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Rachel Weisz on the Importance of Secrets, Her Dream Job, and ‘My Cousin Rachel’

Written by on June 8, 2017 

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Characters like the one that gives its title to My Cousin Rachel are usually played with broad strokes, either to elicit extreme sympathy, or total disdain, and yet what Rachel Weisz does in Roger Michell’s adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel is unlike either of those, it’s a performance so layered that it would unfair to say it lies even in between. We are supposed to mistrust Rachel from the moment we first hear her name, after all she is the stranger who has seduced Philip’s (Sam Claflin) saintly cousin, made him renounce his bachelorhood, and abandon his beloved England. Not only that, but according to some suspicions, she might have even been behind his untimely death, meaning there is nothing left for Philip to do but seek revenge.

And yet upon meeting Rachel, Philip discovers something quite unexpected, rather than a severe gorgon, he finds her to be quite sensitive, agreeable even. But he has come to believe in her evil ways to such degree, that nothing she does can absolve her. Weisz takes advantage of this grey area where her character lives to play her as both aware and elusive, she’s the screen where Philip and the audience can project their doubts, but she’s strong enough that she reflects back to us our own issues. Ahead of its release in the U.S., I spoke to the Oscar winner about how Rachel encompasses the way in which men are taught to think of women, how she slipped into Rachel’s skin, and the concept of the femme fatale.

The Film Stage: My Cousin Rachel is such a litmus test for how audiences react to female characters and the timing could not be better. Was this one of the reasons why you wanted to play this part?

Rachel Weisz: I didn’t know that it would resonate in the way that you’re saying, but I liked the idea of playing with what people’s preconceptions of women are. I knew whether she was guilty or innocent. The director didn’t want me to tell him so I kept it a secret. There was a sort of mystery involved in how we made the film as well. What’s fascinated me are the reactions of people who’ve watched it; some are sure she’s guilty, others think she’s innocent and each side argues passionately. But what did you mean about the timing?

Watching it I kept thinking how the men are paranoid about Rachel’s letters but they might as well have been talking about private email servers.

Oh, I see. Yeah, yeah.

Men always seem to find reasons to not trust women. Society seems to enjoy pitting women against each other or vilifying powerful women. Did you have a moment when you realized this, and did it affect your work in any way?

I know what you mean, but no, I didn’t have a moment. It’s a great question though, but I don’t relate to it personally. The story of the movie was written by a woman, so it’s a woman imagining a man and he’s such an unreliable narrator because he’s in love and obsessed and whatnot. His records might not be true; apparently du Maurier wrote the book so that she was Philip, and she was obsessed with, I think her publicist’s wife, so it was kind of a disguised tale about girl on girl love, but we don’t need to get into that…

Did you find either the book or the first movie to be essential in helping you shape your character or did you just go from the script?

I still haven’t seen the original movie. I need to watch it now so I can reference it in discussion with people, but I didn’t want it to influence my performance. The book was interesting, but the film obviously becomes something different. The book was useful but you start from scratch when you make a film.

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Assuming you liked the character and felt empathy for her, do you want people to think of your character in My Cousin Rachel in a specific way?

I want them to make up their own minds and come up with their own conclusions.

I saw you last year in Plenty at the Public Theatre and Complete Unknown, and with My Cousin Rachel they kind of make this trilogy of works about women who men purposely choose not to trust, who also happen to want to live bigger lives than patriarchal society allows them to have. Do you ever find unexpected threads like that in the projects you choose?

I know what you’re saying. I guess there are archetypes in storytelling and maybe this film is playing with the archetype of the femme fatale or the Black Widow who poisons people. I think what Roger Michell does is he plays with the archetype so you question your own preconceptions of what women are. I think it’s really interesting storytelling from his part.

I love the buildup to meeting Rachel, people talk about her as if she’s a demon or some sort of seductive goddess, so by the time we meet her we’re half expecting her to appear from a cloud of smoke. Did you talk to Roger about the importance of this introduction?

That was just a function of the script with Roger also wrote. It’s a big setup, and it’s great to have a big setup as a character, it’s just wonderful, but for me it was just telling a story of seeing Philip for the first time and being shocked at how similar to my husband he is, it shocks me to see a boyish version of my husband who I didn’t even know as a boy. So for me it was a very powerful moment. Imagine if you meet someone in your 40s who you didn’t know in their 20s, and then they die, and you meet someone who looks like them in their 20s. It’s so spooky! So just imagining that was very powerful for me.

Are there any other character entrances in movies that you absolutely love?

I can’t think of any, can you?

Some of mine are Orson Welles’s character in The Third Man, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, or Blanche in Streetcar which you’ve played onstage.

You know what those are good examples. I’ll steal your Vivien Leigh ones.

You mentioned you knew whether Rachel was guilty or not, do you usually have secrets about your characters that help you understand who they are?

Oh, yeah. I’d never had this experience where the director said they didn’t want to know if she was guilty or not, but you always have secrets from the director, and the director has secrets from you. Actors should never explain their motivations to another actor. You should have secrets from each other. Just like in life: you don’t explain yourself to everyone, you just do stuff.

How did the locations affect your work?

I mean, you can’t fake that level of gorgeousness. It was staggeringly beautiful, a lot of the British countryside is really beautiful. Roger wanted to capture the four seasons, so even if we shot in the spring we managed to get a little bit of winter, a little bit of summer.

You played a real person in Denial last year, do you feel a special kind of responsibility to characters based on real people that you don’t feel for characters like Rachel?

Yes, particularly with Denial, which was more like a documentary in a way. We used actual court transcripts, and I made myself talk exactly like Deborah Lipstadt. There’s a different responsibility.

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How does alternating between stage and screen help you stay excited about the work or define who you are as an actor?

Both are challenging in different ways. Doing plays is harder I think. Plays are like running a marathon. Plays are physically very demanding. You have to be an athlete.

After I saw you in The Deep Blue Sea I really wanted to see you play an old fashioned femme fatale a la Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Are there any you love and would love to play?

I’m not sure I’ve seen Double Indemnity. What would you suggest for me?

You’re asking me to give you my wish list of characters for you?

Yes, I’m serious. I think you’ve seen a lot more films than I have. You seem very knowledgeable.

If Pedro Almodóvar ever makes an English movie I’d love to see you play a femme fatale like the ones from The Skin I Live In or Bad Education.

You have created my dream job. For real! I don’t speak Spanish. I’ve met him and told him what a big fan I am and how I adore him. If he ever made a film in English, yes please.

I also got to see you in Betrayal on Broadway and have always wanted to ask you what it was like to star in what would end up being Mike Nichols very last play on Broadway?

It was a slightly strange honor, I didn’t know it would be his last play, but looking back it’s an incredible honor to have shared in his talent near the end of his life.

Thanks for your time, you were great in that play as well.

But before you go, you said Double Indemnity was a good one right?

Yes!

Great, I’ll check it out then.

My Cousin Rachel opens on Friday, June 9.


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