Weisz Beyond Her Years: From Optioned Novel to Arthouse Drama, Rachel Weisz Nurtured Disobedience at Every Stage

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Facing down a casting system that has historically held out on women over the age of 40, Rachel Weisz, daughter of inventor George Weisz, has discovered her own innovative solution: buy the damn material you want to star in, then produce it.

The Academy Award-winner stumbled upon producing years ago when working with playwright Neil LaBute and has ramped up her method in recent years by buying the rights to material that interests her and working with seasoned producers to bring the project to fruition.

While this strategy is inarguably more facile for Academy Award-winners, it is nonetheless a strategy that all moviemakers looking to jumpstart their careers would do well to emulate. (Weisz won her Best Supporting Actor Oscar for her unforgettable performance in The Constant Gardener opposite Ralph Fiennes. Other seminal roles include Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea, starring roles in The Mummy franchise, The Fountain, My Cousin Rachel, and The Lobster.) Her new film The Favourite is her second collaboration with The Lobster director Yorgos Lanthimos. It’s about a royal struggle for political power in 18th century England. She also recently completed The Mercy with Colin Firth, about a man who goes out to sea and leaves his family behind, which will debut in the U.S. later this year.

Weisz first cut her producing teeth 15 years ago on LaBute’s cinematic rendition of The Shape of Things—a play she starred in alongside Paul Rudd that toured London two years prior to the film’s release. “Neil asked me to help him make the stage play into a low budget film. There was little for me to do, really, but it was kind of him to ask for my help,” she says.

Ronit (L) and Esti’s (R) love in Disobedience is at once a transgression and an act of freedom.

Today, her producing duties are a far cry from “little.” Whenever she spots a character in a book she’d like to play, she’ll buy the rights—as she did with Susan Minot’s Thirty Girls, the story of an American journalist who interviews the girls of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Weisz says she employs this savvy strategy—in a way, a circumvention of the casting process—to “perhaps create a taste by which to be enjoyed. I don’t mind auditioning for things and being an actress for hire, but in this case it comes from reading a novel set in a world that’s rarely shown on film—the kind of film I’d like to be a part of and see.”

What brought Weisz to New York’s Lower East Side in late March was to talk to MovieMaker about another of her literary acquisitions that recently completed its journey to the screen—Disobedience, directed by Sebastián Lelio, fresh off his Academy Award win for A Fantastic Woman, and adapted from the novel by Naomi Alderman.

The part Weisz (quite literally) became invested in is Ronit—an outsider. A queer woman born into an Orthodox Jewish community in North London and testing the limits of her own agency, she has left her once groom-to-be, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and their best friend Esti (Rachel McAdams) for New York, embarking on a career as a photographer. When she’s alerted of the death of her father—a highly respected rabbi in the community—Ronit makes her way back to a place she’s never really known as home, and submerges herself in the very place that stirred her struggle for identity.

That aspect of Ronit’s character resonates with Weisz. “I’ve never really fit in anywhere. I think a lot of actors probably feel like that, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s the sense that you’re on the outside, watching things,” she explains over a cup of English breakfast tea. “When you’re acting, you become other people, always escaping yourself, and observing, in a way—a lovely way.”

Rachel Weisz at the Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire, England in 2017. Photograph by Agata Pospieszynska

Compelled to adapt Alderman’s novel for the screen in 2014, Weisz was drawn to the ways Ronit mediates her interiority with occasional outbursts, and how she regularly modulates and switches behavioral codes when she returns to the Orthodox community. “The whole film is about agency. How do you find your personal freedom from the kind of conditioning that’ll hurt you or change your natural instincts?”

Behind the scenes, Weisz did a kind of professional code-switching—conditioning herself to align her instincts as performer with those of producer. And through an incredible amount of her own off-screen agency, she played a pivotal role in getting Disobedience made. Upon optioning the source material, she brought aboard Frida Torresblanco, who also produced Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, and Ed Guiney, who produced The Lobster and the Best Picture-nominated Room. Funding Disobedience came naturally for Weisz’s team, who despite their Hollywood insider status are no stranger to small budgets, indie collaborations, and cobbling it all together. Element Pictures, Braven Films, Film4 Productions, and FilmNation Entertainment co-financed the $6 million production, which officially lists 15 individual producers.

Right after seeing Lelio’s Paulina García-starring film Gloria, Weisz sent the director the script. “Immediately, he said ‘Yes,’” she recalls, beaming. “He flew to New York, and we had the first meeting with him. Disobedience was about a different culture, a different country, and the story just struck him.” What struck Weisz about Lelio? “He’s very tender and thoughtful. You can see it in the way he tells women’s stories,” she says. “He makes you feel safe. He’s very open and not patriarchal, even though he’s definitely in charge and has a vision. That’s what you want in a director—to have a point of view. It’s going to come from them, so you don’t want them to be wishy-washy.”

Once into the adaptation process, Weisz vetted and approved Lelio’s two drafts of the screenplay, but next she needed a co-writer who could help execute the Chilean writer-director’s intent. She hired Rebecca Lenkiewicz, whom Lelio recommended based on Lenkiewicz’s prior work with Paweł Pawlikowski on Ida. “Whenever Rebecca finished a draft of Ida, Paweł would translate it back to Polish. She has a lot of experience working with directors who are fluent in English, but for whom it is not their first language,” Weisz explains.

Her working relationship-turned-friendship with Alderman, Weisz says, evolved during the adaptation phase. “She said, ‘I know that this will be the film.’ She was not controlling at all. She said, ‘I just want to see the film, don’t worry.’ So, we didn’t even show her any of the drafts!” When Weisz showed her the result, “She said it was exactly what she hoped it would be—its own version. It’s the story of the novel, but it’s not a direct replication, beat by beat.”

Director Sebastián Lelio (left) and actress Rachel Weisz (right) co-shape material on the set of Disobedience. Photograph by Agatha A. Nitecka, courtesy of Bleecker Street

Ironically, a challenge greater for Weisz than winning the trust of Disobedience’s creator was learning to trust that the creative reflexes she’s developed would carry her through production. “I loved that aspect of it—using a very different brain muscle doing script and character work,” she says. “Ronit was a character that I wanted to play when I read the book, but because Rachel and Alessandro’s characters are both so strong, keeping the balance between them throughout the script was important. When developing material, I’m much more cerebral, and work out problems and fixes verbally. But my acting process is very unconscious. At that point, it’s too late to sit and analyze it.”

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