English rose Rachel Weisz chats to Karen Anne Overton about family history, Hollywood after 40, and why facts matter more than ever in an era of ‘fake news’.
Historical, fact-based drama is the kind of genre that demands a steady hand – one where production, direction and acting must aim for a sweet spot in order to convey those facts as authentically as possible. For Deborah Lipstadt, the Emory University professor who was sued in 2000 for libel by British historian David Irving after she called him a Holocaust denier, her story lies in the hands of Rachel Weisz for this year’s first big serious film, Denial.
The story was fascinating to Weisz for two reasons: firstly, because the trial took place in London, where she was raised (more on this later) and she took great delight in playing a feisty and whip-smart New Yorker who was confused by the British politesse; more importantly, as the daughter herself of two Holocaust survivors, she found it implausible that anyone could deny the genocide of six million Jews.
“My parents fled the Holocaust in 1938 when they were very young. And prior to that, they had lived through and can still remember the passing of the anti-Semitic laws across Europe,” says the 47-year-old, sombrely. “I remember my mum telling me about being shunned and ignored in school by her best friends whom she would have played with only the day before. People were turning their backs on them in the street, crossing the road – they lived through it. I still can’t believe that this trial really took place – that Lipstadt was effectively sued for branding Irving anti-Semitic, which he was, and questioning whether the Holocaust happened!”
In the end, Lipstadt and Penguin Publishers – which published her book, Denying the Holocaust – won the trial by demonstrating in court that Lipstadt’s accusations against Irving (played by an on-form Timothy Spall) were substantially true and therefore not libellous. But, as Weisz is quick to point out, in an age where everything on the internet is treated as gospel, Denial feels more pertinent than ever. “Anyone can now go online and offer their perspective and then 300 people might agree with them even if their statement is entirely factually inaccurate,” she sighs. “Unfortunately, a film like this has an acute resonance. It reminds us that history repeats itself and it’s our responsibility as humans to question and reflect on our mistakes.”
Oscar-winner Weisz, who grew up in nearby Hampstead Garden Suburb and was educated at the prestigious North London Collegiate School in Edgware, now resides in New York with her husband, Daniel Craig, and her son – Henry, 11 – from a previous relationship with director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan). Having taken a break from the industry to focus on ‘family and life’, she is riding the wave of a recent resurgence in her career, following her superb performances in critically hailed The Lobster and Paolo Sorrentino’s equally lauded Youth, and has completed 11 films in three years, including upcoming The Mercy and My Cousin Rachel. So, does she consider herself to be a workaholic?
“Is it really work if you love what you’re doing?” she says, with a laugh. “I’m really appreciating, probably more than ever, the material I’m working with – the people, the subjects and stories. Yes, I’ve been working a lot, but oddly I’m not exhausted from it. I’m not crying out for a break. I’m finding myself fuelled and fired and motivated, which is a wonderful thing.”
In terms of the types of roles she is taking, all the above films have two recurring themes: they could all be considered intellectual characters and they are all independent productions. It’s fair to say that Weisz has always excelled at playing strong and fascinating women – even as the swooning heroine in her biggest blockbuster to date, The Mummy, she was a sexy but geeky and brilliant Egyptologist – but her current choices suggest an actress who has reached a place of assurance in her career.
“I don’t know how intentional it is,” she says, thoughtfully. “It isn’t something I’m ruled by, but recently I’ve become more driven by the people I want to work with… I would prefer to take a small supporting role to work with a filmmaker I admire rather than affix myself front and centre in something else for reasons that don’t sit well with me.”
It could also be a symptom of the industry, as Weisz joins a whole crop of female icons – Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts, to name just two – who are not only landing terrific parts as they get older, but have found great satisfaction in playing meaningful roles and complicated women.
As Hollywood seems to have almost got over its reputation for shunning older women in favour of young starlets, Weisz and co are in their element. “I’ve been working on some of the best characters of my career,” she says, flashing that perfect smile. “I’m having very significantly constructive experiences and it’s happening again and again, so I haven’t noticed any great depletion!”