In order to really get Rachel Weisz, you have to know a few things about her and understand her answer to one simple question.
The few things: She has eyes that lock onto you and demand that you not bullshit her. She has two loves—superstar husband Daniel Craig and a nine-year-old son, Henry, from her former relationship with director Darren Aronofsky. She has a knack for picking juicy roles, from her Oscar-winning turn as an activist who gets murdered in 2005’s The Constant Gardener to Michael Caine’s unhappy daughter in the new film Youth. She seemingly has limitless career choices.
The question: “How are you feeling about this time of life?”
The answer: “Well,” Weisz, 45, replies, smiling broadly, “everybody’s aging, and we’re all going to die.” You hear her earthy, conspiratorial chuckle, and instantly you see that hers is the only possible true answer; any other is cowardly or pointless.
“Getting older, there’s a reality about mortality,” she continues. “But it’s hard to be young, too. It’s hard to not know who you are. My twenties were painful at times. Now I have wisdom and experience—I know what interests me in a way I didn’t before. I’m much more focused on what matters to me. I waste less time. There’s a huge relief in that.”
No wonder Weisz’s colleagues describe her as both terribly intimidating and a terrific hang. “She’s focused, concentrated,” says Ralph Fiennes, her costar in The Constant Gardener. “You feel her keen intelligence. You wouldn’t call her light and frothy.” He laughs. “But after half an hour with her, you can open up to her, you can tell her things.”
“Rachel has just about everything going for her,” says Colin Firth, who stars opposite Weisz in an as-yet-untitled biopic about doomed British yachtsman Donald Crowhurst. “The remarkable thing is, she doesn’t flaunt her intellect. If she knows she’s beautiful, you don’t get a sense of that either. So that’s disarming.” He mock-sighs. “Listen, she’s an actor; she surely must be neurotic. But she hides it incredibly well.”
“The thing about Rachel is, you always have a laugh,” says Michael Caine. “We did one scene where she had a long close-up in a sauna, lying down, covered in mud. It was about five pages of dialogue, and she did it straight off. [And though the speech was sad] it was funny, lying there with each other. We just kept laughing.”
Writer-directors Chris and Paul Weitz, with whom Weisz made About a Boy, had a tradition back in the predigital days when they shot on film: Every time they changed a reel, they dropped to the floor and did 20 push-ups. “The only person who ever did the push-ups with us, actors or crew, was Rachel,” Paul says. “I think that’s indicative of something. She has incredible emotional facility, yet she’s a regular Joe. She has a perverse sense of humor that’s extremely enjoyable. She’s game for everything.”
Weisz is a born iconoclast. Growing up in London, she was a tomboy, forever atop the tallest tree or fastest bike. “I wouldn’t let my mum brush my hair,” she says. “My agent in England was a year above me at school, and she remembers that my socks never matched and my hair was wild.”
Both her parents’ families fled to England to escape the threat of the Nazis: Her mother, Edith, a teacher and psychotherapist, was originally from Vienna; and her father, George, a mechanical engineer who invented an artificial respirator, was born in Hungary. She describes them as brilliant, original. Her father was always taking apart something, such as their washing machine. “He finds incredible beauty in industrial design,” Weisz says. “He would say that I’m exactly like him.” She drops into his thick Hungarian accent, which she says he never lost: “Ah, my daughter, she looks exactly like me.” She calls her mother, who as a girl in Cambridgeshire gave American GIs lessons in German and French, “intellectually provocative. She’s cheeky.