Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz has carved a career playing women of incredible spirit and intelligence, and with Lady Sarah Churchill in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, she adds to a roster of extraordinary characters that have made her one of Britain’s most beloved actresses.
Most recently, Weisz starred alongside Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola in Disobedience, Sebastian Lelio’s touching drama about forbidden love set in London’s Orthodox Jewish community, which she also produced. She also co-starred with Colin Firth in James Marsh’s The Mercy, which told the story of ill-fated amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst, who was lost at sea during his solo attempt to circumnavigate the globe.
Weisz won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2005 for her performance in The Constant Gardener, in which she played alongside Ralph Fiennes, and was Golden Globe nominated for her turn in Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea in 2012. Her other diverse credits include My Cousin Rachel, Denial, The Fountain and The Mummy.
The Favourite marks Weisz’s second film with director Yorgos Lanthimos, after The Lobster. In London to celebrate the London Film Festival premiere of the film, the 49-year-old actress and Mrs Daniel Craig explains her attraction to the role.
GRAZIA: It’s rare for a film to feature three lead women as complex as this. What did you make of it?
RACHEL WEISZ: It’s a very unusual thing, to have three women lead a film like this. What’s interesting is they’re in competition with each other, but there’s love, there’s envy, there’s rivalry. There’s a cliché in cinema of women being bitchy to one another, and this film plays with that, but it goes way beyond it, because what you discover is that there’s a real love story between the Queen and Lady Sarah. It’s not quite Casablanca, but there’s a real, real love there.
What I loved so much is that it dares to make women all things at all times. It’s probably very satisfying to watch Sarah and Abigail being bitchy, but then you add in this unusual mixture of other things, and when we’re all put together it breaks apart, and that makes it so exciting.
GRAZIA: Do you think Sarah underestimates Abigail when she introduces her to court?
RW: Oh, she totally underestimates her enemy. One of her tragic, fatal flaws is her vanity, and Abigail really flatters her. She becomes her protégé, and she thinks she can fashion Abigail in her own image. There’s real narcissism to that. She underestimates her because Abigail is as brilliant as she is, if not more. She treats her like an ingenue and, my God, she’s not. It’s even playing with the trope of what the ingenue is capable of; you think she’s this wide-eyed sweetie pie and actually she’s serious business.
GRAZIA: What do you make of Sarah’s relationship with Queen Anne?
RW: I think the Queen is very vulnerable and very fragile, and from my character’s point of view, she needs protecting. Sarah, meanwhile, is a hawk. She believes that to stay in power, you wage war, you show them your might through military force. The Queen is not sure if she’s a hawk or a dove or what she is. She may not be very well equipped to run a country, and she’s got good instincts, but Sarah can convince her of anything. She’s gotten used to Sarah running things so that she can get along with the daily pleasures of life.
GRAZIA: Did you know anything about this history?
RW: Nothing. I’ve heard of Queen Anne architecture, but I knew not a jot of the true history. I think what people are saying is that Anne has been misunderstood and misrepresented – possibly by male historians – but she had more nous and political savvy and strength than has been credited to her previously.
GRAZIA: How would you describe Yorgos’s approach as a director?
RW: I think he has an unusually powerful forceful, elaborate interesting imagination. It’s just all an active imagination. The Lobster and Dogtooth, they’re complete acts of imagination and set in a universe with totally different rules. When you make a Lanthimos film, I feel like you enter his imagination and he’s your guide but he doesn’t necessarily tell you where you’re going.
We have this script, which is an extraordinary road map and it explained everything. But there’s some alchemical thing that happens, because he directs meticulously but without any discussion or any analysis. Sometimes you feel like you’re a needle on a record and that he’s getting you into the groove of his record and you keep missing the groove and finally he’ll get you and you didn’t know that take was the one. You don’t know anything, so you’re on your instinct. I think he likes to get you to a place where you’re totally unconscious, which as an actor is a really attractive thing to be. As an actor, it’s really good to be unconscious. You’re not in control of what you’re doing.
I sometimes think that maybe when people talk about the deadpan thing, I think he would laugh. I think he might feel things very keenly. He can see sometimes what you’re feeling inside even if you didn’t know what it was. I think he is very sensitive.
GRAZIA: There are big moments – like the dance Sarah shares with Masham, or when Sarah is splattered with blood while out shooting. But amidst that are small moments of real humanity.
RW: Yes, absolutely, because these big characters are also real humans with real needs; even if it’s just to dance or eat cake, or have that cup of hot chocolate without worrying about the consequences. Queen Anne wants the hot chocolate. That’s very human. We can all relate to that hot chocolate we shouldn’t have had, can’t we? We have talked a lot about the high stakes decisions in this story, but it’s the really low stakes ones, like the hot chocolate, that bring across what it means to be human.
GRAZIA: You rehearsed with the whole cast, and Yorgos had you performing all sorts of trust exercises with one another. What did that process offer?
RW: I think it made everything second nature. What it gave us was this feeling that the language could become second nature, because he made us say it very quickly, or swap lines with one another, or say the lines while we were playing really silly games with each other. It stopped feeling like we were living inside a costume drama.
GRAZIA: You’d worked with Olivia Colman briefly on The Lobster. What did you make of her performance in The Favourite?
RW: It’s staggering. She can just walk that line between the absurd and the ridiculous and the extremely funny, and have pathos and tragedy at the same time. She can flip you from one to another in the course of a second. It’s an extraordinary gift she has, and so unique.
Multi-Award winning film, The Favourite is available on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital now.