“Look at them both! Aren’t they incredible?” Rachel Weisz holds up her phone and presents a picture snapped the previous day at a press event for Paolo Sorrentino’s newest film “Youth.” The photo depicts her co-stars Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel seated and smiling like old pals; it’s a reminder of the warmth that Weisz radiates onscreen and otherwise, as well as the blue chip acting and directing colleagues with whom she’s working these days. Terence Davies, Yorgos Lanthimos, Derek Cianfrance —the list goes on.
In “Youth,” the follow-up to Sorrentino’s highly acclaimed “The Great Beauty,” Weisz plays Lena, the slightly spoiled daughter and assistant to her famous composer father Fred Ballinger (Caine). After her husband deserts her for another woman on their honeymoon, she retreats to the picturesque Swiss hotel where her father resides. Buried resentment toward Fred quickly boils up, most notably in a close-up, single-take monologue in a spa by Weisz.
“It was my first scene, and we shot it at 3:00am on a night shoot,” she explains at a recent press day in Los Angeles for the film. “And at about 2:55am, Paolo was like, ‘we do it in one shot.’ It was a surprise.” But alongside her views on period pieces and producing, Weisz clearly okay with surprises —the place where our conversation begins.
Are you used to spontaneity when making films?
I love it. I’m not used to it, but sometimes people want to analyze things and I much prefer not to. Actually, Michael [Caine] works in that way too. He prefers to just do it, and then in-between takes talk about other things, let off steam and chat. Keep your energy up and dive in again.
Were you at home starring in Derek Cianfrance’s newest film [“The Light Between Oceans”]?
Oh, yeah, I loved it. There’s a scene —I don’t think it ended up being in the movie— where I visit Michael Fassbender‘s character in a jail. Normally, you’d see the set and the director would tell you where to go in. But Derek said “just go in.” I didn’t know where I was going, but neither did my character. He’s very different from anyone I’ve ever worked with, in that he’s really interested in the reality of the situation.
How did you get involved with that film?
Derek just offered me the part. He and I had met some years ago —we were actually going to do “Blue Valentine” together, actually. It was going to be Jeremy Renner and myself, but that didn’t end up working out.
Have you seen it?
I’ve seen an edit before the final edit, so I don’t know which bits ended up in there, but I’ve seen it, more or less.
How do you feel now that you’ve started producing your own material? [Weisz produced the recent British drama “Radiator”]
I’m so excited! I’m loving it. People started asking me about ten years ago if I wanted to produce and I did, but I just didn’t know what I was interested in. The great thing about experience is that I know now. In “Radiator,” there was no part for me, but I just read it and I thought it was a good companion piece to “Youth” —it’s from the POV of a middle aged man whose parents are elderly and dying. But it’s funny, dark and really moving. Some reviewers called it the “English ‘Amour.’ It was made for a microbudget £100,000 —it was a pure passion project.
What are you currently working on?
There’s a bunch. There’s a book called “Disobedience” by Naomi Alderman, which is a love story set in North London in the Jewish Orthodox Community. It’s a part of English culture that not many people know about, because that community keep themselves. Did you see a Chilean film called “Gloria”? The director of that film, Sebastián Lelio, is writing and directing it, and we’ve probably got one more draft to go before shooting next year. I’m loving working with writers, finding material and going through drafts. I’m not a writer, but I think I know how to develop.
I read that you trained early on with the master clown Philippe Gaulier; did that factor into your performance in “The Lobster”?
Completely! That was tonally from the world of the theatre company I was in during college. In fact, I’d say [Phillipe’s] work didn’t help me with anything on film until “The Lobster.” It informed the avant-garde theatre company I was in before that, which was funny, dark and quite violent physically, but I had to put it on the back shelf until Yorgos came along.
You’re starring in his next film [“The Favorite”], a period piece set in the 17th century —how do you prepare for a role like that?
Oh god, I don’t quite know yet! We haven’t started. I think it’s the director’s job to create the tone of the world, like in [Terence Davies’] “The Deep Blue Sea” I didn’t live through the 1950s, and I don’t really know how to create a sense of period. I just know how to be a flesh and blood person. I felt with Terence that his oppression was like the ‘50s patriarchy, like I was stuck and couldn’t move. It was great, but I didn’t feel modern and free like you and I chatting right now. We could be in an American indie film right now, all loosy goosey. There was no “loosy goosey” with Terence. There were boundaries and rules, and I think that made the love story more devastating.
How did the last project you worked on affect you in that way?
I just did this film over the summer that James Marsh directed, which is set in 1968 and is based on a true story. It doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s about Donald Crowhurst, who sailed around the world. It’s about him and his wife Clare, who I play, and there’s a lot of archival footage of her; the BBC also made a documentary about them and their children while he was away sailing.
1968 is not that long ago, but it was a very different time. Feminism hadn’t happened to Clare at all. She was a mum and her life was her husband. So I had all this amazing footage of Clare, which was a huge gift. James is very meticulous about details —I’ve seen stills from the film, and it looks like it was made in the ’60s and is really beautiful. So that project was getting into the spirit of a woman who was not modern, and even though you see her alone, she’s putting on a performance because she’s being interviewed. So it wasn’t “private time,” but I still got a good sense of her.
What did you gather?
She had a very swift, very diplomatic mind. She was charming in a way and very reserved. And then there’s one incredible moment in the footage where she hears that he’s alive and he’s going to be back. Actually, he ends up dying, but at that point she thinks that everything’s going to be alright. And her joy in this moment just bursts through her reserve, and in that moment of elation you see her spirit. It’s a very beautiful piece of footage, especially when you know that her husband’s not going to live.
It’s an incredible story —I also wanted to work with James and Colin Firth— and in the doing of it, I began to realize how deep it was. It’s about love, and about the idea that if you love someone, you have to let them live their dreams, even if it might be dangerous for them. You can’t stop someone, because they might resent you for the rest of their lives if you don’t.
“Youth” opens in theatres on December 4th.