Disobedience: Interview with Star and Producer Rachel Weisz

Based on the book by Naomi Alderman, Disobedience is directed by Sebastian Lelio, who won this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for A Fantastic Woman. His previous film, Gloria, was also Oscar nominated.

The movie stars Oscar winner Rachel (The Constant Gardener) Weisz, who also served as a producer. She plays a Jewish photographer named Ronit, who lives a secular life in New York but comes back to her old religious community in North London when her rabbi father dies. Ronit stays with her two best friends from youth, David (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti (Rachel McAdams), who are now married.  When the two femmes reconnect, there is still erotic tension between them; we learn that they were lovers before Ronit’s father found out about the affair.

Casting Rachel McAdams

Rachel Weisz: Director Sebastian Lelio and I both talked about who would be Esti, and Rachel McAdams was the first person we offered it to.  We were incredibly lucky in that she read it and she really wanted to do it.  When she read it she just said I love this and I spoke to her on the phone.  She’s Canadian, she’s not Jewish, she’s not from North London but she just massively identified with the character and to quote her, she said “my heart bled for Esti,” the kind of conundrum that Esti’s in where she is deeply religious and loves her husband, loves her community, loves her job, loves her students but she is also gay and can’t be herself.  McAdams just found that conundrum very moving.


Playing Strong Character

RW: I don’t know what a strong screen character really means.  Ronit is rebellious and she’s disobedient.  She’s like oh, I’m a rebel.  But I think in many ways she’s quite weak and vulnerable.  I feel like she has to go home like she like cut off her childhood and her family and her religion and her community.  She just cut it off and then she just carries on her life so I think she’s somewhat crippled..  I see it like she has to go back and reconnect with her past–if you’re always running from something then you’re not really free.  I think the film is like about how can you be free, freedom and that sometimes disobedience is a really good thing like an essential thing.

Director Sebastian Lelio

RW: Sebastian is fluent in English and I’d say his English got better and better when he was the first director that I sent the book to and he wanted to do it which was incredible because he’s from Chile, he’s Catholic, and he’s a heterosexual.  He’s like nothing to do with the world that it’s set in but he read it, he wanted to do it and he did the first two drafts himself and then we brought in an English playwright called Rebecca Lenkiewicz.  She co-wrote “Ida,”  Pawel Pawlikowski’s film so she co-wrote that with him so she’s used to working with directors. “Ida” was written in English and then translated back into Polish.  She’s a wonderful British playwright, so  Sebastian had this great English team around him. Like Ang Lee did it before.  Ang Lee’s not English and he made “Sense And Sensibility” or “The Ice Storm” about America.  He’s from a really different culture but he has a really sensitive eye.


The Movie Gloria

RW: That film was just astonishing to me, you know, as you know, it’s about a 58 year old woman, her sexual desires, her dating miseries and comedic turns and, you know, normally like I’m going to generalize massively, in most American films that woman would be the granny or the auntie with 2 lines.  She would be like on the edge of the story and what Sebastian does is he took that woman because every 58 year old woman has a sexuality and for them they’re the center of their lives but films tend to push them into the margin so I knew that he – I thought he was gay.  I mean, I just assumed – it didn’t cross my mind it was a straight man.


A Fantastic Woman: Lelio’s Oscar Winning Film

RW: “Fantastic Woman” deals with the experience of being a trans woman, not something that’s like front and center in storytelling. His previous film, “Gloria,” I thought was a masterpiece, and that’s the reason I asked him to do this.



RW: Our movie could have been set in the Amish community in Pennsylvania: “Witness,” you remember that movie with Harrison Ford.  It’s a different kind of story but it was about a closed community.  I was looking for a story about two women.  I found many that were set in the 1950’s when to be gay was taboo.  There was something about this one that it’s up the road from where I grew up in North London but I don’t know anybody from this community.  I have no access to it.  Nobody does unless they grew up in it, so Naomi Alderman who wrote the novel she grew up in this community and then she left it and she went to live in New York a little bit like Ronit so she’s writing from the inside about having left it.  I don’t know anything about the community and I don’t think they’re particularly interested in us knowing.  They’re very private.


Courage to Disappear

RW: I probably do with my family and my best friends.  I think it’s kind of like in the same way that I know it seems like completely different because it’s fantasy or period. But for me “The Shape Of Water” is a film where there’s a woman of color, a homosexual man, a mute girl, all having a really like kind of difficult time in society and then this creature that everyone thinks is ugly, there’s a beautiful god and that for me was like a fairy tale about how can you be free to love who you want to love and be who you want to be.  For me, this is the same theme but it’s just like, you know, it’s contemporary but it’s and it’s very kind of a small film, but it has a beautiful message:  how can you be free and how can you love who you want and be who you want to be.


A Jewish and Universal Story

RW: This is a world that where, you know, religion governs every moment of every second of life.  Actually, Naomi Alderman who wrote the book said after she left the community and stopped being an Orthodox Jew because she was so used to rituals as the prayer when you wake up, there’s a prayer for you brushing your teeth.  I mean, I may have made that up.  I don’t know but like there’s a prayer for everything that she started to have without those things to hold onto, she started to have panic attacks because it was just freedom was too much somehow so for me, no, I mean, it could have been set – I mean, this story could take place in any closed community.  It could be Muslim, Christian, yeah, I mean, someone was just talking to me about Irish wakes and how similar they are to sitting shiva.  I think they’re both 7 days.  I mean, yeah, it could be – I think it should transcend where it’s set.  It’s not like a film, you know, by Jews for Jews, it’s a story that’s set here which is universal which is why, you know, a Chilean director was drawn to it, yeah, yeah.


Jewish Parents?

RW: My dad came from a Jewish family.  My mum was actually raised a Catholic, very, very strict Catholic in the 1940’s and ’50s in a convent in Cambridge.  She converted because my dad wouldn’t have married her otherwise so I grew up with, you know, an understanding of both those religions.  I am just not a religious person.  I wouldn’t say I belong to any–I don’t practice any religion but I think what’s interesting to me is kind of like the similarity.  I don’t know.  What’s interesting to me is the similarities between religions and, you know, I hope a story like this people can identify with these people that seem so – I remember my mum always used to say to me because in like in North London we’d sometimes see, you know, you’d see religious people walk by or actually the Hasids that even more religious than this community, you know, where the men have the I can’t remember what they’re called and I always used to, you know, people used to oh, God, it looks so weird.  My mum always used to say to me why is it weird.  She said it’s no more weird than a monk or a nun, you know, they wear strange clothes but they cloister themselves away whereas these people they’re just living next door to you so I hope, you know, I am really interested in like ending the prejudices.  I think faith is a beautiful thing.  I don’t have it yet.  Maybe one day I’ll find God.


Love Scene

RW: I actually talked to some men about this.  I don’t know.  When you have a sex scene you’re always kind of like ugh is this really necessary for the story like if this scene wasn’t in the film wouldn’t the film still make sense.  In this case, in this story, the scene was absolutely totally necessary.  Not only necessary for us, it’s like the centre of the film so there’s just repression in this society where a repression towards Esti’s sexuality and then they are alone and they can express themselves so to me it’s emotional, it’s deeply part of the story and it’s very important.  I mean, I appreciate that you think it’s beautiful and hot and all those words (laughter) so in terms of preparation there was no like no method acting or anything.  We didn’t like prepare before time but Sebastian this was the only section of the film he did this.  He storyboarded it so he showed us the images and it was a long scene.  I think it ended up being about 6 minutes so it took a whole day to shoot and he – so there was no – so he said I want this moment and then this moment and it all centred around one woman’s face in close up and then the other woman was outside of the frame so you, the audience, have to imagine where is this other woman, where is her face, where is her tongue, where is her finger, what’s happening.  You don’t see it.  You have to imagine it which I think is more erotic than seeing, you know, breasts and bottoms and pubic hair and like all those things are beautiful but it’s something wonderful – there’s actually no nudity which I’m sure you noticed so our job that day was to hit these notes that he showed us on film with, you know, emotion, you know, because it’s very, very emotional for them but it’s not just sex, it’s their hearts, their soul.  It’s like very deep so, yeah, so it was like that.


Next Movie: The Favorite

RW: It’s a film directed by the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos which actually doesn’t have two female roles, but three central female characters, all very complicated, quite difficult women jostling for power in the court of Queen Anne in England in 1608.  They are played by Emma Stone, Olivia Colman and me.  I haven’t seen it, but it was a great, great script.


Alessandro Nivola

RW: He and I worked together like 20 years ago on a Michael Winterbottom film called “I Want You” and so I’ve known him since then and, you know, he read the script and he just with a film like this an actor has to really respond.  They can’t just say ah, I think it’s okay.  I’ll give it a…  You got to really want to play it because it’s difficult, it’s very naturalistic.  It takes a huge amount of focus and commitment and he just – I thought he would be wonderful and then he read it and he just really – he really connected with it in the same way that Rachel connected with Esti.  Again, neither of them are from that faith or that community or that nation even but they just the story transcended the place and he just – he was just clearly and he understood it.  He understood it.  He understood this man.  He understood being part of the patriarchy but also finding this extraordinary moment of forgiveness and allowing, you know, allowing his wife to be free.  It’s like the most empathic moment.  It’s the opposite of a kind of a macho moment.  It’s like a deeply emotional empathetic moment so, yeah, he’s great.  I’ll tell you.  He’s very, very good.  Very – wonderful actor.



RW: I don’t want to judge this community and I don’t think Sebastian does.  There’s great beauty to be had in community and faith.  Look how wonderful it is to be held by a belief and by a community to help each other out and, you know, we live in a world where my neighbors don’t help me out if I’m in trouble.  There are things that are very beautiful about this community.  I mean, freedom is difficult, isn’t it.  It’s a difficult thing.  It’s a challenge.  It’s, you know, one of the great challenges of being a human being so I don’t know.  I don’t have the answer.  I am just an actress, you know, but I love this story because it’s a kind of meditation on freedom and that maybe you have to be disobedient to be free, that disobedience is really important and then there can be too much of it like maybe Ronit is like maybe it’s a little much.  Maybe she doesn’t have to be disobedient all the time.  You know.



RW: She knew her father was dead, so I don’t know what kind of closure she was hoping for.  I think it’s the scariest day of her adult life going back there because I think the want to be accepted and the knowledge that she’s probably going to be disliked, if not hated by most people but she doesn’t have a right to be there but she does because it’s her father but her father never called her in 15, 20 years so it’s – I think it’s so complicated.  I don’t think she knows is the answer.  I don’t think the character knows.  I think she’s in a big old muddle and she’s lost like really, really lost, as lost as it’s possible to be, yeah.



Being a Woman

RW: I’m a woman and I’ve seen thousands of films by men with men in the central leads which I love.  I think women tell stories differently and subjectivity of being a woman is we’re just completely different and so like vive la difference is like I don’t know it doesn’t feel political.  I just want to hear their stories alongside the men.  I want to hear both.