Darting through the Sahara with a preserved corpse. Murdered at a crossroads in Kenya. Kicking ass alongside conmen brothers and their explosive sidekick in Prague. The edgy and earthy Rachel Weisz hasn’t exactly been easy to track (or pin) down. But with a young son at home, an Oscar on her mantel and three new movies in the can, the daring and elusive actress takes a minute to consider her illustrious career, all the while trying to make sense of the condom shorts on display at Manhattan’s New Museum.
Like most major stars, Rachel Weisz understands that scandal shines brighter than Academy Award polish, and that tabloid gossips would kill to replace the Narciso Rodriguez gowns in her closet with skeletons. But there are no addictions in her past. There are no tapes documenting torrid affairs with boldface, bald-headed studio executives. One cannot even recall a single of her awards-show acceptance speeches colored by too much red wine. Weisz can’t be blamed, then, for wanting to shake things up. “Believe me,” she says. “I get it. I’m living with a nice man, and I have a nice job and a happy family, blah, blah, blah… ”
Far from Hollywood, a diorama of desperation and loaner implants, Weisz has created a home in Manhattan’s East Village with her fiancé, Darren Aronofsky, the director of fantastically unconventional fare such as Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and this year’s The Wrestler. With their 2-year-old son, Henry (Weisz wrote one of her two university theses on the ghost stories of Henry James), they live in a townhouse amid the tattooed punks and NYU co-eds who occupy the tattered streets near St. Mark’s Place. Weisz often dines at Café Mogador, a Moroccan restaurant (where she also conducts the majority of her interviews). On rare nights out, she stops in at Zablozki’s in Brooklyn, the no-fuss beer den owned by Aronofsky’s best friend, Ari Zablozki, and Angel’s Share, a lounge above St. Mark’s Bookshop that serves “the best lychee cocktails in the world.”
But there is another Rachel Weisz, an actress who exudes subtlety and strength. Watching this woman onscreen is not unlike angling through a swarm of tourists at the Louvre for a better look at Mona Lisa’s smile: take one step, and in an instant, her tenor changes dramatically. She is quicksilver, and has shifted effortlessly between a thrill-seeking Egyptologist, a prostitute, a pickpocket, a blue dragon, a policewoman (and her twin sister) and a writer with a penchant for graying men. In each case, she commits to the fiction, mocking vanity through her own game of make-believe—“like pirates,” she says, “or smugglers.”
Over the next few months, Weisz will star in three studio releases, including this month’s grifters’ yarn The Brothers Bloom, featuring a stacked deck of actors like Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo and Rinko Kikuchi. In director Rian Johnson’s absurdist wonderland of theft, betrayal and card tricks, Weisz plays Penelope, an idiosyncratic heiress in search of adventure. Weisz raps, juggles, skateboards and crashes cars (many cars) as she sets off on a journey with two conmen brothers and their monosyllabic arsonist-sidekick Bang Bang. Adjectives in the realm of “lovely” and “electric” do not do Weisz justice.
Later this year, she will star alongside Susan Sarandon and Mark Wahlberg in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lovely Bones, based on Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel about rape and murder, and Agora, a historical epic directed by celebrated Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar. (On the set of Agora, co-star Max Minghella nicknamed the actress “Dr. Weisz” because, he says, she is “such a deeply curious person. It really is a shame that she’s such a bloody good actress, because she would have made a champ psychoanalyst.”)
As it turns out, she also would have made an outspoken art critic. Crossing New York’s Bowery, a sociological zoo of homeless missions and luxury hotels, we approach the New Museum. “You must check out the work of Thomas Ruff,” Weisz says, holding open the entrance door. “He’s a German artist who takes pictures of Internet porn and then blurs them digitally. He blows up cropped arms, legs and genitals so that they’re heavily pixilated and almost look like Grand Master paintings. I own a little one he did that shows a girl with her panties falling down,” she adds, her crimson cheeks betraying a slight blush.
Without question, the most cherished pieces in her collection have been created by punk icon Raymond Pettibon. “I think he’s a poet,” she says, walking through an exhibition devoted to the urbanization of modern-day China. “I bought Darren a piece from a series that Pettibon did on surfers. It’s a picture of Jesus on a surfboard and it says, ‘Proof that everything is rideable.’” Her big eyes grow bigger when describing “Untitled (Aretha),” a red block made from amber that could easily be mistaken for a monster Jolly Rancher. It was created by her friend, conceptual artist Roni Horn, and Weisz swears it’s “the sexiest block you’ve ever seen… but it’s Aretha Franklin!”
Crossing the main floor of the museum, Weisz shrieks at a pitch normally reserved for scratch-ticket winners and newly engaged sorority sisters. “Viagrate! Is Viagra called Viagrate in China? Wait, is that a joke? Condom shorts! They’re entire shorts with a condom on the end! This must be jokey stuff, like from the joke shop.”
The elevator doors open onto the fifth floor of the gallery, into what looks like an Israeli refugee camp. Spray-painted phrases like “Terror Error” share space with Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby that Jerry Falwell accused of homosexuality. “It’s all very Tracey Emin-ish,” says Weisz. And she’d know. In 2003, she reprised the role of Evelyn, her stage character in Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things, for the writer-director’s film adaptation of the same name. As the calculating art student who manipulates and transforms an impressionable loser into a handsome but miserable bachelor, Evelyn is plucked directly from the pages of the Turner Prize–winning artist.
“I’ve met her,” says Weisz, quietly. “She’s very scary. She came to see the play, and I met her in the bar afterward. She’s an amazing character, very… provocative.” It’s clear from Weisz’s raised eyebrows that “provocative” intrigues her.
In The Brothers Bloom, Weisz’s character Penelope tells Adrien Brody’s Bloom that “a photograph is a secret about a secret… the more it tells, the less you know.” It’s a statement that Weisz considers over fish tacos at Café Habana, a Cuban diner in Manhattan’s NoLita. Privacy, she thinks, might actually work against her; the less one offers up, the more ravenous media vultures become. “Have you ever heard the saying, Happiness writes white? It’s a good expression, isn’t it? It means that if the story is too happy, no one will ever be able to see it on the page.”
While not exactly blemish-free, Weisz’s biography still reads whiter than most. She was raised in the north of London, in Hampstead Garden Suburb, by Edith Ruth and George Weisz. Her mother was a teacher, and later became a psychotherapist who saw clients in her home. Her father, an inventor, was born in Hungary but later fled to England to escape Nazi persecution. Weisz has chosen to safeguard the details of their relationship, which ended in divorce when she was still a child. “I think everyone’s family is like its own planet,” she says, adding, “Some are just more ‘nanu-nanu’ than others.”
“Writers have always been interested in my parents and in my teenage years, which I find so weird, especially now that I’m in my late thirties,” she says, her tone suddenly more serious. “That’s always made me feel infantilized, like they are talking to me as if I were still 10 years old. I’m made to feel as if I were Annie in the musical.” People are hungry to dig up the past, she notices, as if her parents’ failed marriage might somehow shed light on who Weisz is now, the roles she chooses to inhabit.
“It’s very atavistic… is that the right word? That this happened or is like this because of that?” But might there be some truth to that line of thought? Weisz chooses her words carefully. “It’s such a hard thing to sum up. The best way to describe my parents and our family is… operatic. Everything played out in a very melodramatic way, as if we were the stars of a Tennessee Williams play, which is not actually that good for acting. It would be good for opera, but sadly, I can’t sing. If I had a million-dollar voice, I could nail opera, because I understand that emotional level of living. But with acting, you have to learn that it’s all about very quiet, internal moments. I think I was pretty crap at acting in the beginning because I was too operatic, and it’s taken me a while to learn how to tone that down.” (It’s worth mentioning here that Weisz will inhabit the role of Blanche DuBois this summer in a London production of A Streetcar Named Desire.)
I don’t think anyone can push me harder than me, professionally,” says Weisz, considering a nearby plate of sautéed spinach. “If that person exists, I’d love to meet them.” She smiles, waiting for suggestions. What about Lars von Trier, the notoriously prickly director of Dancer in the Dark and Dogville? “Oh, I would love to work with him!” she says, tugging slightly on her upturned black turtleneck. She imagines the possibility for a minute. “Actually, I don’t do too well with conflict in work. Some people like that sort of thing. They create conflict and that’s how they get their energy up. I’d rather have friends.”
She does not at all sound like a scripted pageant contestant with a knife in her hand. Glowing reports from her peers and friends don’t hurt, either. Of her experience with Weisz on the set of The Brothers Bloom, Rinko Kikuchi says, “Rachel’s concentration is very intense. She has this magic that puts everyone under her spell.” Hugh Jackman, with whom Weisz starred in the time-travel love story The Fountain, seconds the sentiment. “Rachel is fearless,” he says. “She has a razor-sharp wit, brimming with creativity.”
Looking back on his experience with Weisz while filming The Fountain in 2004, however, Jackman is reminded of one particularly awkward moment: “There was a scene that called for me falling into the bath with Rachel. I was fully clothed, and we started to kiss, which was meant to be the end of the scene. Darren, who was sitting no less than three yards from us, never called cut, but like good pros we carried on until my pants started coming off, which is when we started laughing. Darren screamed, ‘Why didn’t you take his pants off, Rachel?’ And she yelled back, ‘Because I was shy!’” Remembering this exchange, Weisz says, shaking her head and laughing, “My husband the pornographer.”
Even Ben Stiller, her co-star in Envy, the 2004 stinker about fecal evaporation, says, “We were always laughing together. She was definitely the highlight of an experience I’ve almost altogether blacked out.” Peter Jackson, the director of The Lovely Bones, offers: “Some people think of Rachel as a beautiful movie star with an air of fragility about her. However, having played laser tag against her with my son, and seen her running around wielding a gun, I can tell you—she’s not that fragile!” Paul Rudd, who starred opposite Weisz in The Shape of Things, agrees: “Rachel has an ability to stare at you and, in seconds, you feel as if she’s detected all your bullshit.” Hugh Grant, who played Weisz’s love interest in the romantic comedy About a Boy, says, “Making a film with her aroused more jealousy and rage in my male friends than any other girl I’ve ever acted with.”
“Oh, baloney!” says Weisz, when met with this grocery list of high praise. “I think this is what’s referred to as ‘blowing smoke up my ass.’” Despite international acclaim and trophies to go with it, the New York transplant has little interest in brandishing her good fortune. “The whole thing about going home,” she says, “is that everyone already hates you, so you have to be the opposite of boastful. Nobody wants to hear you lord your success over people, so you do yourself down.”
A graduate of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, Weisz majored in English Literature, where she founded the Talking Tongues theater group. It wasn’t long until her scene-stealing debut in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty, which quickly led to starring roles in The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, not to mention a searing career-high in Fernando Mereilles’ Big Pharma epic The Constant Gardener, for which Weisz took home the 2006 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
As Tessa, the dead wife of Justin Quayle, a low-rung diplomat played by Ralph Fiennes, Weisz ransacked the film in fewer than 20 minutes. While trying to understand and confront his wife’s murder, Justin goes up against an unethical drug corporation and the suspicion of Tessa’s infidelity. Instead of coddling the role of victim, Weisz delivered a staggering and ambiguous performance that was widely heralded as the year’s best. “I was blown away by her commitment to the situation,” says Stiller, “and the fact that she wasn’t trying to make us like her.”
Weisz admits that the prizes thrown her way since the release of that film have had a significant impact on her career. “I spent my twenties chasing down parts. I sort of miss the fight. It’s weird to have a good thing fall into your lap, or two good things and then be forced to choose.” Weisz laughs, absorbing what she has just said. “I should have such problems, right?”
Despite having been born time zones away, Weisz is now a proper New Yorker, and as such, there are no drivers named Dudley or Jeeves waiting for her behind tinted windows, nor does she sport the oversize sunglasses typical of an actress hoping to avoid recognition. “I’m not Tom Cruise,” she explains. “I don’t get hassled.”
Instead of focusing on the art of celebrity—which, she insists, is anathema to credible screen performances—Weisz would rather clock time in films that make her proud. “I remember watching a television interview with Gael García Bernal, and he was asked about the difference between being a celebrity and being an actor. He said, ‘It’s apples and oranges, really.’ And that is so true,” she says, matter-of-factly. “It’s a categorical error to talk about the two things in the same breath.”
[Also check out our interview and photos with Rachel Weisz from 2003.]
Photography by Nicolas Moore, styling by Marcus Teo.