Sunday, February 19, 2006

Interview with Rachel Weisz; mummy-hunter, Elvis-fan, constant gardener

Interview originally conducted for Black Book magazine, by Alastair McKay, July 2003

Rachel Weisz is in a hurry. It is 5.15 on an afternoon that started sunny but is now overcast, and she is walking towards a Starbucks in uptown Manhattan. In 45 minutes, she will appear downtown at a charity event with Alan Cumming, to “read a bit of Shakespeare”.
Weisz, whose celebrity is largely based on her comic turn in the Mummy movies, is a beautiful, edgy actress whose CV is spotted with false starts, but who is now on the verge of omnipresence. It is ironic that, after a decade of serious, thoughtful work, she became famous with a piece of childish populism, but it’s what Weisz did next that makes her interesting. First came her sultry intervention as a single mother, catching Hugh Grant’s jaded eye in About a Boy. Coming soon are Confidence, a crime thriller with Dustin Hoffman and Ed Burns, Envy, a comedy with Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Christopher Walken; Marlowe, with Jude Law; and Runaway Jury, again with Hoffman, John Cusack and Gene Hackman.
Most interestingly, there is The Shape of Things, in which she reprises her role from Neil LaBute’s stage play about the tangled spaghetti of relationships. Weisz plays Evelyn, an art student who entrances Adam (Paul Rudd). Eve tempts Adam, and he begins to change, raising a number of knotty questions about the compromises people make. It is also about art: Evelyn, like the artist Tracey Emin - she of the unmade bed - trades in autobiography. In this kind of art, it is hard to know where the work ends and life begins.
Weisz is in Starbucks now, ordering a tall soy latte, with her mobile phone clamped to her ear. She is taking the cup in her hand, and comparing Evelyn with Emin. Both are punky and anarchic. Both are modern artists. “And Tracey Emin uses her own life for her art. It’s like concrete art. She doesn’t paint a picture, she just assembles things from her life. Evelyn does think she’s as good as Tracey Emin. She’s a feminist and outspoken. That’s how she’s similar.
“Art no longer represents something beyond itself. A painting on a canvas might represent a scene, or a sculpture might represent a person, but a bed just represents a bed. It’s like a breakdown in symbolism. That says something about society. I’m not sure what.”
This brand of art is also about celebrity. If the artist’s life is her art, and she is famous because of her art, celebrity becomes art. In this equation, fame, and what you do with it, becomes more important that what you did to become famous. Which is what happened to film stars a long time ago.
Weisz blows across the lid of her coffee. “It has become an extension of the work that celebrities have to do - create an interesting image. It’s obviously not really them, but we like to believe that it’s them. It’s just another false self, but we want to feel like we can read Hello! magazine and have these people in our living room, and feel as if we know them. But it’s another fiction posing as something real, which I guess is what Emin’s work is. It’s not quite real, it’s like reality TV. You’re actually looking at a fiction that’s saying: ‘I’m honestly and truly real, honestly, honestly.’" She laughs. "Promise, promise, promise I’m real. And, of course, it’s not.”
She steps to the edge of the kerb and hails a cab. “Everyone has this hunger for something that’s really real, but the only thing that’s going to be really real is... well, I don’t know what’s real any more.”
Ask Weisz about heroes, and she will mention Harry Houdini. “He could bust out of any jail, out of any lock, out of any situation. He was a very early poster boy using S&M as part of his appeal - chains and a greased body, wearing little underwear. Also he’s Hungarian, and his surname was Weiss, so my fantasy has always been that he’s a long-lost cousin.”
She also admires Jackie Onassis, and hopes to play her in a biopic (“We both have dead square faces.”). She is a fan of Elvis - all eras: “I like him just as much when he’s fat and drug-addled and being wheeled out and forgetting his lines and laughing. He was the ultimate performer, in that nothing could get between him and his gift.”
And she loves Dolly Parton. “I saw her interviewed here on a TV show. When she goes to write, she goes off to the hills and stays in a little log cabin. And fasts. She does not eat for a week. She writes in this starved visionary state. She’s a great example of a brilliantly-penned self. You know, a created self. Is she even heterosexual? We don’t know. She’s a great creation, this blonde happy lady.”
Weisz can tell you all this without accepting the notion that she, too, is becoming famous. “I kind of think of myself as an actress. Maybe I’m misguided, but I don’t feel involved.” Of acting, she states simply: “The aim is to get lost.”
There is, in the trajectory of Weisz’s career, a sense of inevitability. She was a model at 13, and a year later was offered a part in Richard Gere’s King David. She resisted, but took up acting while studying English at Cambridge University. Soon, agents and film directors came calling. She appeared naked in a bath in the Scottish television drama The Advocates, and graduated to working with Bernardo Bertolucci (Stealing Beauty), Andrew Davis (for the Keanu Reeves bomb Chain Reaction) and Michael Winterbottom (I Want You). A romance with the Men Behaving Badly star Neil Morrissey made her tabloid fodder, a feeling that abated only slightly when she dated Sam Mendes. She is now involved with Pi director Darren Aronofsky, and moved to New York to be with him. “It’s very nice,” is all she will say about this.
Her teens are usually viewed as a time of turmoil, but when reminded of this she affects ignorance. “I can’t even remember my teenage years. Normal, healthy, rebellious, authority-questioning adolescent, I guess. It’s a normal story.”
Getting kicked out of school? “Well, yeah. I didn’t burn it down or anything. I was rebellious, as all teenagers should be.”
At Cambridge, the rebellion subsided. “I got into studying. I became, I suppose, a good girl. I really did have three of the best years of my life. Everyone always says, ‘Oh, it’s a fucking ivory tower.’ And, yeah, it is. It was great. It was just romantic, it was not totally real. You know, reading poems on a punt, floating down the river, and writing plays and being in theatre groups and taking plays up to the Edinburgh Festival.
“Edinburgh was my first taste of critics judging your work, and trying to get people to see your work, and trying to get value for your work. It was an incredible experience, three years running. There was a sense of excitement that I always try to recreate. Actually, working in the theatre with Neil on The Shape of Things felt like that.”
Some interviews have suggested that Weisz endured a period of depression after university. She laughs hysterically when I mention this. “You’re joking! What depression?”
Did you not have one? “Ooh, I dunno.”
You did in one interview, I say. “I dunno. That must have been just that day - I imagined I had. But, no.”
So you didn’t have five years of therapy? “Oh yeah. I did therapy. Psychoanalysis.”
What was it for? “What was it for? Emmm. Uhhhh. It was for… I’m trying to think. I don’t know. I’m not really sure. I can’t really remember.”
It worked then. “Yeah, it definitely worked.”
The taxi driver turns round, and murmurs something incomprehensible. “Yes. Yes.” Weisz replies, shrugging.
Interviewers always mention Weisz’s skin. I ask her to describe it. “My complexion? Well, if I was buying make-up, I would say I was yellow. You can have yellow skin, pink skin or beige skin, and I’m yellow-tinged, which is Hungarian. A journalist would write ‘porcelain’.”
They write porcelain, alabaster or peaches and cream. “One is to eat, a nice dessert, one is a sculpture material. So I’m going to say yellow. Olive would be the nicer way. My dad’s Hungarian, and he has olive skin. He has an Eastern European skin tone, not like British skin tone, which would be more pinky.”
Weisz studied literature, and was considered for the lead role in Bridget Jones’s Diary, so I ask her about chick lit. “Chicklets?”
Not chickens. Girlie fiction with embossed covers. “Oh, I don’t know about chicklets.”
Chick literature. “Oh, give me an example.”
Bridget Jones’s Diary. “Oh, women like Helen Fielding? Oh, chick lit. Like books. Oh, I dunno. I dunno. I dunno, really.”
But you were considered too beautiful to be Bridget Jones. “Oh, that’s just nonsense. She [director Sharon Maguire] didn’t want me, she just came up with a nice excuse.”
I ask about her parents. “I’m curious as to how old I have to be before people stop asking me about my parents,” she says. “Like, do I have to be a parent? What’s the general rule?”
She does admit that she based her librarian character in The Mummy on her mother, albeit her mother viewed through a fog of Saturday-morning television. “It was a black-and-white self-consciously B-movie heroine girl.”
So, is her mother, like her Mummy-hunter, studious and gamey? “She’s ditzy and funny and gung-ho. She’s other things too, but one of her many characters would be that librarian.”
Does she know? “I think I mentioned it to her. She said, ‘Oh darling, oh dear.’ She’s not even English, so it’s really a character for her, too.” The taxi driver interrupts. “Is this it, lady?” “No,” she replies. “It’s Broadway and Prince.”
I ask Weisz to tell me about the things that formed her personality. “OK,” she says. “OK. I could say something really pretentious about refugee parents and how, as an actor, you’re a refugee. I was going to construct some nonsense. In real terms, both my parents have a very strong work ethic, which I have definitely inherited or identify with.
“My mum’s pretty irreverent. She’s a rule-breaker. But you wouldn’t know it. She doesn’t dress in pink or anything. Well, I guess old ladies do, but…”
Both her parents possess a questioning nature, she says. “They don’t just follow sheepishly. They have a healthy seriousness about things and a healthy sense of humour about things, too. I don’t know if I’ve inherited all of these things, but that’s what I think of when I think of them.”
She says her earliest memory is of “jumping over the banisters” into the basement in the family house. “I don’t know how old I was, but it was kind of dangerous and I was told that I would die if I did it. And I did it. But no one saw me do it and no one believed me, and now I’m not quite sure if it’s true.”
Her recurring dream is, she says, “that I’m going to play Hamlet and I just realised that I haven’t bothered to learn the lines, and I have to make it up”. The cab swerves a little.
“You know,” she says, apropos of not very much, “the Norse people, the Vikings, they went out and slaughtered lots of people and they wrote all these amazing ballads. To become a really famous warrior, you had to write great ballads and be really good at killing people on the battlefield. And then, if you wanted to go down in history, you had to come up with a brilliant quip at the moment of your death, to deal with the situation, and the weapon that was killing you. It was pure improv. I guess you could rehearse a few to do with knives, but the ones that went down in history had these pure improv quips.”
That’s the ultimate performance, I tell her. You’d never know what the audience thought. “Exactly! The ultimate creative act. Completely for history.”
So what would Weisz’s genius quip be? “Under attack from a knife?”
Let’s say a baseball bat. “A baseball bat! Oh, God. Americans love baseball. I would say something like, ‘Did you know baseball is based on an English girls’ game?’”
You need to practice. Or hope for a different weapon. “But do you know what I mean? Baseball’s based on rounders. Anyway, it’s not very funny.”
The taxi pulls over. “Can I have 9 on the receipt, please?” she says. Inevitably, we talk about beauty. Weisz is often cast in ways that suggest her beauty is dangerous. She prods the question forensically. “I get asked,” she says, and adopts an American accent. “‘If you could change one thing about your body, what would it be?’ The answer is, I’m happy with what God gave me. It’s scary for young women growing up. In the back of women’s magazines young women can save up money and go and change their shape, change their breasts, change their nose, change their forehead.
“There’s this great French modern artist (Orlan, whose face was reassembled using classical art as a reference), whose art is performing plastic surgery on herself. It’s very scary how women are made to feel.”
I ask whether she now has to consider how she represents women. She argues with herself, before concluding, “I don’t think politically about acting, not at all. I know that from The Mummy I’ve got a lot of young female fans. I’m aware that they exist. But hopefully everyone feels they’re living their lives as truly and as - I don’t want to say morally - as morally as they can.
“So, I’m going to have answer this question. No, I don’t get hung up about it. No one wants to be someone they’re not proud of. Aren’t we all trying to live our lives as if we are role models, even if we aren’t? Doesn’t everyone?”
Fictional and real selves reconciled, Weisz strides off to read from The Arden Shakespeare.