Rachel Weisz: In Pursuit of Greatness

There’s one concept Rachel Weisz returns to over and over again in our chat: “I think the imagination is not mentioned enough,” she says over lunch on Halloween as we discuss her work in “The Favourite.” “Imagination is what moves us; for me, the work is using my imagination. Just an internal imaginative thing. I don’t think about it as dressing up.”

Given the costumed people we’d both seen out on the street, I ask whether she likes the dressing up part of being an actor. That’s what prompts her to confess that, while it’s a central part of her work, what draws her to the craft isn’t the “dressing up” but the chance to tell stories and to mine her and her collaborators’ collective imagination to bring them to life.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite”—the period drama in which Weisz plays power-hungry Lady Sarah opposite Olivia Colman as her lover, who has given her free rein of the land, and Emma Stone as the conniving Abigail, eager to take Lady Sarah’s powerful role in court—is truly a celebration of a wildly inventive imagination. Here is a revisionist and absurdist take on a real-life trio of women who get to play off of one another in a world where men are the perfumed ones in wigs and makeup and heels. That alone drew Weisz to the project. Like the 2018 lesbian romance drama “Disobedience” (which she co-starred in and produced), “The Favourite” puts the relationship between women at the heart of its drama.

Her involvement in the film was the latest in a series of choices on the part of the Oscar winner to seek out stories about women in relation to women. “I think the reason is because I’ve always played in relation to men.” She admits that by telling stories of women in relation to one another, she’s found much more interesting material, the kind that allows her and her co-stars to play characters that exist outside of the history of ownership that has for so long defined women on the page, the stage, and
the screen.

READ: Why ‘Disobedience’ Auteur Sebastián Lelio Needed Rachel Weisz + Rachel McAdams to Bare it All

“There’s incredible freedom in women playing opposite other women. They’ve never owned each other, historically. The patriarchy is not there at all. The history of women in relationship to men was about ownership and control.”

Here’s where the role of Lady Sarah reminds Weisz of one of her most cherished characters she’s ever played: Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois. “She’s the most fully formed woman. She’s everything. She’s allowed to be ridiculous, funny, cruel, alcoholic, vulnerable, kind, hysterical, sensible, intellectually brilliant. She’s literally everything. You keep turning her around and there’s every facet.”

The doomed protagonist of “A Streetcar Named Desire” may not, initially, seem to have that much in common with Weisz’s chilly and imperious Lady Sarah, but they both share what draws her to a role: a clear appetite. Blanche, whom Weisz played onstage in 2009 in Rob Ashford’s West End revival, had an appetite for sex, young boys, youth, alcohol, beauty—for survival. Lady Sarah is equally driven by a series of at-times conflicting cravings: for power, for the queen, for control. “If you don’t have a hunger, you don’t have much of an engine for the story.” While men have long been offered these kinds of roles, where they can have conflicting and contradictory wants and desires—a level of complexity that makes them human—to find female characters like that remains depressingly difficult.

It’s no surprise that in thinking of predecessors for female-driven films like “The Favourite,” Weisz looks back at the women’s films of studio Hollywood starring the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis. “Something happened when feminism happened, when women got power,” Weisz muses. “Suddenly, in these fictions, they got anorexic in terms of their appetites; they became wives and girlfriends. Which they really weren’t before.”

While she’s perhaps best known for her work in action films like “The Mummy,” as well as her Oscar-winning role in “The Constant Gardener,” Weisz began her career on the stage. As an undergraduate studying English literature at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, she began a student theater troupe. While other groups were all too happy to stage classics like “Romeo and Juliet” or “Blood Wedding,” Weisz and her three collaborators (including current BBC Films director Rose Garnett and renowned director David Farr) set out to create new, imaginative work. That’s how the Cambridge Talking Tongues was born. Creating improvisational work that was inspired by Eastern European theater (“quite stylized and avant-garde,” she quips) they ended up performing plays at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and even won the Guardian’s student theater award.

That beginning, which was all about embracing the spirit of play in writing and performance, came in handy when reteaming with Lanthimos (they’d worked together before in “The Lobster”) in this royally dark tragicomedy. Not only does Garnett, her former Talking Tongues partner, serve as an executive producer on the film, having developed it for over 10 years, but the Greek director’s approach to the story of how Abigail, Lady Sarah, and Queen Anne find themselves in each other’s crosshairs leans very much into an absurdist tenor. That required the actors to fully let go of their inhibitions, something they worked hard on, particularly during the rehearsal period.

“It felt a little bit like my student avant-garde workshops,” Weisz recalls. “Lots of physical exercises. We got to concentrate on doing ridiculous physical things and speaking text at the same time so you could control the way you were saying the text. You were simultaneously being ridiculous and embarrassing in front of everyone else so you got into a place where nothing could ever embarrass you again.”

Lanthimos, she shares, “is a fan of the ridiculous and the absurd. It’s a love story but it’s also farcical and satirical and ridiculous.” Indeed, the tone of “The Favourite” is a tightrope balance between farce and tragedy, with its levity causing raucous laughter and its tragedy earning many a tear.

But when asked whether that careful balance was hard to achieve, Weisz admits that she can’t ever think of tone while performing. “I’m just trying to be a person, whatever the text says. It’s just about finding a reality. It’s all about the director. They can direct you into a kind of tone, but I don’t know how to act tone; that’s something the director is carrying with them.”

Someone like Lanthimos, she argues, is a master of tone. “Somehow or other, he’s getting you in his groove, like a record, like a piece of vinyl with a groove in it, literally, with the needle skipping. And I can’t really tell you how he does it. I don’t know if he could, either. It’s masterful, though.” As for what that looks like on set, Weisz shares that Lanthimos would get different takes, asking for different things each time. “You sounded like an X-Men baddie in that take,” he told her one time. She immediately knew what that meant, and, more importantly, how to avoid it in her next take.

The actor also stresses that the main thing she works on when she’s on set is making everything as unconscious a process as possible. Confessing that she’s an avid reader, Weisz says that by the time she gets on set, all the analytical thinking that goes into creating a part has to disappear. This she learned from Harold Guskin, an acting teacher best known as the author of “How to Stop Acting.” “Everything I’ve learned is from him,” she explains. “It’s really just about taking the line off the page. And each time you say it, it can play with you in a different way, play in your imagination in a different way.”

The goal is “about making the words your own and being flexible enough to follow them wherever your instinct takes you. It’s about releasing your imagination so it can play with the words. The main thing is that you’ll be unconscious: that you’re not in charge, letting the line speak you rather than the other way.”

She’s aware that the process is a bit hard to explain, and that she’s making it sound a lot more abstract than it is in practice. But the point is taken: You’re to work on your lines so that they become spontaneous. To get to the place where you’re able to say, “I don’t even know what I’ve just done.” 

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Photographed by Stephanie Diani on October 29 in NYC; Makeup by Nick Barose for Exclusive Artists using Chanel Palette Essentielle