisz isn't your average starlet. The dark-eyed, porcelain-skinned British beauty has told journalists on more than one occasion, "I'm not a celebrity; I'm an actress." You can tell she keeps a low profile as she sits—sans dark sunglasses or floppy hat—in a cloistered corner of the Peninsula Hotel's elegant tearoom in Beverly Hills. She seems unaware of the awards-season buzz surrounding her and co-star Ralph Fiennes for their performances in The Constant Gardener, a political thriller about a British couple in Kenya who become embroiled in a plot by major medical companies to illegally test drugs on impoverished Africans. Her character, Tessa, a passionate activist who does a few questionable things in the name of her cause, is the perfect fiery counterpart to Fiennes' mild-mannered diplomat, Justin. Weisz already won the best actress award at the British Independent Film Awards Dec. 1, where the film also garnered best picture and best actor for Fiennes.
An African Adventure
Weisz's low-maintence attitude came in handy while filming Gardener in the slums of Nairobi and Kibera, Kenya. She's proud that the cast and crew worked and lived closely with the residents respectfully. "I've been on films in developing countries where they behaved less than well," she says. "This film really behaved with great dignity.
"For me it was a privilege to get to see lives and culture you normally wouldn't see," she continues. "It was inspirational, because they have less than nothing…but their spirits were so full." Director Fernando Meirelles, who shot his award-winning 2002 film Cidade de Deus (City of God) in the slums of his native Brazil, led Weisz into bleak places to capture Kenya's realism. A scene in which Tessa gives birth, for example, was filmed in a working hospital without running water or sanitation; she was surrounded by women giving birth.
"The whole crew was intensely moved by our experiences in Africa, but I think our feelings don't really help anybody," she says.
Gardener producer Simon Channing-Williams was compelled to create the nonprofit Constant Gardener Foundation to help improve the area. "We've already raised money to build a school in the slum, a bridge, three WC facilities, and fresh-water supplies," says the actor with pride. "They're small things. It's not going to change the world, but it was a way of saying thank you to the community and be very impactful to the people that we met there…. If you can do just little things, it's something."
Doing Her Homework
"With theatre you get six weeks rehearsal, and so you get time to think," says Weisz. "But in film, you may get a week or maybe nothing, so you have to do the preparation on your own."
She prepared to play Tessa by reading, meeting with activists, and conducting other research. "You're like a journalist or a detective," she says. "You can explore, investigate, ask questions, and absorb. Then you begin the work."
Before shooting began, she talked with Oxfam International workers who had spent time in refuge camps. "That was fascinating, to hear all of their stories, their tales of corruption and betrayal by government," she says. "But it was really when I went to Africa that the real inspiration came."
There she met Patricia, a Kenyan activist who had been living with HIV for 12 years. According to the laws of her tribe, Patricia would have to remarry after her husband's death from AIDS. She refused, however, and was banished from her home, losing her property and livestock. She moved her children to Nairobi, where she built an orphanage for HIV-positive children and campaigned to bring generic medications into Kenya. Weisz says she finally began to understand Tessa while accompanying Patricia on daily visits to HIV/AIDS-infected women in the slums. "She was really my inspiration. She was of a different class, culture, and race, but her spirit was right," says Weisz.
The actor spoke with young people dying of cancer in preparation for her next film, The Fountain, which also delves into serious subject matter. Written and directed by her fiancé, Darren Aronofsky, who is best-known for his dark and cinematically daring films Pi and Requiem for a Dream, the film is a love story revolving around the search for the fountain of youth in different periods.
Weisz was drawn to Gardener and Fountain by their scripts, not their philosophical bents, and she points out that Tessa and Fountain's Izzi are optimistic and upbeat in the face of death and cruelty. "My characters in both of [the films] aren't particularly dark people," she says. "I would say Tessa is passionate, a little wild, and a pain in the ass, but she's not, like, a dark, depressed, weird person.
"I wish life was as lucid as a screenplay," she suddenly says, sighing. "That's why it's great telling stories, because you have a beginning, middle, and end. Life's complicated."
Back to the Boards
After nine years in film, Weisz is itching to get in front of a live audience again. "I haven't done theatre now for, I think, four years. I crave plays…. I'm dying, dying to get back on the stage right now."
She began her theatre career while studying English at Trinity Hall College at the University of Cambridge, from which she graduated with honors. She threw herself into student productions there and formed an improv group called Cambridge Talking Tongues that played the Edinburgh Festival.
Professional stagework is also familiar territory for the actor. She appeared in revivals of Noël Coward's Design for Living, for which she won the London Critics Circle Theatre Award for most promising newcomer in 1994; Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer in '99; and the original 2001 London production of Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, reprising her role in the 2003 film version.
She will take a step toward satisfying her hunger for the stage when she stars in Strindberg's Miss Julie on Broadway next year; Philip Seymour Hoffman is also attached to star. She points out that she's already complied with Actors' Equity Association's requirement that foreign actors obtain green cards to play American boards.
Though Weisz has moved on to new projects, she's haunted by her experiences in Africa, especially by the people she met there. "I feel like they should feel sorry for us in a funny way," she says. "I think we've lost something in materialism and the creature comforts. We've lost something spiritual.
"It's hard. I mean, I love fashion," she says, fingering the lapels of her Chanel jacket. She takes a deep breath and a thoughtful look around the sun-filled room complete with sedate harp player plucking away. "They're really alive," she says of the Kenyans. "And we're dead in a way."