After being discovered in a West End production of Noël Coward’s Design For Living in 1995, British actress Rachel Weisz got off to a heady start, with a small part in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty and a role as the romantic lead in the Hollywood action movie Chain Reaction that same year. After retreating to England for low-profile parts in films like Swept From The Sea and I Want You, Weisz found more solid footing in Hollywood by starring in the action-horror blockbusters The Mummy and The Mummy Returns. Though she showed range in subsequent efforts like About A Boy and The Shape Of Things, serious critical respect didn’t find her until 2005, when she won an Academy Award for her fine supporting performance as a diplomat’s activist wife in The Constant Gardener. From there, she starred in the science-fiction curio The Fountain (written and directed by her partner Darren Aronofsky), the Wong Kar-wai triptych My Blueberry Nights, and more commercial efforts such as Eragon, Fred Claus, and Definitely, Maybe.
In The Brothers Bloom, the twisty new suspense-comedy from Brick director Rian Johnson, Weisz stars as Penelope, a quirky heiress who devotes her endless downtime to hobbies ranging from juggling, accordion-playing, and card tricks to crashing luxury sports cars. She seems like an easy mark for Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and his weak-willed sibling Bloom (Adrien Brody), who have devoted their lives to running scams. But when Bloom falls for Penelope—and Penelope wants in on the grifter lifestyle—the plan gets complicated. Weisz recently spoke to the A.V. Club about trying comedy, researching an unresearchable role, and complications on Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones.
The A.V. Club: You’ve appeared in comedies before, but this is the first time your role is strongly comedic. Did that take some adjustment, some letting go?
Rachel Weisz: I definitely had to let go. I really wanted to do a comedy. I’ve done a lot of drama, and comedy was the one genre I was not being offered. So I became obsessive about getting one. I tried with two little parts in comedies that were more mainstream, I was kind of fumbling around, and then I read this and knew it was the one I wanted to jump into. Did it take adjusting? Actually, it’s not really any different from doing drama. When you’re doing comedy, you’re not trying to be funny. I think things are funny when the character is taking it totally seriously. I think when people are winking, it becomes slapstick, it becomes something else. All four of us [Weisz, Ruffalo, Brody, Rinko Kikuchi] are pretty much dramatic actors. It’s not like one of us is Steve Carell or Amy Poehler. We’re actors. So in a way, it was exactly the same as doing drama. If you try to go for a laugh, it’s death to the comedy. Personally, that’s how I approach comedy. But I’m no expert.
AVC: So how did you approach playing this particular character?
RW: Normally, I would do research. For The Constant Gardener, I played an activist, so I went to meet activists. You can find them dotted around. But with this, I couldn’t meet a nutty heiress who lived in a bubble in a mansion. There was no one to meet. So this was just an active imagining, a daydream. Just dreaming, imagining. Oh, but I had to learn practical stuff, like card tricks and unicycling and juggling and the accordion. Bunch of stuff like that.
AVC: Was that difficult?
RW: Yeah, I had to look like I knew how to do it. It was pretty comedic in and of itself, because I was in Serbia, in Belgrade—we filmed most of this in Belgrade, in Montenegro, Prague, Romania, former Eastern Bloc countries—so I had a professor of the accordion, and I had to learn to mime to a certain tune, but he couldn’t speak any English. And the violinist came and couldn’t speak any English. No one could speak English, and I couldn’t speak Serbian. So they was really, really interesting meetings. The guy who taught me the card tricks came from England, luckily.
AVC: How proficient did you have to be to pull it off?
RW: I had a CD, and I had all the instruments in my room. I had the music to play along to, and if it was the guitar, I had to learn what the chords were. I just kept practicing and practicing and practicing. I was pleased when it was over, because that was like homework.
AVC: Rian Johnson’s work is very cine-literate, and seems to take place in the movie world as much as in the real one. Did you and he look to any other characters or movies as models?
RW: No, nothing like that. There was no self-consciousness, self-modeling. He just let me run away with it, try things. It was his job, and he did an incredible job of keeping us all grounded. I think it would have been easy for us to be caricatured, whereas even though it’s kind of a kooky premise, and kooky tonally, I feel like we’re actual breathing people.
AVC: How would you describe Penelope’s role in altering the dynamic between the brothers?
RW: Well, she becomes kind of a piece of real life for Bloom. Ironically, I think Stephen’s chosen her in order for that to happen. It’s real, but it’s still being stage-managed by Stephen. And I think her influence on Bloom is when he steals an apple, he does something unscripted for the first time in his adult life, maybe ever. He gets a taste of what it would be like not to be scripted. She’s completely unscripted. She says “I don’t plan.” She’s just making it up as she goes along. Which I guess most of us are doing, but she’s a little wackier than others.
AVC: She has the privilege to be that way.
RW: You mean because she’s rich? You think wackiness is a privilege?
AVC: To a certain extent, yes.
RW: I know what you mean. I think she’s had kind of a shitty life, actually. She’s been the girl in the bubble stuck in the house thinking she’s allergic to things, and she’s not. But I know what you mean, she’s kind of set up as the rich-bitch heiress, but I think she subverts that.
AVC: She’s far more likeable than that. I don’t think there’s any point in the film where one feels any contempt for her.
RW: Right, yeah. She’s very rich, though. [Laughs.]
AVC: What brought you to acting initially? Were you always a performer, or did that impulse come later in life?
RW: I think it came later in life when I went to college. I started out there. I wasn’t a big star in the school plays or anything.
AVC: What attracted you to it?
RW: That’s a really hard thing to put into words, but I will try. I guess I just really liked stories. I was an English-literature major, and that’s all about stories and narratives. Film and theater are very powerful storytelling mediums. You sit in a dark room and enter another world. I love that as a member of the audience, and I sort of wanted to get on the other side.
AVC: You could’ve done that in various ways—you could’ve written, you could’ve directed, but you did choose to act. What about that was fulfilling to you?
RW: I could never write. I would just be too lonely. What’s great about acting is, it’s so collaborative. With a group of people, a troupe of actors in the theater, you go out on tour, and you’re like a traveling circus. It’s very sociable, and there’s a real community, and it’s very intense, and then you may never see them again. That was very appealing. I mean, it wasn’t consciously appealing, but I think a lot of actors like that.
AVC: Is it a relief to not see them again?
RW: No, it’s always a joy when you bump into them again. But you know probably that you may not see them again, because you can’t keep up with everybody—it’s impossible, and you’ve been so intense during that time. But I find it a joy when I bump into an actor that I’ve worked with.
AVC: Have you stayed in theater?
RW: It’s been a while. I think I’m gonna do a play next year, I don’t know what yet.
AVC: Your career began in British theater and television. What was involved in making that initial leap into film?
RW: Just being cast, just getting the gig. My first film was a really small role in Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty.
AVC: How did you get that?
RW: I was doing a play in the West End, Design For Living, and the casting director saw the play and thought I might be right for this character. So I auditioned.
AVC: And then you did a Hollywood movie the same year.
RW: I did. I just kind of muddled through in my 20s. I did whatever I got offered, to be honest, to pay the bills. I didn’t really know what I was doing. There are some actors in their 20s who are very sure. I wasn’t very sure what I was doing. I feel like I’ve only really just got going.
AVC: So what changed all that? At what point did you find some sort of direction or purpose?
RW: It was Constant Gardener, I think. I think in The Mummy, I kind of knew what was going on. I didn’t know it was going to be a big success like it was, but I understood.
AVC: It’s probably safe to say that nobody makes movies quite like Wong Kar-wai. What was My Blueberry Nights like for you?
RW: It was amazing. It was kind of like I’d been hypnotized, that was the feeling. I’m not sure anyone understands when I say that, but I started to behave like someone in a Wong Kar-wai movie after about two days. How he does that, I don’t know. It’s as if he casts a spell on you. He’s a very magical guy. Very magical, very unusual, very mercurial, very elusive, and very powerful.
AVC: Were you working with much? He’s always changing things as he goes, and the movie kind of evolves as he’s making it.
RW: Well he didn’t have time on this, unfortunately. He’s used to working for months and months and months, and this was very finite. And my character was just a week or something, and he didn’t have my last monologue. At the end, I have this monologue which explains the story I was just in, and they just didn’t have one at the time. So I actually wrote it that night. And he was like, “I like it. Let’s do it.”
AVC: So you are a writer, then.
RW: I was only alone for a few hours. [Laughs.]
AVC: What was it like making The Fountain with a filmmaker you know as well as Darren Aronofsky? Did the personal and professional aspect go together well?
RW: Seeing someone you know be good at something is really appealing. Seeing how he behaved on set, it was another aspect of him, the director. He’d never directed me at home in the kitchen before. It was just seeing a whole other aspect of someone. It was really, really exciting. I loved it.
AVC: The role wasn’t written for you. How did you wind up in that role?
RW: I guess they couldn’t find anyone else. [Laughs.] No, I think… you have to ask Darren. I don’t know.
AVC: What did you make of the reaction to the film, and how might it stand the test of time?
RW: I think that clearly it’s not a blockbuster. It’s a very, very unusual, daring, innovative piece of work. And I meet people all the time who say it moved them powerfully and meant something very special to them. I think the theme of coming to terms with death is very uncommercial. It’s about the most uncommercial theme possible, because movies tend to be about escape. Now we’re in a recession, and at war, so people want to see this chihuahua movie. To be told to come to terms with death, that death is the road to all—it’s a very intense subject. But as with movies that are very unusual, that have come to be thought of as very interesting, one finds out at the time that they were not understood. So who knows? We’ll see. A lot of people really, really loved it, and a lot of people didn’t get it.
AVC: Was there a sense that you were getting away with something, that getting this movie made at all was kind of amazing?
RW: I think so. To get that movie made inside the studio system is gobsmacking, I think. Yeah, definitely. Fox paid for it, or Warner Brothers. It’s pretty cool.
AVC: Are you done with The Lovely Bones? That was in development for a very long time, and there was a casting shift. What was that production like? Did all the troubles affect the actual shooting?
RW: What troubles?
AVC: Well, the fact that it took such a long time to get made, and then there were issues over the special effects, and another issue where Ryan Gosling was cast and it was reversed.
RW: There’s Earth, and then there’s heaven, and we shot Earth first, where all the characters are alive. That we did mainly outside Philadelphia in the suburbs, and then in New Zealand. And then they stopped production—I think they wanted to review everything they had on Earth before going to heaven. I mean, what does heaven look like? That’s a big conceptual question, and they wanted to take a pause, at Pete’s studios, he kind of knew what he liked. I don’t think there were problems, per se, they just had the luxury of being able to take a little time and design it. It’s Pete Jackson’s imagination. So no, it was a completely happy—I mean, very painful and miserable in many ways, but it was a happy shooting.
AVC: In the book, your character becomes detached after her daughter is killed, and has an affair. How would you describe her?
RW: Here’s a woman who lost a child, the most horrific thing imaginable for a mother, and she completely falls apart. She’s not only detached, she just does not cope at all. She sleeps with the detective investigating the case, she falls apart. She’s like an anti-hero. And that’s what I loved about it. There’s an incredible humanness and interestingness to that, when direct tragedy befalls you and you do not cope at all. Often in films, you see people dealing with things very heroically, and she was just the opposite. I liked that about her.