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Rachel Weisz on Playing an Ancient Philosopher and Why She Doesn’t Like the Term ‘Strong Women’

In Agora, Alejandro Amenábar's film about the clash of religions in ancient Egypt, Rachel Weisz plays the accomplished philosophy teacher Hypatia of Alexandria, whose resistance to conversion eventually led to her death. Weisz spent four months on the island of Malta, filming with her two co-stars (whose characters vie for Hypatia's attention), Oscar Issac and Max Minghella (son of the late Anthony Minghella). We spoke to Weisz about making her first period film, throwing a handkerchief as Hypatia marked with a different kind of period, and her upcoming movie playing Jackie O.

Was this a movie you sought out?
It was sent to me by Amenábar, and I’d never heard of Hypatia, or really anything about this period in history, and so it was all a revelation to me. I thought it was really unusual — it was a sword-and-sandal movie, there were central fight scenes, and it was sort of like those big movies they used to make in Technicolor. But with the difference being that instead of revolving around a gladiator or king, it’s about a female philosopher. It seemed kind of radical and cool.

Hypatia is a clear-cut heroine. She's smarter than everyone, and her motives seem pure. Were you worried about playing someone one-dimensional?

Yeah, she comes down on the right side of history. But, no, I think that scene with the handkerchief with her period blood on it [which Hypatia throws at a student who's trying to marry her] — that’s a true story. She wanted to make sure that no one would make a pass at her ever again. I just thought that was a very punk-rock thing to do; a radical chick in the fourth century.

What other kind of research did you do for the part?

The script told me a lot; there are some chronicles about her that exist, but they're pretty dry, and I’m not academic, so there wasn’t much to be inspired by. There were letters written to her by her students, really impassioned ones, so those were great to read. I’m not good at math or science, so I couldn’t relate to that part of her, but I’m really passionate about my job, so I used that as inspiration. It's really the first deep period film I’ve ever done, and as an actor you just want to be naturalistic. Hypatia could be quite formal, but for me, an English person, that comes quite naturally.

I was impressed by Max Minghella, who played Hypatia's slave who's also in love with her.
Max is from England and grew up around the corner from me in London. He’s gorgeous, isn’t he? He’s very magnetic. We had a really great connection.

It's rare to see an epic with a strong female lead.
Totally rare. Right now, drama is a pretty dirty word in Hollywood. You can’t get dramas made. And female dramas, forget about it; it’s almost impossible. This movie is a real anomaly right now, and I hope people embrace it for how cool it is. But I always find the idea of a strong woman funny. What does that mean, I lift dumbbells and drink power shakes? No one ever says to a man, ‘you play strong male roles.’ I just want to play interesting women.

Like Jackie O, whom you're going to play in your partner Darren Aronofsky's film about her?

That’s the idea, yeah. We’ve just found a home and studio, so it’s just kind of being set up. It’s not a biopic, it’s just from the assassination to the funeral, so it’s a tiny amount of time. Tonally, it’s a bit like the movie The Queen. It’s a delicate and daunting project, though, because her family is still around; she has a young daughter.

Photo: Barry King/WireImage