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Film Rachel Weisz wants to see women’s ‘appetites’ in film storytelling

Rachel Weisz, who stars in The Lobster, is photographed during the Toronto International Film Festival last September.

Christopher Wahl/The Globe and Mail

When Rachel Weisz co-starred in About a Boy, its filmmakers Chris and Paul Weitz had a tradition: Every time they changed a reel, they'd do 20 push-ups. In all the reels they changed on all their films, the only person ever to do the push-ups with them was Weisz. "That's Rachel," Paul Weitz told me. "To have her incredible emotional facility, yet be a regular Joe, and be game for everything."

Weisz's gameness was crucial on her new film, The Lobster. Written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (the Oscar-nominated director of 2009's Dogtooth), The Lobster is tough to describe – and that's its allure. Set in a world that looks like ours but operates under different rules, it revolves around David (Colin Farrell), who's under pressure to conform. Instead, he joins the rebels (including Weisz) – only to realize their rules are equally rigid. "Yorgos is tackling ways of thinking and being, of finding a true self in the world," Weisz said during an interview at September's Toronto International Film Festival.

The film's plot is inextricable from its tone, which I'd call funny, deadpan and absurdist, though Lanthimos hates those (and all) labels. "I'm just trying to make my actors be as present and vulnerable as they can be," he says in a separate interview. "Just put themselves in the scenes, and figure it out practically. Not have something in their minds they're trying to achieve." So I'll just say the film's self-seriousness reflects (and skewers) our own. (The Lobster opens in select cities on Friday.)

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Because they shot near-chronologically, Weisz arrived on the set in Ireland about halfway through. (Farrell pulled her aside and whispered, "I don't know how to explain what we're doing here, but I've never had so much fun.") In her first scene, her character asks Farrell's for a rabbit. "Bring me a rabbit. That's what I want, I want a rabbit." Lanthimos didn't tell her how he wanted her to say it, or indeed anything about her character. He simply said, "Do it again," calmly, over and over.

"I said it 10 times," Weisz recalls. "Until I found the sense that I meant it. I wasn't showing that I meant it. I just meant it. I wanted a rabbit."

She says it with such authority, I want to bring her one now. Weisz, 46, is arrestingly beautiful, wearing the kind of chic dress one longs for but can never find, and I've seen her be playful, warm and funny. But she has a stillness about her, a formidable intelligence, and a way of regarding you for a beat when you've asked a dull question, that forces you to up your game around her. You can ask about her marriage (since 2011) to the actor Daniel Craig, but she'll merely gaze at you, with something like pity.

"It would be a betrayal," she says, finally. "Marriage is a private thing. You have to protect it." She laughs. "That's one of the great pleasures of not being adolescent any more. You don't have to share everything." (Incidentally, Betrayal is also the Harold Pinter play she and Craig did together in New York.)

"There's a restraint about Rachel, which I think is a fantastic quality on film," says Ralph Fiennes, who co-starred with her in The Constant Gardener, for which she won an Oscar in 2006. "I think people feel her sensuousness and her keen intelligence in everything she does. But you wouldn't call her light and frothy."

"To look the way Rachel does, with her intellect, and her extraordinary versatility as an actress, it's a lethal combination," says Colin Firth, who plays her husband in the upcoming sailing drama Deep Water. "The disarming thing is that she doesn't seem to lean on any of those things. If everyone is getting too earnest, she's the one who'll subvert it." He sighs. "Listen, she's an actress, she surely must be neurotic. But she hides it incredibly well."

As a child in suburban London, Weisz was happiest riding bicycles and climbing trees, hair uncombed, socks mismatched. Her father, an engineer, is Hungarian; her mother, a psychoanalyst, hailed from Vienna. "They're central European, so they're much more expressive and demonstrative than a typical English person," she says. "Tennessee Williams in North London would be about the tone." They divorced when she was a teenager. At Cambridge University, Weisz was "the belle of the ball," according to Chris Weitz, who also attended.

Hollywood welcomed her as a girlfriend du jour (in, say, The Mummy franchise), but Weisz wanted more – even if that meant working less. "I got bored of doing certain kinds of roles, but maybe those roles got bored of me, too," she says. "People want 'likeable' women, but it's hard to like someone who's just being sweet. You want a real person, who irritates you, mystifies you, eludes you, makes you cry, makes you laugh. You want everything from a character, from a story. 'Likeability' is code for 'shut up and look nice.'"

Two years ago, Weisz realized "it's boring to complain there aren't good roles for women. Just go and find some." So she's developing a half-dozen, including Bootstrapper, the memoir of a Midwestern woman trying to save her house, which Weisz calls "Into the Wild, but at home."

Her focus is "women who have a drive or appetite," she continues. "That's what's sorely missing in contemporary films. In the sixties and seventies women had appetite. Cassavetes comes to mind, Gena Rowlands's parts. What I love about them, they're not exemplary, they're human beings with flaws and foibles, but full of life force.

"Women's appetites got taken out of narratives," she adds, then laughs. "Perhaps because men are mainly in charge of the storytelling, they took away women's scary bits."

Working with auteurs such as Paolo Sorrentino (Youth) is part of Weisz's plan – "someone whose sensibility is in every bit of digital celluloid" – so after seeing Dogtooth, she phoned Lanthimos and asked to meet. He was writing The Lobster, and e-mailed her the script. But she turned it down: She couldn't get a handle on her character, and he didn't try to persuade her.

On Christmas holiday with her family (she and Craig each have a child from former relationships), however, "I started daydreaming about rabbits," she says, smiling, and called Lanthimos back. "I had to surrender my sense that I didn't understand her. I understood her by playing her."

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Lanthimos praises Weisz's ability to "make whatever's going on much more complex," he says. He's particularly fond of the scene where she visits David's parents: "It's a joy to see Rachel lose herself in the situation. There were possibilities for the scene to go any direction, and we took them. She's brilliant in it, funny and completely unpredictable. It's a perfect example of why I don't discuss things with actors. I want to see it and feel it. I don't want to know how she's doing it."

Weisz understands that, because she's that way, too. "I'm sorry I wasn't more forthcoming," she says as we part. "But everything I've said is true. I don't know how to do the other thing."

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