Audiences haven’t seen Rachel Weisz since 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful (which was also, funnily enough, the last time we interviewed her). But that doesn’t mean she took a vacation. The Oscar-winning actress has been acting left and right, and she has a half dozen films slated to come out in the next year or two. What did YOU do last year? Yeah, that’s what we thought.
First up for Rachel Weisz is the grand new feature Youth, directed by recent Oscar-winner Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty). The film takes place at a lavish European hotel and spa, where many of the world’s greatest artists come to recuperate and ponder the meaning of existence. Michael Caine plays a retired composer, and Rachel Weisz plays his daughter, who over the course of the film separates from her husband after he has an affair.
Weisz gives an incredible, emotional and complex performance in Youth, which seems very likely to wind up on our upcoming list of the best motion pictures of the year. I talked to the actress over the phone, while I was recovering from knee surgery, and she was polite enough not to mention how groggy I must have sounded.
Youth is now playing in select theaters.
Crave: I have to ask, are there really hotels like this where famous and talented people hang out and figure out life’s great mysteries?
Rachel Weisz: [Laughs.] I don’t know what kind of people frequent the hotels, but there are a lot of hotels like that. There are spas that have doctors in them. Did you see SPECTRE?
There’s a spa like that, right? Where you can even have therapy, psychoanalysis, right? From a doctor. [Laughs.] Yeah, there are spas where people go and get medical treatments in Switzerland, definitely. Yes, they exist.
I guess my thing was, it just sounds like a great to figure out your entire past and figure out the ineffability of existence.
It seems like a good place to do that, right? Yeah, it’s almost like being in a daydream or something. Yeah, I agree.
“I think all direction is tone control, and very often that’s why a movie doesn’t work. If the director doesn’t handle the tone then it goes off the rails.”
How does Paolo Sorrentino capture that sort of daydream quality on a set?
I know exactly you mean and I don’t know how a director does that. I don’t know how they create that kind of tone. Paolo creates a very, very unique… I think all direction is tone control, and very often that’s why a movie doesn’t work. If the director doesn’t handle the tone then it goes off the rails. I think Paolo creates a very, very, very unique tone. Yeah, I have no idea how he does it. It’s a total mystery to me. It may be a mystery to him as well, some kind of great, creative power. I don’t know.
What sort of conversations did you have with him about your character before you began?
Absolutely no, we never discussed anything. We never rehearsed. There was no discussion, no analysis, there was nothing.
Do you like working that way?
I do actually, yeah. I really do. It’s very surprising and very… yeah, it’s like being pushed into a deep end. I love it.
For me, the most incredible moment in the movie is when you’re lying there with Michael Caine and you unload all of your baggage about him as a father. So that’s all just coming from you, no master plan behind it, just you unloading emotionally?
Yeah, that’s just me saying the words. In fact that was the first scene I shot. It was the first scene of shooting for me, it was 3am, and Paolo said at five minutes to three, “Oh, we will do this in one take.” And that’s a really big deal. Three pages of dialogue. I was like, “Okayyy!” and he just covered me in mud, I laid down, they put the camera above my head and I just surfed the wave of emotion. Yeah.
What goes through your head in that sort of scene?
Blind fear. It’s pretty scary for an actor. You’re pretty exposed because normally a performance is created in the edit suite from the best moments in each take. But it was more like a piece of theater. I talked for, I don’t know, is it three minutes? It’s a long time without being cut away from. So it was, yeah, it was on my shoulders. [It was] terrifying but also exhilarating, really exhilarating.
What’s also interesting about that scene is that you’re talking to Michael Caine but you’re not looking at it. It seems like he can’t really give you anything.
Was he even there?
Yeah, yeah. He was lying next to me. He was very sweet. He stayed the whole time. He was there, I knew he was there and he knew I was really mad at him. [Laughs.]
When you’re on a production like this, is your downtime a lot like the movie itself? Just hanging out with the coolest people?
Well yeah, it was! I’d never met or worked with Paul Dano and Jane Fonda and Harvey Keitel. Harvey Keitel has given some of my favorite screen performances. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and The Piano, he gives two of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen.
Do you probe him for anecdotes like someone like me would? Or is it not like that?
[Thinks.] Michael you don’t have to probe for anecdotes. He’s one of the great raconteurs. You sit down next to him, he has just incredible stories. He’s endlessly, endlessly interesting and just the way he thinks about things is very real. And he’s very present. It was very, very easy to fall completely in love with him as a dad. I just absolutely adored him. And Harvey is more mysterious, you know? Harvey is very mysterious. He’s wonderful. I got to do a scene with him. He’s great. He’s a great, wonderful actor.
What about you in those situations? Are you like, “I have to tell you about this Bourne movie I did” or do you keep to yourself in those moments?
When I’m with people like Harvey and Michael and Jane, no, I’m in deferent to their experience. I want to hear about them. I know what I’ve done. It’s boring to me. I’m much more interested in them, you know?
“I love working with actors but I’m not a director. I’m an actor-producer.”
It doesn’t seem boring from the outside. You’re in a lot of incredible movies.
Oh, of course, of course but I’ve done them so it’s just… I don’t know. I’m much more interested in talking to other people. I’m not a good raconteur.
I think you’re doing just fine right now…
Oh well thank you very much.
What are you working on right now? What’s occupying your head space?
What am I working on right now? I’ve just got five movies in the can, actually. This is the first one to come out. There’s four coming out next year, and probably actually more, since I’m about to do another one that will come out next year too. So yeah, I’ve been working really hard and loving it.
I’ve also started producing. The first film I’ve produced, I’m not in this one, has just come out in England. It’s called Radiator. A good companion piece to Youth. The British press have called it “The British Amour,” the Michael Haneke film. It’s about an aging couple. It’s a very dark comedy from the point of view of their 40-year-old son. It’s a phenomenal film. So yeah, very busy producing, developing, acting, being a mom, being a wife. Life is good!
Have you thought about directing yet?
I did direct a short film with Joel Edgerton called The Thief, which is an eleven-minute film. You can watch it online if you’re interested. I love working with actors but I’m not a director. I’m an actor-producer.
Top Photo: Samir Hussein/WireImage
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.