‘I’m really just a storyteller,’ says Rachel Weisz as she helps bring the tale of the world’s first woman rabbi to the screen. By Etan Smallman
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RACHEL Weisz still scoffs at the one description that seems almost compulsory in any article about her: the English rose with the porcelain complexion. One interviewer even appended the words with ‘© every Weisz profile, ever’.
The irony of the constant cliché, she explains, is that her heritage lies far from leafy Hampstead Garden Suburb, the north London idyll where she was raised, or Cambridge and the English private schools where she was educated.
‘Both my parents were refugees and, yeah, in many ways, it defines who a person is,’ she says. ‘My sister and I are first-generation English, so we grew up as English, but really we weren’t.’ When I mention the floral epithet, she bursts out laughing. ‘It’s hysterical. And I’ve got no rose in me! English roses: aren’t they blonde with pink cheeks? But listen, I’m very flattered to be called that. I’m a Hungarian English rose.’
Tragically, I’m denied a vision of the acclaimed ‘onyx eyes’ and ‘raven mane’ that have enchanted millions. The 44-year-old has just flown into Switzerland to play a role in Paolo Sorrentino’s new film, Youth, after jetting between the New York home she shares with husband Daniel Craig and Dublin, where she is acting alongside Colin Farrell in The Lobster. Her packed schedule means I’m relegated to a phone call in between scenes, as she nurses a cold.
Weisz is discussing her ancestry because she has taken on her most personal role to date, giving voice to the world’s first woman rabbi in Regina, a ‘poetic documentary’ produced by her father.
The film tells the story of Regina Jonas, who was born in Berlin in 1902, eventually ordained in 1935 and murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. There is only one surviving photograph of Jonas. The documentary features archive footage and music from the era, while a lyrical and haunting voiceover by Weisz fills in the gaps.
In her only interview about the film, the mother-of-one says that, to her, being Jewish is ‘a cultural, historical connection’. But it wasn’t the religion of the woman she describes as ‘the most significant female figure in 20th-century Judaism’ with which she identified.
‘There are so many places in the world where women can’t do what should just be their natural right to do. It’s not something that died out in the 1940s. If I turn on the news today, there are girls in Nigeria being told they shouldn’t be educated.
‘Regina’s very lost and forgotten,’ Weisz says of the woman who was completely unknown until documents about her life came to light after the fall of the Berlin Wall. ‘ And it makes you wonder: how many other women have done something extraordinary and we don’t know about them?’ Does she think this story feeds into the ongoing row over allowing female bishops in the Church of England?
‘Oh, is there? I thought they decided you could have them now,’ she says, before adding: ‘Absolutely! Completely! How could it not feed into that story?’ A day earlier, Weisz’s father told me: ‘Rachel feels that her acting should serve some purpose – that’s how I brought my children up.’ Is that why she acts?
‘Oh Lord. I have no idea what he’s talking about. He’s my dad being very nice. You know, that’s a silly thing for him to say,’ the Oscar winner responds, citing the likes of The Mummy and Keanu Reeves flick Constantine as evidence. ‘I’m not a snob about film or theatre.
I’m not on any kind of crusade with my work. Story-making is just a really beautiful part of being a human. But I wouldn’t call it changing the world. I’m really just a storyteller.’ Weisz, who adds that Americans still fail to pronounce her name properly, has to rush off back to set. But she calls back ten minutes later.
‘It’s been niggling me,’ she says between sniffles. ‘When you asked: “What do you miss about England?”, and I said PG Tips and Marmite. That’s not what I miss. I miss everything. I miss British television, British conversation, British people,’ she says urgently, perhaps keen to reassure us we haven’t completely lost her to Hollywood.
‘And if I said I don’t think I look like an English rose, I, I’m English – it doesn’t matter what you look like. I feel very, very English. I was just walking to set in Switzerland, and I thought, ooh, I don’t know if I explained that. Just wanted to make that very clear – I was born in Britain and I’m British. That’s my identity. That’s what I am.’
- Regina is being shown at JW3 in Finchley Road, London, tonight, followed by a discussion with its director. Additional screenings until May 28. http://www.jw3.org.uk