Life & Culture

'No denying my heritage' Stephen Applebaum interviews Rachel Weisz

The star of Denial talks about her life, her first Jewish role and resisting pressure to change her surname


A pin stuck blindly into a list of  Rachel Weisz’s film roles could alight on an adventurous librarian, a heartbroken mother, a murdered human rights activist, a Russian soldier caught in a love triangle during the siege of Stalingrad, a terminally-ill wife, or even a philosopher in ancient Greece, among many other possibilities. However, none of the characters would be Jewish. 

At least not until now, and Weisz’s latest role as the real-life American professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies, Deborah Lipstadt, in Denial, some twenty-one years after Weisz made her Hollywood debut in the action-thriller Chain Reaction, opposite Keanu Reeves.

“As far as I know [it’s my first Jewish character],” the Oscar-winning actress tells me during press duties in New York. “It’s just not something I’ve ever thought about, to be honest. I mean being an actor is using your imagination to be all sorts of different things.” 




Although she ignored an American agent’s advice to change her surname when she was 19, Weisz’s description of herself as a “Jew in disguise,” in a 2001 interview, accurately reflects her Hollywood experience. It certainly wasn’t Jewish characters that the raven-haired, dark-eyed Cambridge University alumnus found herself being pushed towards, when she first went over to LA to work.

“It’s funny,” she says, “because when I started out, and I was sent up in Hollywood, in my 20s, I was sent up for Hispanic parts. I used to go up against Salma Hayek — she beat me to them — playing, like, Mexican or Latino characters.

“I was considered aesthetically exotic, and those were all the roles I went up for. Obviously times have changed politically and that would be not okay [today]. But that’s what did happen to me in the 90s.” 

She also remembers going through a phase of being regarded “as a kind of English Rose, whatever that might be,” and getting “cast in a kind of certain English way”. “So, you know, it’s a strange thing,” Weisz muses. “Who you are and who your identity is, and the characters you play, are very different things.”

While some aren’t as lucky in Hollywood, Weisz never  felt as though she’d been put into a box that she might not be able to escape from because of perceptions created by her appearance or background. Even the name change was probably only suggested early on because Weisz is “very hard to pronounce,” she claims. (For the record, it’s  “Vice.”) 

“In America, they say ‘Weiss’, ‘Wise’, ‘Wooz’, ‘Waz’. I would still love to change the w to a v, so people say it right. I’m childish about it,” she admits, laughing, “I want Veisz!” 

If there is a potentially limiting factor, or something that has to be struggled against, it is attitudes about her gender. “I think just being a woman is constricting enough,” Weisz opines. “Being female — it’s a hard box to break out of. You know what I mean?”

Gender inequality in Hollywood is a hot topic, with more and more high-profile actresses speaking out on issues such as unequal pay, ageism, and the shortage of complex and challenging leading roles for women. Weisz seems slightly bored by it all, though. 

“It’s a kind of tired conversation,” she grumbles, referring, in particular, to the question of roles. “I mean, everyone’s talking about it. We all know it’s so.” Nevertheless, she isn’t indifferent to the subject, and notes that, “pre feminism, bizarrely,” the likes of Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn “were kind of fierce and feisty, and [now] things have changed a lot, I think, in mainstream Hollywood, with what women are allowed to do. But then there’s this incredible world of television drama, where there are extraordinary roles written for both sexes.”

Weisz is doing her bit by buying up the rights to novels in order to create juicy and interesting parts for herself and other actors. It isn’t a direct reaction to the male dominance of the industry, although she notes that she will be producing (alongside Trudie Styler and Celine Rattray) and starring in the true story of the 19th century doctor James Miranda Barry, “who disguises herself as a man. That’s a definite prod.” 

She will also be doing double duty on an adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s controversial novel Disobedience. The lesbian love story is set within the North London Orthodox Jewish community, and I ask Weisz if this is a world she knows much about.  

“Not really,” she says. “Obviously I’ve driven by. I grew up in Golders Green [the Hampstead Garden Suburb side], so I’m aware of it. But it’s a very private world and you’d have to be part of it or know someone in it. I don’t know anybody inside of it.”

Questioned about her own Jewish background, the famously private actress pauses for a few seconds, and then, sounding slightly discomfited, says, “I definitely grew up culturally Jewish. We did Friday night. I didn’t go to Jewish school, so I sang hymns and Christmas carols. But, yeah, culturally I grew up Jewish.” 

Her father, George, a mechanical engineer/inventor, and mother, Edith Ruth, a teacher-turned-psychotherapist, were refugees from Hungary and Austria, respectively, who’d fled the Nazis on the eve of war. They came to England when they were very young, but never forgot their roots. How did their experience affect Weisz? Another brief silence, then a sigh. 

“They’re just not English, for starters,” she says. “They come from somewhere else. They’re bringing a different culture. Even though they were children, the food, the sensibilities were very middle/east European. So being at home, it was different than going round to the parents of [friends]. I felt they were different.”

And because they were refugees, “I think the main thing that I grew up feeling, really,” Weisz adds, warmly, “was they both feel huge gratitude to England for taking them and their families in. And feel like England saved them.” 

The truth about what they were saved from is what Lipstadt was forced to defend when the historian and Hitler apologist David Irving filed a libel suit against her in Britain, in 1996, over her description of him as a “dangerous spokesperson” for Holocaust denial, in her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. The trial ran from January 11 to April 11, 2000, and Lipstadt won. 

The happy fact that Irving lost and truth triumphed makes Denial’s retelling of the case all the more timely and urgent in an era where lies and opinion are dangerously gaining traction in the political and public spheres. The film’s screenwriter, David Hare, “talks a lot about how ... it was inspired by Trump and his lack of respect for the truth,” says Weisz, who voted ‘remain’ in the  Brexit referendum, “and how we’re now living in this kind of relativist, what they’re now calling post-truth, world, and everything is up for grabs. Even things that we know should not be debated or contested, like the Holocaust, like global warming. 

“These are very different things,” she continues, “but basically there’s nothing now that’s sacredly true. And I think that’s what David was fascinated by. And it’s a very bizarre court case and a very bizarre trial. That this should have happened is pretty incredible, isn’t it?”

And yet two decades after the trial, the fact of the Holocaust is coming under ever increasing attack, especially on US-owned social media platforms, which teem with anonymous David Irving types. 

“In America there’s freedom of speech, so you’re allowed to say whatever you want,” says Weisz,who lives in New York with her husband, the actor Daniel Craig, and has one child, Henry, from her previous relationship with director Darren Aronofsky. “You can shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre. But best to get the bigots and the racists out in the open than have them fester in secret. I think that’s probably what freedom of speech does. I think it’s quite smart, in a way.”

Which isn’t to say that she thinks hateful speech and corrosively bigoted attitudes shouldn’t be challenged, of course. If people take anything away from Denial, she hopes it’s the idea that “there are some things that are true and are not up for debate”. She’d also be happy if the film “inspired a young person to stand up and say, ‘Hey, that’s not okay,’ when you hear, like, casual racism. Because words are very powerful and even casual racism is dangerous.”

And currently we’re seeing a lot of overt, not just casual, racism, I suggest.

“We sure are,” agrees Weisz. “I don’t think David Hare realised quite how prescient this story would become. The analogies between Irving and Trump are very, very strong. And he intended them to be, not knowing that it would have this ending.”

Denial opens on January 27th

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