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David Edelstein on His Acting Crush Rachel Weisz

Photograph by Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

It helps to begin with what Rachel Weisz isn’t, which is the kind of movie star who talks about being “normal” and craving privacy while making sure to vacuum up every gaze in the room. She is heart-stoppingly beautiful—those eyes are so wide apart they seem to be in different hemispheres, so that you can’t quite take in her face with one look—and prodigiously un-actressy.

Paul Rudd spent months with her onstage and then onscreen in Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things and marvels at her “complete lack of irony,” which he adds is “the most refreshing character in a person”—an interesting statement  from a guy who works with so many smartasses. Ralph Fiennes, who starred with her in three films, including The Constant Gardener, tells me how moved he was by her Blanche DuBois onstage in London in 2009, by “the fragility, the vulnerability—whereas to meet Rachel as herself, she’s very composed. There’s something about her manner as a person that’s quite … rational.”

In an actor, rational generally equals dull, but it’s likely the key to what’s affecting in her greatest performances. Or, rather, it’s the ability to transcend it that’s affecting. To let go and summon chaos … to get naked, emotionally and physically … to go to the dark side …

Before I carry on this theme, you should know that she doesn’t usually talk about acting. “It makes you sound like a wanker,” she says. But she tries to oblige. It’s better than having to fill in the public gaps about her breakup with director Darren Aronofsky—father of her 6-year-old son, Henry—or her marriage to Daniel Craig, solemnized without fanfare in upstate New York with Henry, Craig’s 18-year-old daughter, and two friends as witnesses. “I have a very private life,” she says. “I think the pandemonium is there when you go look for it.”

A dual citizen of the U.S. and the U.K., she eschews pandemonium in the East Village, a few blocks from Aronofsky. She doesn’t use the phrase “joint custody”—she says the two are raising their son “together,” which sounds enviably cozy as such things go. We meet nearby for lunch at a nice little Moroccan restaurant where she draws no attention. “[People in] New York are very cool. They just say, you know, ‘Can I shake your hand?’ And that’s about it. They don’t really make a big fuss.”

But she has had to come out for two big-fuss Hollywood would-be blockbusters, the first last summer, the middling The Bourne Legacy (she played a researcher targeted for killing and gave the film its most human dimension), and now Oz the Great and Powerful, the so-called prequel to The Wizard of Oz, in which she plays the beauteous Evanora—who turns out to be the hideous Wicked Witch of the East. It’s not her typical sort of role, which is why director Sam Raimi says he cast her. He thought her realness would be a good foil for all the fairy-tale fabulousness. He needed someone who’d seem convincingly decent before revealing herself as a raging psychopath.

The movie is a peculiar hybrid of spectacle and subversion, frisky and eye-­popping but with a misconceived turn by James Franco, who plays the noncommittal anti-hero—the future wizard is a love-’em-and-leave-’em charlatan—with a palpable lack of commitment. But Weisz carves out her own space—and even improvised a few of her best lines.

“Evanora is a pleasure seeker,” she says. “It’s all about fun. She has no superego, not an ounce of guilt. The only pain she feels is not winning.” In the film’s most delicious scene, Evanora chains up Michelle Williams as the good witch, Glinda, and takes her time zapping her with some kind of green ray before the citizenry of Oz.

Raimi thinks Weisz played it as if the character is turned on by inflicting pain on “Michelle’s unscarred, beautiful little white face,” and Weisz laughs and admits that—within the confines of a Disney movie—it does get a bit kinky. “I wanted to defile her because she’s so good and because of her beauty and blondness. She’s incorruptible, and that drives me crazy and I can do nothing but torture her.”

Evanora is a return to the kind of bad-girl roles she used to play—notably in The Shape of Things—but in camp form, without the psychological underpinnings. “At this point it would be most interesting to me to play people who are unlikable,” she says. “But I want a character that can
be understood. I think that can be one of
the greatest journeys as an audience ­member—if you can judge someone, learn to understand them, and forgive them. Or just understand them.”

Weisz hasn’t herself been a “bad girl” for years, but her young life was unruly. Her father is an inventor, originally from Hungary, and her mother, from Austria, is a psychoanalyst; both fled the Nazis as children. Her own psychodrama took the form of rebelling against authority before a thorough about-face that ended with her admission to Cambridge. Legend has it that so many boys were in love with her that she was known as the “Trinity Hall Heartbreaker,” but Weisz maintains she only learned that from subsequent profiles: “I guess they’re saying I broke a few hearts … [The boys] didn’t mention it … I do remember once in the university newspaper someone wrote me an anonymous love poem, something biblical: ‘You blind me like Paul …’ Was it Paul?”

She steered clear of the male-­dominated Cambridge theater scene and started her own female improv company called Talking Tongues. The most famous play was called Slight Possession and featured her, another actress, and a stepladder. “We were in little floral dresses and bare feet,  and we were each other’s lover,” she says, “but we weren’t lesbian; we were kind of universal lovers. But we were hot 18-year-old girls, so I don’t know what the audience made of it. We called it ‘taut naturalism’; it’s very pretentious, but we’d get into a kind of very naturalistic conversation and I’d say, ‘I can’t believe I did that to you. How could I have done that to you?’ … And then a gesture would get stuck, and it would get incredibly violent … I was, like, beating my head really hard … And the stepladder was the third character who got between us. It’s very hard to explain.” But it won an award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and transferred to London. Not long after, Weisz and three other actresses (one the late Katrin Cartlidge) spent six weeks improvising a play in which four courtesans take turns trying to seduce a Parisian Communard. He was played by a rising young actor called Daniel Craig. She’d have more success two decades on.

On TV, she first went by the strange name “Kenya Campbell” but was Rachel Weisz in the British mini-series Scarlet & Black,  based on the Stendhal novel. When I bring it up, she says, “It was terrible, wasn’t it? So stiff. Because I had modeled as a teenager—I did it my summer holidays from when I was 13—I was very aware of the camera. That completely screwed me up for acting.”

What was her breakthrough? Not Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty (her first big film role) but Michael Winterbottom’s intense, arty 1998 psychodrama I Want You, in which she plays a young woman terrified by the emergence of an ex-boyfriend (Alessandro Nivola) from prison for a crime left unspecified until the brutal closing minutes. In rehearsals, Winterbottom miked the actors and sent them to interact in character with people in the working-class beach town. “The filming seemed an extension of that, and I felt very free and un-hemmed-in,” says Weisz. “For me, that has always been the key. I kind of dropped the ball afterwards because I think I was pretty bad again.”

At least she had a commercial breakthrough with the overblown The Mummy and its sequel, as well as high-profile parts in About a Boy (co-directed by her Cambridge classmate Chris Weitz) and Runaway Jury. But it was her role as the murdered anti–Big Pharma activist Tessa Quayle in The Constant Gardener that changed everything. Fiennes had not enjoyed their time on Sunshine (1999)—“I don’t know that that was the happiest time for her, and we had some challenging scenes together,” he says delicately—but six years later, “there was another, more confident and strong-willed person playing opposite me.”

Director Fernando Meirelles let Weisz and Fiennes improvise their most emotional scenes and not worry about the camera—it was handheld and followed them—and Weisz felt “released.” Fiennes remembers her putting “quite a lot of pressure” on Meirelles to reshoot a hospital scene, just after Tessa loses a baby. “I thought she was great the first time,” he says, “but I understood why she wanted to uncover an extra layer of vulnerability and pain. It was not about the performance but about her determination to get to a place where she feels she’s really inhabiting something.”

The writer Tom Shone, who profiled Aronofsky in New York Magazine, believes that Black Swan was inspired by his time with Weisz, which gave Aronofsky insight into the difference between proficiency and “living the part.” God knows, Black Swan didn’t have much to do with ballet—it was more about a Method guru exhorting an emotionally immature artist to surrender completely to her sexuality (which in Aronofsky’s universe means self-­immolation).

Weisz insists Aronofsky never told her that directly, but she agrees that the parallels are hard to escape. Of the young dancer played by Natalie Portman, Weisz says, “She has technique, but what she doesn’t have is abandon. If you have both, it equals something very special.” She adds that in her case abandon doesn’t mean self-destruction—she has learned to leave her roles on the set. But between the moments of action and cut, she feels no obligation to anything—to the point of having no idea where the camera is and missing her marks. “The only way to feel free is to get lost.”

The biggest reward for getting lost in The Constant Gardener was the acting world’s top prize: the Oscar, which she accepted while very pregnant in a dress she helped design to conceal her state—and that did the job so well she now thinks people just thought she’d gotten fat.

Since the Oscar, Weisz hasn’t done many financially successful films, but her acting has been terrific—especially her dizzy screwball turn in Definitely, Maybe and riveting work as a U.N. peace worker in The Whistleblower. In The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies’s lyric adaptation of a Terrence Rattigan play, she plays a woman who leaves her older, aristocratic husband for a wildly unstable ex-officer. In the most startling shots, the camera revolves above their entwined naked bodies, their sculpted limbs the same ivory-gray with a tinge of pink, so you can barely tell male from female, the consummation total. This time the camera didn’t follow Weisz—just the opposite. “In the scene when I’m on the phone to my lover and [my husband] walks in and finds out I’m having an affair, I had imagined I’d be running around the room and crying. And Terence said, ‘No, you are to sit on the bed and keep your back to him, and you don’t even turn.’ And it really worked, because I wanted to get up so badly.”

Almost no one saw The Deep Blue Sea, but Weisz was stunned when the New York Film Critics Circle voted her Best Actress of 2012 with no awards-machine behind her. (Disclaimer: I’m a member and wanted this one so badly.) But she hasn’t worked in a year—since Oz. She desperately wanted to bring Julia Hill’s tree-hugging (literally) memoir The Legacy of Luna to the screen but couldn’t raise the (modest) budget. A Jacqueline Onassis project fell through. But she has taken firm steps to start her own company, and in the fall she’s scheduled to make her Broadway debut with Craig in Harold Pinter’s backward romantic-triangle drama Betrayal, a project picked for them by Mike Nichols, who’ll direct.

The pair fell in love (shortly after Weisz’s relationship with Aronofsky ended) on the set of the horror flop Dream House—which is pretty good until the ludicrous climax. (Craig is remarkable.) She allows that she’s very happy. She doesn’t allow much more. It’s hard for someone with a “complete lack of irony” to come up with lines about life as Mrs. James Bond that reveals absolutely nothing but sounds good in print.

Consider last summer’s Us Weekly item with the headline “Rachel Weisz Opens Up About Marriage to Daniel Craig,” which begins, “Rachel Weisz is famously tight-lipped about her yearlong marriage to Daniel Craig, but in the September issue of Marie Claire UK, the 42-year-old Bourne Legacy actress finally lets her guard down. When asked if it was love at first sight with Craig, 44, the Oscar winner responds, ‘I’m going to change the subject … It wasn’t really like that. We’d been friends for ages.’ ”

What an actressy exhibition. Does the woman have no secrets?

*This article originally appeared in the March 11, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Photos: Christopher Anderson/Mangum/New York Magazine; Christopher Anderson/Mangum/New York Magazine; Christopher Anderson/Mangum/New York Magazine