The scene opens on a small doughnut shop in New York’s East Village, where a young clerk with flaming red hair is talking about her life with a woman who has popped in to buy a sweet. The shop is not busy – it is close to dinner time – and the customer, a movie star dressed simply in a white blouse and jeans, gently draws the woman out: she hears about her beloved horse back home (now in horse heaven), her philosophy on eating doughnuts (all or nothing, and she has chosen nothing), how she moved to the city to make it in a band.
Eventually, a man in a baseball cap walks in with a young boy, presumably his son, stops in his tracks and watches, a small smile on his face as he takes in this New York moment: an aspiring star chatting with an already established one, clearly unaware (the young woman later confirms) that her charmed and charming customer is an Oscar winner, a queer icon and the wife of an actor who embodies traditional masculinity.
The actor soon realises that it’s time for the next customer, but before she leaves, the younger woman offers her what she can, “Six free doughnuts?” The store is closing soon anyway. The actor smiles, demurs, wishes her the best of luck and exits. As soon as she does, the man turns to the boy. “Do you know who that was?” he says, and he sounds a little proud. “Rachel Weisz.”
So much of an actor’s career is a mixture of conscious choice and luck; whether by design or happenstance, Weisz, now 49, seems to have reached a level of celebrity that could be described not as peak but optimal. From Weisz’s perspective, that means she can move freely, enjoying and observing the world around her (she says that her husband, Daniel Craig, now filming his fifth movie as James Bond, “walks very quickly” because he gets recognised so often). But something about her level of success also allows her a distinct relationship to her art and to her audience: for all her beauty and success, Weisz is still better known for her talent and taste than for an all-consuming and occluding kind of celebrity. It is an endearing pitch of fame, the kind that inspires more admiration than awe.
Earlier this year, Weisz was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in The Favourite, a film in which she displays, decades into her career, a fresh playfulness. One quickly sees how she cuts against the expectations of a period piece: she is irresistible as Lady Sarah, an adviser to the 18th-century Queen Anne of England, winning enough that it seems only fitting that her queen wants to reward her with the gift of a palace. By the time her character has been on screen for 90 seconds, the viewer already grasps that Sarah herself is a performer with a wide range, and that she believes wholeheartedly that the kingdom rests on her ability to play her parts convincingly. Weisz is never more compelling than when the character she plays is also performing, or at least carefully choosing her presentation – the calculations are so subtle that they are almost imperceptible, a reward for the viewer’s most careful observations, clues perceived just below the level of consciousness.
For much of Hollywood’s history, too many women actors found their careers stopping short just as they started to master the complexities of their craft. They got more interesting, the parts less so. Yet in recent years (especially with the increased opportunities that an explosion of television has brought), more women seem to be finding roles that embrace the nuance that comes with time. Consider, in 2019 alone, Kristin Scott Thomas, 59, a force of nature in series two of Fleabag, or Emma Thompson, 60, possessing the undeniable authority that fuels a dark comedy like Late Night, or Cate Blanchett, 50, attractive and acerbic in Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Weisz, like many of the women in that cohort, has chosen wisely over the decades, playing the sweetheart in commercial films well enough, with enough quiet intelligence to give her the cultural capital to leave them behind. With films like 2017’s Disobedience, about a hidden gay relationship between two women in an Orthodox Jewish enclave, and, more recently, The Favourite, in which her character has a love affair with the queen, she has established herself as not just a great actor but as someone with the clout to create the kinds of female roles that are rarely seen: women in intense, erotic relationships with other women, without apology or explanation.
In doing so, as the critic Josephine Livingstone noted in The New Republic earlier this year, she has pulled from a typically male playbook to give her career a new element of gravitas: “Playing queer has raised her intellectual status, as it has also done for Jake Gyllenhaal, Tom Hanks, Hilary Swank and Sean Penn.” There is power in playing, brilliantly, a woman fighting against corporate exploitation, as she did in 2005’s The Constant Gardener. But there is also power in creating a kind of film – as she did as a producer of Disobedience – that in and of itself represents a rejection of what decades of the Hollywood machine has presented a love story as being.
A month after she stopped by the doughnut shop, Weisz is back in London, where she grew up, and where she’s spending the summer. Framed by a Skype screen, she appears naturally cinematic, nibbling on the last remnants of a rockmelon, her laptop in front of her, her hair loose as she sits at a desk in her home office.
Weisz gives off the air of a woman fully in command of her life, even her body: who is going to tell Weisz she could not, as she did a year ago, at the age of 48, give birth to a child? (She also has a teenage son, from a previous relationship with the director Darren Aronofsky.) Female control exists, in her world, in a way that was not possible for much of her career. The proof lies, for example, in her latest project, from which she is taking a break that afternoon: Black Widow, in which she has a supporting role. Due to open in the first half of 2020, it’s one of the first Marvel films directed by a woman: Cate Shortland, the respected Australian independent film director for whom this job is a huge jump, at least in terms of budget.
The details of Weisz’s character that have been revealed thus far are scant, but the actor is clearly enthusiastic about films that feature female relationships at their heart. “There is something that happens in a scene when a woman is across from another woman,” Weisz says. “It sounds really pompous, but you are free from the history of ownership – I really mean that. It’s liberating.”
Deciding to become an actor is, for anyone, a tremendous leap of faith and ego, given the odds, but maybe less so for Weisz, a North London native who was barely a teenager when the world started noticing her, that face that looks both innocent and knowing. By 14, she had already won a modelling competition to be featured in the UK magazine Harpers & Queen; around that time, she had been cast to play the part of King David’s daughter in the titular 1985 film starring Richard Gere. Her Viennese mother, a teacher who later became a psychotherapist, was intrigued by the opportunity, but her father, an engineer and inventor originally from Hungary, worried about his daughter entering the film industry.
Weisz’s parents, both affectionate and adoring with their children, often found themselves at odds. “They were very dramatic,” says Weisz. “My mum used to decide she was going to live in Cambridge, put my sister and me in the car, go live in a different city and come back. There was a lot of flamboyance. No stiff upper lip.”
In acting, Weisz says, she found a space where there was room for that intensity – bad behaviour, flare-ups, conflict, passion – but that was free from consequences. It was exciting and also reassuringly safe. “It’s the realm of the imagination,” she says. “No one gets hurt.”
Her parents divorced when she was 15, a time in her life when she was dressing up with her girlfriends and hitting dance parties. In her early teen years, she was not particularly riveted by class work or her teachers, which she made evident, and she was eventually asked to leave the private school she attended. “I was absolutely not paying attention,” she says, “and I was not deferent.” In her last year, at another school, she pulled out good enough grades to gain admission to Cambridge. She clearly looks back at those teenage years with great affection. “I was rebellious,” Weisz had offered a few weeks before, when we met in New York. She had smiled, thinking about it.
Celebrities of Weisz’s stature either seem to go for total entitlement or excessive politeness, and Weisz is someone who has clearly chosen the latter – but her friends confirm that she has always had a subversive bent. Watching the child actor Lilly Aspell play a young Wonder Woman in 2017, Weisz says, had been something of a recent revelation, starting with a scene of the character as a young girl running away from her tutor: “I thought, ‘Oh, there’s a little brunette tomboy being naughty,’ ” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s me,’ and then for the rest of the film, I was with her in a way that’s hard – ” She is about to say that it could be hard, as a woman, to identify as easily with a male character, then cuts herself off for the requisite caveat: “I mean, the hope is that one can identify with any character, irrespective of age, race or gender … but you want to see yourself reflected back. You want to see yourself.”
In Black Widow, Weisz joins Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in making a relatively new kind of Marvel movie – one that focuses on female characters. All three play skilled assassins, and at least one is on the side of justice. Weisz might have seized the chance to work in a Marvel project under any circumstances; a role in one now creates, for an actor, a kind of currency that can help finance other films, films that fall into the struggling category of everything but action. But Weisz says she was enthusiastic as well about her character and the script’s premise, and about the prospect of working with Cate Shortland. She had admired the director’s work, including the 2004 film that Shortland wrote and directed, Somersault, about a young woman from the suburbs of Canberra who runs away from home.
Abbie Cornish, that film’s star, “is a beautiful, sexy girl”, says Weisz, “and a lot of it was about her sexuality. Cate didn’t shy away from that. But she wasn’t objectified. Watching that, as a woman, you knew immediately when a character was subject or object – she was always subject. I had never seen anything like it. For that reason, I never forgot it.” The film, which made its way to the Cannes Film Festival, swept the Australian film awards that year. “You’d be thinking about a project and often say, ‘If only we could get Cate Shortland to direct it,’ ” says Weisz, who had approached the director in the past to discuss a collaboration, without success. “She was always kind of totemic to me.”
Weisz arrived at Cambridge determined to make theatre that skirted the usual roles for teenage girls. She had the benefit of discovering one of her creative collaborators early in Rose Garnett, who would go on to be an executive producer on Disobedience and The Favourite, and was already a friend from high school. “She was very clever, quite wild,” says Garnett, recalling Weisz at Cambridge.
“Actually, that is the wrong word – she was bold. And she was funny and confident. But it wasn’t the complacent confidence of entitlement. It was a curious confidence. Her beauty is a part of who she is, but clever people also knew quite fast that it was a red herring – that that wasn’t what she was about.”
There is a long history of English male actors emerging from venerated theatre institutions at Cambridge or Oxford, forming helpful professional contacts along the way: Ian McKellen, John Cleese and Hugh Laurie all took that path, collaborating for years to come with people they first met just out of their adolescence. Weisz, too – working with Garnett, Sasha Hails (now a successful screenwriter) and David Farr (who went on to become the associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company) – established a new theatre group called Talking Tongues, one with distinct physicality and characters that had a heightened, even clownish quality, sometimes in a style known as bouffon.
Over the summer, Weisz studied bouffon with the French theatre professor Philippe Gaulier, who also taught Sacha Baron Cohen. Talking Tongues created innovative work, such as one piece in which Weisz and Hails formed a metaphorical love triangle with their only prop, a ladder. The women fell in then out of love, with some brutality: in one scene, Weisz swung the ladder round and round, faster and faster, with Hails, on her knees, ducking the massive object whirling around her head. They were two beautiful young women, but they created the play to “transcend our age and gender”, as Weisz puts it. “Our genders didn’t matter; we just were,” she adds. “Actually, thinking about it now, what’s more liberating than that? Nothing.” She says it again, with emphasis: “Nothing.”
Weisz likes to think that the group, which won a prestigious student theatre award at the 1991 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, would still exist had Hails not moved on. Instead, Weisz started auditioning, first getting cast on British TV, then alternating small, arty films (such as I want You, a 1998 film that Variety described as “Euro-noir”) with more commercial fare (including the 1996 action thriller Chain Reaction, with Keanu Reeves). While always working, Weisz didn’t approach stardom until 1999, when she was cast in the unexpected hit The Mummy, playing a brilliant, determined librarian in a loopy horror spoof beset by zombies and no small amount of Orientalism.
That film’s success led to her role as a sort of romantic reason to live for Hugh Grant in 2002’s About a Boy, then finally, at age 34, the age when many actresses are starting to fear their expiration date, Weisz was cast in The Constant Gardener.
Her character was as charismatic as any great love interest in film, except that her charms – her intelligence, her sexuality – were also trained on exposing the corporate abuses of a powerful pharmaceutical company operating in Kenya. The role of a young woman who looks like an English rose but is, in fact, a fierce rebel was the part for which Weisz won her Oscar for best supporting actress in 2006.
Rather than focusing exclusively on projects with obvious commercial appeal, Weisz approached the director Yorgos Lanthimos, who is known for quasi-experimental films like Dogtooth (2009) and The Lobster (2015), a surreal drama in which Weisz co-starred as a woman struggling to maintain her humanity in a regimented, dystopian world where love, in particular, is highly controlled by those in power. While remaining faithful to the director’s call for a general flatness of affect in her voice-over narration, Weisz allowed humanity, humour and a quiet, dignified yearning to filter through her onscreen performance. Her acting – in that film, in many of her films – shows enough restraint that the emotions that surface inspire all the more ache. Garnett sees, in Weisz’s work, a certain privacy. “But that’s a shut-down word, and it’s not a shut-down kind of thing,” she says. “You are watching someone be true, but not for your benefit.”
In one scene in The Lobster, in which Weisz and her co-star, Colin Farrell, are trying to pass as a married couple, Farrell’s character reveals, through his almost frenzied declarations, that he is, in fact, hopelessly besotted. For their safety, however, that actual feeling must be kept a secret, and Weisz’s face, as she processes what she’s hearing, is a marvel of real-time reaction: confusion, then surprise, then affection, all of which plays out despite her character’s evident effort to control every one of those emotions.
One sees the psychological nuance, perhaps, of someone raised by a therapist, the commitment to the layers of complexity and conflict. Weisz, who herself was in analysis for many years, seems to have done whatever work is necessary to allow for great acting by intuition. “I don’t think she even knows where she is going most of the time,” Lanthimos tells me. “Which is very brave, and a rare quality. Actors want to have control.”
Early on in the making of 2018’s The Favourite, which Lanthimos also directed, Weisz and her co-star Olivia Colman, who played Queen Anne, were rehearsing a sensitive scene. The script called for Weisz’s character, Lady Sarah, to put her hands between the legs of the queen in an act of sexual possession. Colman had assumed that Weisz would merely gesture toward her for the purposes of rehearsal; there they were, in jeans, just trying to get the feel of the roles. Instead, Weisz unexpectedly made the grab, just as the script dictated.
“I roared,” says Colman, who at the time started laughing uncontrollably. “I nearly pissed myself. We were all laughing. I’m quite square – I don’t normally play these kinds of parts. But right there, my fear went away. She was utterly brave, so I didn’t have to be scared. She was brave enough for both of us.” (Weisz, it’s worth noting, doesn’t see herself as brave: “I’m shy in real life,” she says. “But if I have a role in the script and a story to tell, I’m not going to shy away.”)
In her London home office, Weisz is in the relaxed mood of someone about to be on holiday. Colman has just popped by unexpectedly for lunch. Weisz and Craig are for once filming in the same place. And she’s enjoying working on the Black Widow set, where she has been struck by the passion of the producers overseeing the project. “It doesn’t feel Hollywood to me, big-budget – it feels like the people there are the stewards and guardians of this storytelling they care about,” she says.
It’s an astonishing fact that after being featured in more than 40 films, Weisz is only now, for the second time in her career, being directed by a woman (the first time was in 1997’s Swept from the Sea – which was directed by Beeban Kidron). At a Black Widow panel at San Diego’s Comic-Con this past July, before a crowd of some 8000 people, she spoke, seemingly jacked up on the manic energy of the audience, about her enthusiasm for the project’s femaleness, in response to a question about what drew her to the film. “[Marvel has] put at the forefront female – strong, powerful, female – characters … and my character, Melina, too, is a pretty tough chick,” she said, before tacking on, in what had the comic effect of an overly official statement, “I love men, as well as women.”
Gay Twitter seized on that last line with joy. (“We got her, we got her … yeah,” wrote one woman. “She owns me,” wrote another.) Word of that reaction has not reached Weisz, apparently, based on her response: “I don’t go on Twitter,” she says – a statement that sounds, coming from her, as obvious as “I don’t tend to eat McDonald’s”. But that she might be something of an icon in the gay community – “That thrills me,” she adds. At the same time, she had not intended at Comic-Con to make any statement about herself or her character; there was no subtext or big reveal. “I just meant that I love female characters and male characters,” she says. “I wasn’t saying something with sexual innuendo.”
Weisz alternates between revelling in the newness of truly female-driven films and seeming frustrated by their ongoing status as anomalies. “I hope that one day soon, in the not-so-distant future, we don’t get asked, ‘What was it like to share the screen with other women?’ ” she said in an acceptance speech at the Gotham Independent Film Awards last November. “Because I don’t think you ever ask men that. But I could be wrong.”
Weisz later regretted that her response sounded “inelegant”, like a rebuff to the press; during award season, that line of inquiry had started to sound almost patronising, condemning the collaboration as an exception to the rule. “I hope for the day with all my heart, when that’s no longer interesting. I really do – it seems so crazy to me that it’s as if we were these outliers,” she tells me. Weisz is likewise hesitant to make any grand claims about how working with Shortland, so far, differs from working with any male directors in her past.
That is, after all, the point: to generalise about female directors would be absurd, and not only because she doesn’t have nearly enough data points. As someone interested in capturing complexity, Weisz seems to be trying to avoid the way that certain lines of pop cultural conversation can flatten out the richness of experience, regardless of whether it belongs to a man or a woman. She has spent plenty of her life, like most successful actresses, pouting for the camera or being saved by a man or playing the rebel who inevitably ends up dead, punished for her strength, strength that is all but conflated with her sexuality.
In every one of those roles, she has added depth and richness while still operating within the constraints of a male-driven industry. But the idea all along, since she was in college, seems to be to escape familiar talking points of any kind, to defy tidy boxes that place her neatly in some category. On Weisz’s left hip she has a tattoo, one she got in the early ’90s. It is tiny and black and of a ladder – a fond memento of her early work, but also a reminder, maybe, that the goal is not climbing up, but out.
Edited version of a story first published in the New York Times’ T magazine. © 2019 The New York Times.