My first gothic novel was Rebecca by Daphnedu Maurier, when I read it I had no idea that I would one day get the opportunity to interview the star of the film adaptation of one of her other beloved novels – My Cousin Rachel. I must admit that taking part in an interview with Rachel Weisz definitely topped some of my favorite blogging experiences ever. She’s been one of my favorite actresses since I first saw The Mummy as a kid. Since then I’ve loved so many of her other films, My Cousin Rachel being a new favorite.
A dark and layered romance, My Cousin Rachel tells the story of a young Englishman who plots revenge against his mysterious and beautiful cousin, believing that she murdered his guardian. His feelings become complicated as he finds himself falling helplessly and obsessively in love with her. The film stars Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Holliday Grainger, Ian Glen, and Pierfrancesco Favino.
The interview was conducted via telephone, as Rachel was in London to meet with the press on that side of the pond. She was incredibly lovely, and even though I haven’t yet met her in person I totally have already bragged to my friends and family about speaking to her. Here’s what she had to say about My Cousin Rachel:
Question: Did you decide in your own mind, whether Rachel was really poisoning Philip or did you keep it ambiguous and therefore be able to play it more ambiguously?
Rachel Weisz: No, I did decide as to whether she was guilty or innocent. But I kept it secret from the director, he didn’t want to know if I was one way or the other. But yes, I did make a definitive decision.
The NYC Talon: I really loved the movie and Daphne has written so many interesting, provocative female characters. What is it that drew you to the script initially, and what did you find most compelling about the story?
RW: I liked the tale of obsession, this dark obsession, the thriller aspect, the kind of gothic atmosphere, the mystery, the tale of infatuation, the kind of did she or didn’t she element, that it was a complex character, she had lots of contradictions and couldn’t be pinned down, the fact that, it seems to have turned out that audiences are arguing about her innocence or guilt, which I think is really interesting.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about what feminism, or what you think being a feminist would’ve meant to your character?
RW: Well, in the 1850s I think to believe in sexual freedom and the freedom of sexual pleasure and the idea that what you aren’t destined for is simply marriage and that marriage would mean ownership by your husband, I think that was very, very radical for the 1850s.
Q: So what does feminism mean to you, personally, now?
RW: That’s a good question. I suppose equal rights but maybe different rights, because women are the ones who give birth so we need different supports at work in order to leave work and return to work. Men who own companies were once given birth to by women so I hope that they can understand that. So equal but maybe different rights.
Q: Given all the mystery surrounding the character’s motive, first of all, who is Rachel to you and what qualities or traits would you say that you might share in common with the character and maybe where you differ?
RW: Well I guess how you see her, I mean it depends on whether she’s guilty or innocent. But if she’s innocent then, I mean either which way, I think she’s pretty independent, free-spirited, funny, provocative, mischievous, feminist, romantic, motherly, tender, angry.
Q: Do you share a lot of those or do you differ maybe a little bit from that character?
RW: I think I’m definitely mischievous. I’m feminist. I don’t speak Italian but I wish I did. I’m not in mourning. I’m not widowed. I’m likely not living in the 1850s, I get to vote. Yes, so I mean there are things that we share and things that we don’t.
Q: Did you have any influences from the original film, or maybe did you even—
RW: I didn’t watch it, actually. I deliberately didn’t watch it because I didn’t want to have Olivia de Havilland’s interpretation at the back of my mind anywhere. So I’m free from, it’s like a virgin interpretation.
Q: Did you read the book as part of your preparation for your role? And I’m guessing you were already familiar with Du Maurier’s writings and I know you said Heather’s adaptations [ph] on film. So, were you already a fan of the author? Do you enjoy doing book adaptations?
RW: No I hadn’t read the book and I haven’t read any by Du Maurier even though she’s a very celebrated British writer. I just haven’t read any of her. But I did read the novel in preparation for the film and I think Roger did a fabulous adaptation. I think he brought a lot of the 20th Century, I haven’t seen the original film but, I think this is a more modern, edgy take on the film classic. The novel definitely has those elements in it. She’s a pretty radical character.
Q: So do you enjoy doing book adaptations?
RW: I do, yes. About a Boy was an adaptation of a novel, Constant Gardener was an adaptation. I just made an adaptation of a novel, it hasn’t come out yet called Disobedience, which is a contemporary classic. You may not have heard of it, by Naomi Alderman. Yes, definitely, I love to do novel adaptions.
Q: Do you typically then, to prepare for the role, read the book?
RW: Yes. The great thing about a book is it’s not, everyone imagines the book differently so it’s not like a performance which is put down in a concrete way that you could just be haunted by, disturbed by when you’re trying to make your own version. So a book is open to interpretation and to do your own personal fantasy. So yes, I always read the books. It’s always great. It’s food, lots of food for thought.
Q: Can you talk about the changes that have happened in Hollywood in the 20 years that you’ve been in it?
RW: Well, I don’t know. I’m not sure. I think they were in some ways better but I haven’t seen the Olivia de Havilland version. But back in the 50s and 40s and 30s there were many more films that had leading female characters, pictured films about women, Barbara Stanwyck, Olivia de Havilland, Betty Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor. I mean it was just very normal to tell stories about women where men might’ve been not the center of the story.
I’m not a film historian so I don’t know. Maybe feminism happened and everyone got scared and they couldn’t handle women being so powerful in films. Because I think everything went pretty south there. I don’t know, in the course of my career, I don’t know. I just try and choose roles that are interesting and complicated and surprising. Yes, I’m not really aware of things changing for the better or for the worse but there are definitely less films being written by women for women, directed by women for women than there are by men for women. I’m not quite sure, I don’t have the statistics, but I’m not sure it’s that rosy.
Q: This one’s just a little bit fun, just because Game of Thrones is starting up soon. Are you a Game of Thrones fan for one, and did you try to get any secrets out of Iain for the upcoming season?
RW: I’m not actually. I haven’t watched enough of Game of Thrones to talk about it intelligently. I know it’s a great series and there are avid fans out there so I wouldn’t want to compete with them. But I know my horse had been trained on Game of Thrones so my horse would have some secrets to tell.
That’s it! Pretty awesome, isn’t it? The movie is absolutely excellent – one of my favorite parts about the story is that while (and this is spoiler-y, so skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen the movie, read the book, or Wikipedia searched the story) Rachel’s role is sort of enigmatic and mysterious, there is more certainty where Phillip is involved. We never quite know for certain whether or not Rachel is predator or victim, whether or not she killed the uncle or even poisoned Phillip or set out to get her hands on his money. She’s unusual for the times, which makes her unpredictable and sort of a threat. But that doesn’t make her a murderer. Rachel’s presence creates a perfect opportunity for the masculine Phillip, who was raised by an Uncle who once saw little use for females, to reveal his own thought patterns and expectations of femininity. When things go badly, Phillip sends Rachel directly into harms way – in effect making him at least partly responsible for what happens to Rachel.
If you haven’t yet seen My Cousin Rachel, it’s in theaters now – so definitely give this thrilling gothic work view!
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted over the phone with a group of other journalists/bloggers. All photos are courtesy of Fox Searchlight, by Nicola Dove. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.*