Rachel the wise
British actress Rachel Weisz at the 2010 Laurence Olivier awards. Photo: Reuters
Rachel Weisz is facing the press for her latest film Oz the Great and Powerful, in which she plays Evanora, Wicked Witch of the East. She is looking decidedly un-wicked, wearing an exquisite jacket, a silver watch and a fine band on her ring finger.
That last detail is enough to send my fellow journalists into a lather of questions, trying to trick her into spilling the beans about her husband of 20 months, Daniel Craig. You can understand their desperation: it's hard to think of a more blessed union than James Bond himself and the beautiful, acclaimed 42-year-old actress. They're the thinking Anglophile's Brad and Angelina.
Unlike their flashier American counterparts, however, both Weisz and Craig are on record as agreeing not to talk about each other. Her refusal to talk about her private life has led to a reputation, in some quarters, for being icy and aloof. But when our interview rolls around after a lunch break, Weisz couldn't be warmer. In fact, it's hard to get a word in edgeways for some time, so keen is she to talk about my op-shop cardigan.
"I love your outfit!" she exclaims, upending a packet of sugar into a mug of black coffee. I tell her I was going for a "sensible 1970s academic" look and she cackles with glee. "It's great, I love it. The more covered up it gets, the sexier it gets. Isn't it funny?"
She is certainly an expert in academic feminist chic: the daughter of a Hungarian inventor father and Austrian psychotherapist mother, she did a BA in English at Cambridge and wrote a feminist reading of the American writers Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor for her dissertation.
During the lunch break, she has changed into jeans and a Fair Isle jumper the colour of slate. I am struck by a momentary vision of a younger Weisz, in a similarly sensible outfit, striding around Trinity Hall in the early '90s, planning theatre performances and busying herself with feminist organisations.
This background has perhaps given her a better grounding with which to navigate the entertainment news industry's treatment of female stars than some of her peers. "Well, it's all about getting hits [online], isn't it?" she says on the topic of questions about her relationship and beauty routine. I notice she fiddles with the empty sugar packet, folding and unfolding it meditatively, whenever the line of questioning strikes a raw or personal chord.
"It's funny," she says. "The gentleman who was interviewing me before was saying, 'When [actor] Michelle Williams talks about her daughter she's really open, and you're self-aware and closed.' My feeling is that, first, it's private, but second, in relation to my son, he didn't choose me as a mum. And I feel it's not fair on him. I can imagine him growing up and going, 'How could you have done that?' Just because I'm a storyteller, you know?"
The son she is not talking about is six-year-old Henry Chance, from her relationship with director Darren Aronofsky; the couple split in 2010 but remain close friends and committed to raising their son together in New York. Weisz and Craig were married in that same city in mid-2011, with Henry in attendance along with Craig's daughter, 18-year-old Ella.
Clearly teetering too close to the brink of intimacy, the storyteller in Weisz suddenly strikes up to avoid breaking her own rules. "I guess I should just make up a really good son and a good husband!" A house in Scotland and a nice, boring astrophysicist husband, perhaps? "Yeah," she says, emphatically grasping her mug. "I'm going to go with that!"
Her latest project, Oz the Great and Powerful, is director Sam Raimi's prequel of sorts to both 1939's The Wizard of Oz and L. Frank Baum's 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The opportunity to "go bad" playing a witch appealed greatly to Weisz. "When I read the script, I thought, 'There's a way of doing this that is like an old-fashioned villainess, getting off on being bad, like Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck.' It seems to have gone out of fashion a bit, that."
As have fantasy films, until recently. With Oz the Great and Powerful and at least six other major fantasy movies set for release this year and next, I ask her if she thinks there's a deeper reason behind the return to that most escapist of genres.
"Is there something in the zeitgeist? I wish I knew," she says, before taking a long pause. "I hope that women in films can return to playing ..." She thinks again. "That they don't just have to be sympathetic or victims, that women can be gloriously bad. It's an archetypal female that I feel Hollywood hasn't had much of recently."
The broader range of roles available for women explains Weisz's taste for independent cinema. It's certainly the corner of the business that has brought her the most accolades. She received a Golden Globe nomination for her role in Terence Davies' 2011 romantic drama, The Deep Blue Sea, and has since won a number of critics' awards for the role. It was a film, she told The Independent newspaper last year, that "not many people" saw. Similarly, 2005's The Constant Gardener – which brought Weisz an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors' Guild Award – was hardly the stuff of the multiplex.
"I think there's really interesting stuff in independent movies," she says, though she notes that "a lot of times the men have got the better parts! I just read something recently that was brilliant, and there were these two amazing men's parts, and I wrote to the director and said, 'I love the script, I want to be them', though for obvious reasons that's not going to happen. So it's definitely a search [to find good roles]. I'm not in a state of despair, but you've got to concentrate."
There's some irony, then, in her two most recent roles being special effects-laden blockbusters: Oz the Great and Powerful and last year's The Bourne Legacy. I ask her if she feels some familiarity in the empty space of the soundstage and green screen, as a theatre actress used to a relatively bare stage.
"When you have an audience out there it gives a tremendous amount of energy, this mass of living people rustling their sweets and laughing, and it's alive. A green screen's dead, totally dead, it's like a" – she thumps the table with her fist – "thud of deadness. It's really f...ing dead! It drains you, whereas a live audience feeds you, like a conversation."
Theatre work has sustained Weisz creatively since her uni days, when she co-founded the theatre group Cambridge Talking Tongues. It has also won her as much acclaim as her film career, most recently the 2010 Olivier Award for Best Actress for her performance as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.
It's only partly coincidental, then, that Weisz and her family split their time between the two theatre capitals of the world, New York and London. It also affords her (and Craig, a dedicated visitor to his local pub; "I still go for a pint back home," he told The Sun newspaper last year) a sense of privacy that living in, say, Los Angeles would not.
"Well, I don't want to tempt fate, but I don't have people camped outside my door," she says solemnly, fiddling with the sugar packet again. "Sometimes you get an odd paparazzo lurking about, but I feel like it's a contract: I meet them on the red carpet at a prearranged date, and we have an exchange. I've spent two hours getting ready, so I'd be really sad if they weren't there!"
She is happy to credit Henry's birth with having given her a new-found clarity as far as her work is concerned ("You have something else to live for other than yourself, so it colours everything"), but has also found that dealing with the machine of celebrity becomes easier with age.
"Seeing things for what they are happens with time; realising that the red carpet's not a real place, it's a fantasy zone. I used to really struggle because I was like, 'I can't go down that carpet', but then [I realised] it's not me, I'm a character, and no one wants 'me', I'm too boring! Separating fact and fiction makes you able to navigate it. Otherwise you could go crazy, and people obviously do."
With a background in what she has freely referred to as "radical feminism", she is puzzled by many of her fellow actresses' refusal to adopt the "feminist" moniker. "It's almost become a dirty word," she muses. "Do I believe that we should have equal rights and be paid the same amount? Then yeah. But I think most women who say they're not feminists believe that, too, it's just that there's an association with it that women don't like."
She then interrupts herself: "Actually, I think L. Frank Baum was a bit of an early feminist! He was writing about powerful wizardesses, and he was a fantasy writer who really believed in writing these extraordinary, powerful parts [for women], so I guess this is a feminist film."
I agree – Baum would often dedicate his Oz books to female readers – and wonder aloud what it is about fantasy that lends itself to such a range of impressive female characters. "They're outside of place and time, so they can be anything as women, right? They can be powerful." She starts to laugh darkly as I suggest that it's not something we want to think about too deeply, lest we sink into a deep depression, and she concurs – "Because then we're really f...ed!" – and laughs a thunderous laugh.
Our interview draws to a close not long after, and she farewells me with a double thumbs up and shouts, "Great outfit!" I wonder how anyone in their right mind could think Rachel Weisz aloof. It must be witchcraft.
Oz the Great and Powerful is in cinemas March 7.
Lead-in and top photographs by Alasdair McLellan/Art Partner/Snapper Media.