|Interview: Gardening Tips with Rachel Weisz
|by Peter Sobczynski
Some people may know British actress Rachel Weisz from her smart and sexy turns in small, serious films such as “The Shape of Things” and “Stealing Beauty.”Others may know her for her smart and sexy turns in such zillion-dollar behemoths as “Constantine” and “The Mummy” movies. Before long, I suspect that most people will wind up knowing her for her smart, sexy and startling turn in “The Constant Gardener,” Fernando Meirelles’s stunning adaptation of John Le Carre’s 2000 best-seller. In the film, she plays Tessa, an outspoken activist who is married to Justin, a quiet, by-the-book British diplomat played by Ralph Fiennes. While investigating sinister goings-on involving pharmaceutical testing in Kenya, Tessa is brutally murdered on a deserted road. Spurred by his grief, Justin begins to investigate Tessa’s death and discovers that she was on the trail of dirty deeds involving high levels members of the corporate and political world. At the same time, he also begins to uncover a clearer picture of the woman he was married to and, in a strange way, begins to fall in love with her all over again.
“The Constant Gardener” is a great and powerful movie and a great deal of the impact is due to the central performance by Weisz, a even greater accomplishment when you consider that her character is only seen though the memories of the other characters for nearly the entire running time. As intense and passionate as the character that she plays, Weisz recently sat down to discuss “The Constant Gardener,” her feelings towards the political and romantic aspects of the story and the challenges of going back and forth between big-budget epics and more intimate human dramas.
The relationship between Tessa and Justin in “The Constant Gardener” seems to be based somewhere between deception and a respect for each others private lives–so much so that it seems that Justin doesn’t really get to know his wife and what she stood for that well until he begins investigating the circumstances of her death.
I have been asked the question about why she doesn’t tell him what she is doing and the main reason is because she knows that her life is in danger. I don’t think she knows she is going to be murdered but she knows that she is dealing with dangerous people and she doesn’t want to endanger him. She respects his way of doing things–he believes in protocol and being diplomatic and going through proper channels and while she doesn’t do things like that, she respects his way of doing things. People keep saying that he only falls in love with her after she dies but I think they were truly in love before–you just meet them at a time when things are a bit tough.
Your character dies right at the beginning of the film. As a result, every time we see her, it is in a flashback and the audience is not seeing Tessa as much as how the person recounting the flashback is interpreting her. Does that kind of narrative approach make it more challenging for what you need to do as an actress to portray the character or is there not that much difference from playing in a more straightforward story?
There are definitely scenes that are set up in a way so that the audience will see her in a certain way–such as when it looks like she is being unfaithful–and they are written that way so Justin thinks that everyone in Nairobi thinks that she is sleeping with this man. The film does set up expectations by having us see her in a certain way but the structure in the second half makes you revise what you thought of her based on what you did see in the first half. I think that is fascinating because it is all about point-of-view and point-of-view is everything. There was a commercial in the Eighties in England for the Guardian and it had a skinhead mugging an old lady. Then the camera turned 180 degrees and you saw that he was saving her from a falling scaffold. The tag line was “The Guardian: It’s All About Point-of-View.” It was a brilliant commercial because when you look at things from one way, it looks like one thing but it can turn out to be something completely other and that is what the structure of the film does.
Although “The Constant Gardener” has the look and feel of a political thriller, the love story between Justin and Tessa is just as important throughout. How important was this aspect in your decision to do the film?
I think that it is completely a love story, even though it isn’t your usual love story. It is about these complete opposites–she is very volatile, loves to rock the boat and hates protocol and he is a mid-level diplomat who doesn’t want to rock the boat–but she needs him because he provides a kind of stability and she adds a little bit of spice to his life as well. I think they are deeply in love and I think what is brilliant about the structure is that about halfway through, it allows Justin to become a kind of detective but while he discovers all of the aspects that make it a political thriller, he also begins to discover more about his wife and becomes closer to her after she is dead. Structurally, it is kind of incredible to have two different kinds of stories that are so thoroughly intertwined–the love story depends on the thriller and the thriller depends on the love story.
You had worked previously with Ralph Fiennes on the film “Sunshine.” What was the experience like acting opposite him again six years later?
It was nice. I already knew him and it was great to get a chance to work with him again because he is such an unbelievable acting partner and a great husband for a movie. He is really a great person to work with because he like to improvise and so do I. Some actors don’t like to do that, which is fair enough, but Ralph and I really like to improvise so we were lucky in that we had similar techniques.
Obviously, the character of Tessa is a driven and passionate person. What are the things that drive you and that you feel passionate about?
In my job, I am a storyteller and an entertainer. I am a passionate person but I am not out there saving lives. I am in awe of those people–instead of sitting and talking in the Four Seasons Hotel, they are out in India or Africa and putting themselves in harms way to help other people. I am in awe of what makes those people get up in the morning and do that and I wish there were more people like that. I am passionate but I am just not driven to do that.
I believe that Tessa and people like her should be on the covers of magazines–nurses, teachers, aid workers and others who give of themselves and receive no glory. What I find so inspiring about her is that she truly believes that one person can make a difference. She can be insufferable and a bit of a pain but that is a really important lesson. I think a lot of us think that anything we do is just going to be a drop in the ocean. I think students today–and I don’t want to generalize–are very apathetic compared to students from the days of my parents.
In terms of the political content of “The Constant Gardener,” one of the things that struck me about the film is how genuinely angry it is. This is partly a result of the fact that John Le Carre’s work has gotten angrier and angrier regarding the state of the world in the last few years but I could see how some filmmakers would want to smooth out those aspects in order to make it more palatable for wide audiences. Yet this film pulls no punches–it calls out the pharmaceutical companies–and, by extension, all corporations–for their behavior in Third World countries and even though the film has a happy ending of a sort, there is also the unmistakable sense that it won’t amount to much in the long run and things will soon go back to business as usual.
When the producer, Simon Channing-Williams, got the rights to the book, he said that what he responded to about it was that anger. It was such an angry novel and that is what I loved about it. It is a work of fiction and this exact story has not happened but it was meticulously researched by John Le Carre and he has said that, having finished the novel, he went into deeper research and what he knows now makes the book look like a children’s fairy tale. I don’t know–I’m an actress and I have an overactive imagination so I can imagine such terrible things happening. What I think is interesting about it is that it is a very hot topic right now–if you look at your newspaper or turn on your television right now, there is a lot of debate going on right now about pharmaceutical companies and testing and what they are doing and hopefully it will continue to fuel the debate. I am wary of saying anything preachy about it because it is a piece of entertainment but it is also smart about how it taps into these hot issues.
Fernando said something last night during a Q&A that was really interesting. He said that pharmaceutical companies do a lot of good–they’ve made us live longer and help cure disease–but because they are huge corporations, they can also do bad things too. In a way, they were perfect villains for the story but what makes it more interesting in a way is that it isn’t just about the pharmaceuticals–it is also about how governments are very controlled by corporations now. This is something that people are thinking about right now.
Your career has been divided between smaller, more character-driven works like this and “The Shape of Things” and elaborate spectacle such as “Constantine” and the “Mummy” films. As an actress, what is it like for you to go back and forth between such extremes in your work?
I’ve never really had that much of a strategy. Of course if you do those big things, it helps you in getting funding for the smaller movies, so there is a financial aspect. With “The Mummy,” I didn’t know it was going to be a blockbuster–I liked the character and it reminded me of Saturday morning television or films like “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I loved the tone of it--the sort of subconscious B-movie approach that I thought was very funny–but I didn’t think that it was going to become the thing that I would be most known for. Retrospectively, I can look at my career and see how I did this and then did that but in reality, it was all a bit more of a shambles for me. I mean, I loved making “The Mummy”–it was fun–but now I look more at the directors. With this, I had seen “City of God” and read the script and I really went after this part. I wrote Fernando a letter and while I was doing “Constantine” in L.A., I jumped on a plane on my day off and went to London to meet with him for an hour and then flew back. There aren’t that many great directors and I knew from seeing “City of God” that he was one of them.
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originally posted: 09/03/05 16:51:28
last updated: 09/04/05 13:54:11