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Rachel Weisz: ‘When Women Are Together, There’s a Lot of Freedom’

Rachel Weisz. Photo: Getty Images

Some spoilers below for The Favourite.

When I meet Rachel Weisz at an upscale hotel in midtown to talk about her latest movie, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, she looks regal. Intimidatingly so. She’s wearing black, her hair gently curled, her makeup immaculate, sitting ramrod straight at a glossy table in an absurdly fancy room in which every single thing is blue. When I sit down across from her, both of us say, “Hi, Rachel,” and I laugh like it is the funniest thing anyone has ever said in the history of language. Weisz, meanwhile, is the very picture of devastatingly chic British restraint and intelligence.

It quickly becomes clear to me that this cool, deeply held confidence extends to her conversation, as well. Rachel Weisz suffers no fools. If she disagrees with your interpretation of her character, she’ll tell you. If she thinks your question is dumb, she’ll stare at you for what feels like many hours before answering it — very calmly, without malice, and yet deep down, you know you have failed on such an elemental level that you will take it to your grave. It’s perhaps why she’s so convincing as The Favourite’s Lady Sarah Churchill, razor-sharp political adviser (and hot-and-cold lover) to Olivia Colman’s literally and figuratively crumbling Queen Anne.

As Sarah, Weisz has to keep several plates spinning at once: making sure the Queen is emotionally and sexually satisfied; determining the very fate of England; and edging out her competition, which comes in the form of Emma Stone’s Abigail, an equally cunning young cousin of Sarah’s who’s gunning for her esteemed position. The movie is a pitch-black delight from start to finish; Weisz, Stone, and Colman appear to be having a total blast while slapping one another across the face, choking each other against walls, having sex with each other, and poisoning each other. I asked Weisz how they pulled it all off, why she’s lately been drawn to queer storytelling, and what it was like to get dragged through the mud by a horse while puking.

The tone for a Yorgos Lanthimos movie is so specific. How does he get you guys all on the same page, tonally — this sort of deadpan, ridiculous —
He doesn’t. There’s absolutely no discussion. I don’t know how he does it. I think The Lobster was more deadpan. Did you find this deadpan?

I’d say it was more wacky and satirical than The Lobster, with deadpan moments.
Yeah. That’s just his direction. Somehow or other — I don’t know how he does it. I’m not sure he knows how he does it. He doesn’t ever say, “Say it deadpan,” or, “Say it flat.” He might say, “Say it quicker.” He almost doesn’t really direct at all. And yet he’s directing very meticulously. It’s a very hard thing to explain. There’s never any discussion. Zero. Nobody ever talks about anything in relationship to what the character is, what the story is, why the character’s doing this, what the motivation is, the psychology.


So how does he communicate what he wants from you, if not verbally?
[Long pause.] I really don’t know! I really don’t know. Somehow he just — it’s like putting a needle on vinyl. He just makes you do it again and again and again until he finally gets you in his groove.

What sort of preparation do you do with him? Are there exercises, rehearsals?
We do a three-week rehearsal. We did horse-riding, we did — excuse me, I’m eating a mint — gun-shooting, costume-fittings. We also played games together. So we’d do things like trust exercises. We got to say all the lines, say each other’s lines, say it quickly, say it while doing handstands, cartwheels, while making a human pretzel. We got to the point where we’d done everything so ridiculously that we could never be inhibited in front of each other again.

That’s great. What was the weirdest game he had you play?
Oh God, they were all so weird. We’d make a human pretzel, join hands and have to move inside each other’s — somebody’s butt is in your face, your face is in their butt, and you’re saying the lines for a really serious, dramatic scene while doing that.

Is that unique to his sets?
I’ve done that in theater, but never on a movie.

Your character in this movie is so fascinating because she’s pretty impossible to read. How do you play somebody who’s essentially playing somebody at all times? What was your read on her — was she ever being genuine, or always sort of playing political chess?
What do you mean by playing somebody who’s playing somebody?

Well, she’s always trying to get what she wants from the queen, and from the country — so she’s playing everybody a little bit at all times.

Is that not how you saw it?
No. But that’s an interesting interpretation.

How did you see their relationship?
Oh, I think she loves the queen. But she also loves England. But the queen is England, and England is the queen, which is handy. They’ve been friends and lovers since childhood. I didn’t see her putting on a face; I saw her taking charge of the queen because she doesn’t think the queen is much of a leader and that England would fall apart without her. She’s protecting the queen from embarrassing herself in front of Parliament because the queen doesn’t know what’s going on.

So much of that relationship — and this movie — is so dependent on really strong chemistry, between you and Olivia, between you and Emma. You’re alternatively in love, slapping each other across the face, choking each other. What sort of work did you do to develop those specific relationships, outside of those rehearsals?
Outside of the rehearsals, nothing. You can’t really do anything to build chemistry. You either have it with someone or you don’t. All those really weird trust exercises that we did, they built chemistry. It was the three women, and then it was Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, and Godolphin, James [Smith]. So it was like, the court of Queen Anne, and we spent three weeks together, getting to know each other. So I guess we all built chemistry together at that time. I built chemistry with Nicholas Hoult, even though the characters hated each other. But that’s a form of chemistry. I don’t know if you can exactly work on it, it’s a sort of alchemy. But you can build trust, though. And trust is really important. Even if it’s adversarial, and the characters don’t get along; it’s good to have trust there.

Were all of you hanging out off set?
We didn’t really hang out at all. I think everyone was just tired. It was a long, really fun shoot. Olivia had us over to her house in London for dinner, where her husband cooked a really complicated meal for us, which was delicious. That was really sweet, that one really nice dinner. But it was very intense during the day, so it was nice to get home to your real life.

Can you walk me through the incredible “dragged through the woods unconscious on a horse while puking” scene? What was that like for you to film?
Well, they made a rig where — it was sort of like, I don’t know what you’d call it, a thing that I lay on and it dragged me, so I had something between me and the ground. But my arm was still dragging. And it was a car that was pulling me, not a horse, because it was a close-up by then. The riding scene before that, I did lots of galloping, coming to a stop, then puking. So I’d have something in my mouth — oatmeal or something — and then have to puke it up, when the poison starts to take hold.

So you’d have to keep holding the oatmeal in your mouth while being dragged?
I think she pukes right before she falls off the horse, so it was cantering, coming to a stop, then puke, then I fell off, then I was dragged. It was quite fun. Did you see The Lobster?

In The Lobster I was all covered in mud, and I very much enjoyed that. It’s quite fun getting mucky.

This is one of a few dark comedies you’ve done; for the most part, you’re thought of as a pretty serious actress. Do you see yourself that way?
I like this kind of comedy — absurd, ridiculous. And that comes quite naturally to me. Very broad [comedy] doesn’t — Yorgos’s style of comedy comes very naturally to me. But I’m not a natural comedian, in Saturday Night Live terms.

Why do you think it comes naturally to you?
I understand the tone of the absurd, an absurdist funniness is something that … life feels like that to me. It’s my sense of reality. I think life is pretty absurd. People behave very absurdly, even when they’re trying to be very serious. The human condition is pretty absurd.

Speaking of which, can you talk me through the process of learning the choreography for your incredible dance scene with Joe Alwyn?
It was choreographed by an Argentine choreographer called Constanza [Macras], who has an avant-garde dance company in Berlin. Early on, she cooked up the gestures, and Yorgos would watch some of the dance’s moves and say, “I like that, but not that, that, but not that.” We’d try it again; it was always a work in progress. Then we had to do it with the costumes on — the headdress, corset, the long train. And some of the moves became physically impossible, like, “I can’t do that with this dress on.” Yorgos said, “Okay, then, try something else.” So it was pretty scary. Neither Joe or I have ever danced professionally. So we had a crash course in avant-garde period dance. But it was fun. It was exhilarating. And kind of a relief to stop talking. That’s why I like watching dance — it’s a physical vocabulary. It was lovely to spend so many days not speaking. It’s good, isn’t it?

I loved that scene. This is your second movie, after Disobedience, with queer overtones that you’ve made this year. I’m curious if that’s a subject matter you’re choosing to focus on, or if it was more of a coincidence.
Yeah, I made Disobedience right before The Favourite. It wasn’t on purpose — well, Disobedience was more on purpose because I produced it, because I chose to tell that story. But this was just a story that came my way. It was really refreshing to get to play opposite a woman, two women, having played opposite probably always just men. I’m really interested to play films with female friendships, not necessarily being queer. I think there are so many movies about male friendship and male bonding, and men get to do extraordinary things as a group onscreen — the good, the bad, and the ugly. So it’s really refreshing.

What’s particularly refreshing about it?
Throughout history, men have owned women. Women have been chattel to men. So you’re just free of the history of ownership. Women have never owned each other; men have owned women. The history of that is always there. When women are together, there’s a lot of freedom.

Along those lines, I’m curious how you’ve experienced the #MeToo movement, on a personal level. Have you seen things change over the course of the year? What feels different for you, if anything?
I haven’t actually worked in the past year, so I can’t speak to it personally. It’s not just the movie industry, it’s gymnastics. I was reading the paper this morning, the gymnasts are very upset about who’s been appointed as the new — I’m not sure what the job was. I’m sure things are heading in the right direction, but it’s baby steps.

I know you were busy having a baby, but what else did you do over the past year when you weren’t working?
Well, that’s it. That takes a year. Nine months to get one going, and then you have to look after them 24/7. [Laughs.]

So what’s next for you? Are you looking exclusively for stories about women relating to each other?
I don’t know, actually. I don’t have a job! I’m just looking for a good female role. If there’s more than one woman, that’s wonderful.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Rachel Weisz on The Favourite and Finding Freedom in Women