Idol Weisz

Artist of the Year: 'Fountain' star draws allure from Golden Era well

Sometimes mere physical presence is enough to hold our attention. Rachel Weisz — with her raven hair, striking hazel eyes and cameo-soft features — is captivating, sometimes in spite of the material she’s given to work with.

She’s not a conventional beauty, especially by today’s standards when those spindly things on the catwalk and the cult of youth have blurred the standards of sex appeal. She does, however, represent a kind of classic ideal. Neil LaBute, who directed Weisz in his play “The Shape of Things” on the London and Broadway stages as well as in the subsequent film adaptation, likens her to the screen sirens of yore.

“She’s a throwback to an age of great glamour in Hollywood, like an Ava Gardner,” he says. “She also has a wildly independent spirit, which I would liken to Bette Davis,” adds LaBute, “someone with beauty but also great resources of talent.”

As LaBute will be the first to point out, Weisz is more interested in being challenged than being liked. “Looks can be crippling for actors because people tend to pigeonhole you,” he says. “But she has worked very hard to say, ‘I will burst these shackles and hold them up to your face.’ That’s not ambition, that’s a strong sense of self.”

Her art-student character in “The Shape of Things” is cold-hearted and manipulative, a femme fatale with a Nietzschean streak who will stop at nothing to assert her right to creative expression. “Neil always used to say about her that, ‘She’s got a great point, but her means are extremely questionable,'” says Weisz, who helped convince London-based Working Title to producethe film. “In the way she puts her point across, it’s morally corrupt, bankrupt, but she’s got a great point.”

Weisz’s Oscar-winning role in “The Constant Gardener,” Tessa Quayle, an activist who takes on the pharmaceutical industry, is not morally corrupt, but her means could also be said to be extremely questionable. As played by Weisz, Tessa is fearless, willful, even reckless, and she pays dearly for her actions. But she’s also magnetic and inspiring, and practically nobody in “The Constant Gardener” isn’t somehow influenced by her, if not seduced by her passion and beauty.

“I really like characters rather like Tessa,” says Weisz. “She is heroic, but she’s also massively flawed as a human being — a pain in the ass would be one way of putting it. And I loved that about the writing; she’s not really idealized. And I’m drawn to that because it makes everything more complex.”

According to “Gardener” director Fernando Meirelles, Weisz was more than simply discerning about her performance, describing her approach as “obsession to perfection.”

“The hard part was to convince her I had a great take and to move on,” he says. “She always wanted to improve, to try a different way of saying a line or experimenting. This is the best thing for a director.”

Weisz hails from north London, gaining the reputation as a bit of a rebel in her youth. It wasn’t until she studied English literature at Cambridge U. where she co-founded the Talking Tongues Theater Group, that she began to take acting seriously.

Although she has excelled in the theater (she won a London Drama Critics Circle Award for “Noel Coward’s Design for Living”), Weisz describes herself as “untrained,” even if hers is the kind of self-propelling experience — reading challenging literature, writing her own plays, experimenting onstage — that most of today’s aspiring actors rarely attempt.

“Things that are tricky as an actor inspire her rather than scare her,” says LaBute.

And Weisz herself finds inspiration in those actresses whom she considers fearless, like Gena Rowlands and Samantha Morton. “She astonishes me,” says Weisz of Morton, “because I can’t see the acting, I can’t see the technique, I can’t see the machinery at work.” The same is true for Weisz herself.

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