Rachel Weisz has strong feelings about makers of queer films discussing their work with queer media. To not do so, she says, would be “ridiculous and wrong and unthinkable.”
As producer and star of Disobedience, a tale of forbidden love between women, Weisz is definitely talking to LGBTQ media. The 48-year-old British actress had been on a quest to tell more female-centric stories, which led her to an array of feminist books, including Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel. She optioned the film rights to Disobedience, then found her director: Sebastián Lelio, the Chilean filmmaker behind 2013’s Gloria and A Fantastic Woman, the 2018 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film.
In Disobedience, Weisz portrays Ronit, a lapsed Jew now living as a photographer in New York City who returns to the Orthodox Jewish London enclave she grew up in to attend her rabbi father’s funeral. There, her childhood friend and lover Esti (Rachel McAdams), now married to Ronit’s father’s protégé Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), is emboldened by her rekindled passion for Ronit to pursue her own path to self-discovery and, ultimately, religious freedom.
Weisz — known for her roles in About a Boy and The Constant Gardener, which won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2006 — has further feminist ambitions: She’ll play a queer woman in the upcoming historical drama The Favourite before portraying British military surgeon Dr. James Barry, a 19th-century woman born Margaret Ann Bulkley, who disguised herself as a man to become a doctor.
Can you just produce queer stories for the rest of your career?
Yes, please. Do you have any books to point me toward?
I think you’re probably up on lesbian lit more than I am. I hear you got deep into it.
I read a few books.
The team behind Call Me By Your Name did almost no LGBTQ media. But you’ve been everywhere talking about Disobedience: mainstream press, queer press. I feel like some marketers think we’re living in a time when gay is mainstream, so niche media sometimes get overlooked. So, thank you for not overlooking us. As a producer, why is it important to reach out to queer media with a film like Disobedience?
If you’re queer, your subjectivity is not in the margins — it’s front and center for the life you’re leading. But mainstream stories have pushed queer stories into the margins — and I think that’s what’s so wonderful about Sebastián.
His film [Gloria] before A Fantastic Woman wasn’t a queer story, but it was about a 58-year-old woman’s dating life and her sex life — again, something that in storytelling is not front and center. A Fantastic Woman was about the experience of a trans woman. And this film is about two queer women struggling to be free to love who they want to love. So, I’ve gotta say, hats off to Sebastián. He does the opposite of objectifying things; he subjectivizes things.
And yeah, in terms of speaking to queer outlets? It’s essential. How could we make this film and then push you into the margins? That would be ridiculous and wrong and unthinkable.
What measures did you take to avoid falling into the male-fantasy trap that so many lesbian films end up in?
I can’t claim that I did anything apart from entrust[ing] myself to Sebastián’s point of view. I knew he doesn’t objectify women or men, or anybody. He has empathy, and he makes [characters] into real people. Rachel McAdams and I just trusted him.
The male gaze doesn’t always have to be objectifying. [Sebastián’s] point of view on how these women desire each other, I find it beautiful. He’s the auteur. He authored the whole film, and the story; I can’t claim anything apart from being clever enough to trust him. [Laughs.]
Some people felt the gaze in Blue is the Warmest Color, the critically acclaimed 2013 lesbian love story, was male and, therefore, problematic. Are there any problematic lesbian or queer films you’d seen prior to Disobedience that were on your mind while shooting?
No. I did see Blue is the Warmest Color, and I enjoyed it. Listen, just to see a woman loving a woman being represented was very exciting. I liked the film very much.
But no — I didn’t have a “To Do or Not to Do” list, and I certainly didn’t research lesbian films. I looked into my heart and how I love this person. It was very emotional and vulnerable, full of yearning. I didn’t have any other references in my mind. I don’t believe Rachel McAdams did either. We certainly never talked about it. I just loved this person, this woman.
What parts of yourself did you tap into for a role that centers on same-sex desire?
It doesn’t feel any different. It felt different in that it’s softer and more vulnerable. That might not be true with all women, but certainly with Esti it was. [Our characters] had been childhood friends and we’d known each other. We had a huge history and we were in love. She was my first love, and yeah, it felt like love. I didn’t have to open a different door in my brain; she’s just the person I loved. So, I didn’t really think of it in those terms.
Let’s talk about how liberating their sex scene is: Do you hope it might influence other queer people who feel pressure to live an inauthentic life?
I hope this film is inspiring to anyone who feels like they’re not free to love who they want to love. We’re saying that love can be an act of defiance, and sometimes one has to be disobedient to the social norms around us. To be free, sometimes it costs a lot; it’s not always easy.
So, I’m not going to glibly say, “Just do it.” It’s hard. It’s really hard. But I hope the film is inspiring, but also realistic. It shows the incredible struggle that Esti goes through with her sexual identity. I hope it will inspire people.
Prior to Disobedience, what’s the closest you’d come to playing a lesbian character?
I’ve never played a queer character at all.
Have scripts come your way and you’ve turned them down?
Oh, great question! I’ve been offered very few. Maybe there are more being written now, but in my career, I think I was offered once a script about a straight woman who had an affair [with a woman], but the story didn’t — I mean, I loved the politics of it and the queerness of it, but the story wasn’t quite deep enough, somehow. But I would love to play more queer women. So, yeah, anyone who has any ideas…
Aren’t you playing actress Olivia Colman’s lover in the period drama, The Favourite?
Oh yeah, in my next film. She’s a married woman, but she’s also my lover and confidant and best friend and adviser, and really is actually running England. [Laughs.] Or so she thinks. But yeah, they’re lovers. They’ve been lovers for years.
Before all these queer-oriented roles, you played the Wicked Witch of the East in Oz the Great and Powerful. What do you think that did for your gay following?
I didn’t know it did anything for a gay following! I’d love for that to be true. Is that true?
It’s Oz, so I’d say so.
Oh, that’s fantastic! She’s a strong kind, yeah. That’s fabulous. Thank you. I actually wanted to play her like Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I thought she was kind of a man in drag. I felt like she was Frank-N-Furter, and I talked to [director] Sam Raimi, but he had never seen Rocky Horror.
Growing up with Jewish and Catholic parents, what were you taught to believe about the LGBTQ community?
My ma’s passed away now; she died in her 80s. And my dad is nearly 90. They had me in their 40s. They had gay friends — homosexual male friends — but I wouldn’t say they understood in the way that my generation understands queerness. I guess they were kind of sheltered, I would say.
How are you raising your 11-year-old son, Henry?
He is just of a generation where he’s kind of — [it’s as if] he’s colorblind. He just doesn’t think in categories. He thinks in a very free way, that people should just love who they love. He sees everyone as just part of the human race. He doesn’t really see difference at all, so that’s good.
You have another child on the way, with your husband Daniel Craig. If one of your children came out to you one day as queer, how do you imagine you would respond?
I’d be very happy for anyone I know and love… to love whomever they want to love.