RACHEL WEISZ has battled mummies, survived flop films like Dream House, and has just finished turning quivering denizens of Oz into cinders.
But if you want to see her flinch, just ask her about acting. Posh hotels have merciless acoustics, and during a gap in our own conversation, the voice of James Franco, her Oz The Great and Powerful co-star, floats across from another interview. “I can hear James saying, ‘As an actor…’” she sighs. “We all sound like tossers when we talk, don’t we?”
Weisz is in press mode, which means that at 10am she’s dressed for a night at an expensive restaurant. In six-inch heels, a flowing black pantsuit, with her hair pulled back from her face, she has some pretty full-on sultry eye makeup, counterpointed by some discreet jewellery, including a slim metal band on her left finger, from her marriage to Daniel Craig, James Bond himself.
Weisz has tried to keep their relationship under the radar since tying the knot with Craig in a surprise secret ceremony in 2011. Before then both had been engaged, but to other people. Craig had a long-term girlfriend, and in 2010 Weisz was enthusiastically talking about marrying Darren Aronofsky, the director of Black Swan, and the father of her seven-year-old, Henry.
They now live in New York, and at home actor chat is verboten. Weisz says: “We understand what the job entails. There’s a mutual understanding; you don’t have to explain yourself.”
However, they might at least agree that they have had a pretty good six months: Skyfall is now the most successful Bond movie of all time, and now Oz The Great and Powerful marks a turning point for Weisz. In this Disney prequel to L Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (and the classic 1939 movie starring Judy Garland), she plays her first widescreen villainess, the Wicked Witch of the East, Evanora, who shoots fireballs between the palms of her hands and can fly, which sounds awesome to anyone who isn’t related to Rachel Weisz: “I tried to tell my son I could fly, but he just wasn’t impressed. He’s like, ‘Yeah, whatever. You’re flying.’”
An Oscar-winner (best supporting actress for her extraordinary turn in The Constant Gardener) surely deserves more respect, but Weisz is remorselessly self-deprecating in interviews. Her last film, Deep Blue Sea, closed the London film festival and earned her rave reviews, but she prefers to note that hardly anyone else went to see Terrence Davies’ yearning melodrama.
“The only movie I’ve made that really a lot of people have seen is The Mummy,” she says cheerfully. “I meet teenagers who tell me they grew up on it.”
To learn more about Weisz, you could consult IMDb, but she’d rather you didn’t, because below a potted biography are some choice quotes from less cautious times. At one point in her 20-year career, for instance, she apparently confided: “People find out I’m an actress and I see that ‘whore’ look flicker across their eyes.”
Weisz smiles politely at this. “I’ve been doing this a while now and over the years, I’ve said many things. I think I said that at least a decade ago, and I probably said that as a joke.” Most interviewees would leave it there, but Weisz won’t let herself off the hook.
“I guess my question boils down to, ‘Do I think actresses are whores?”” she says, and starts to laugh. “Hmmm, shall we muse on that together? I mean, back in the day, actresses were, weren’t they.”
Yes, and during Shakespeare’s time, actresses were also men, so let’s try to move on. The forensic side of Weisz may be hereditary: her mother is a psychotherapist, and she was raised on key precepts of analysis. No complex soulsearching was required for the part of Evanora however; her motive – clearly domination of the kingdom of Oz, whilst dressed to the nines in gowns the colour of jealousy.
“I didn’t read any of the Baum books,” she admits “The Wizard of Oz was the first film I saw, aged five but I didn’t re-watch the original film. I just used my imagination to cook her up. It was a mad character to do anyway. One night at 3am we were filming a cat fight with lightning bolts supposedly flying from my fingers. There I was 40 foot up in the air, dressed in sequins. I couldn’t have played her without that corset, and sequins, and feathers, and lashes, and lips, and pushed-up boobs. The costume was a huge, huge part of the character. This isn’t the kind of job where you think Evanora’s dad didn’t love her.
“When I was making Oz, I was also filming The Bourne Legacy. So it would be one month in Detroit or the Phillipines as Evanora, the next on Bourne. I had my makeup on Bourne down to six and a half minutes – jeans, T-shirt, scrubbed face and out of the van. Evanora took two hours.”
Oz bucks the trend of recent adaptations of fairy tales such as Snow White and Hansel & Gretel or Alice in Wonderland, which have been recast with a cynical streak to appeal to adult sensibilities. Parents will not have to explain any inappropriate behaviour to their offspring with this version of Oz and the wicked witches are unlikely to scare the living daylights out of kids, like Margaret Hamilton did as the Wicked Witch of the West in the original.
Weisz came to acting via her mother, who loved black and white movies with Barbra Stanwyck, Joan Crawford and Bette Davies.
“Strong, powerful women, weren’t they?” says Weisz, who tends to couch her points as questions. “And they were often quite nasty, weren’t they? I think that’s gone out of fashion. I think women are expected to be very likeable all the time, which is very dull.”
Her parents both came to London as children, to escape the Nazis, and Weisz and her younger sister grew up listening to their parents chat in German at home and raised with a strong work ethic imbued from an early age. Her first ambition was to be Marie Curie “but I was rubbish at science and maths. And I wasn’t very good at acting at school. We did Alice in Wonderland, and I was the dodo. I had background parts, I wasn’t the star of school plays.”
At university, however, she realised acting was what she wanted to do. “I wasn’t naturally very good at first but I just kept plugging away. I’m not trained, I just learned by doing.” Her spirits were boosted by a stint at the Edinburgh Fringe, where she was favourably reviewed as part of a theatre group called Talking Tongues.
“It was a huge deal for us, and I loved Edinburgh.” She came down with a bump however when she attended an audition at the Royal Court and was told by a director that “only the truly truly truly great stars will ever make it without training”.
Has Rachel Weisz made it? She laughs that she hasn’t worked since finishing filming Oz 12 monhs ago. A small indie picture called Legacy of Luna couldn’t raise its budget and was cancelled. She would have been interesting as Jackie Onassis too in a planned TV biopic, but that fell apart too. Fingers crossed, however, her next assignment – starring with Craig in a Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal – will come through.
If not, she has other irons in the fire. “I read an incredible script recently,” she says, as she prepares to clop off to her next interview “So I wrote to the director telling him I loved the script and I wanted one of the parts. Unfortunately the part was for a man. But you never know.”