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Thursday 23 November 2017

Rachel juggles her roles

Eclectic actress of stage and Screen, Rachel Weisz tells Tom LOWE she had to learn new tricks for her latest role

Just like her on-screen character in conman caper The Brothers Bloom, it seems Rachel Weisz can turn her hand to just about anything. Her role as the child-like millionairess Penelope Stamp, who spends all her time mastering an endless stream of hobbies, from playing the banjo to chainsaw-juggling, is the latest in a string of diverse characters for Weisz.

Playing the 'mark' of two brothers, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody), it's Weisz's most comedic part to date, and a deliberate step away from the roles which made her famous. After her Oscar-winning performance as a doomed activist in Fernando Meirelles 2005 film The Constant Gardener, 39-year-old Weisz was inundated with offers to play 'strong women'.

"It's funny, when people say 'strong women' I always think of women with dumbbells," she says with a laugh. "I would say that after Fernando's movie I was offered roles that were quite feisty, strong . . . which is exactly why I wanted to do something incredibly different.

"I wanted to do comedy. Penelope, in my mind, is very, very different from the character in The Constant Gardener, so I don't feel in a box at all. I feel like I'm roaming around all over the place."

The long-term partner of director Darren Aronofsky, with whom she has a young son, Weisz recently starred as both the mother of the murdered child (played by Saoirse Ronan) in The Lovely Bones and as an Alexandrian scholar in Agora. But hyper-curious screwball Penelope was a role the actress says she wasn't immediately considered for and she begged writer-director Rian Johnson for the chance to play her.

"I think it's extremely rare to find such an unusual, undefinable, multi-layered role that didn't seem derivative of any other film or any other character," she says. "The writing, I thought, was exquisite and completely original."

Weisz has cited similar motives for taking the challenging role of Southern belle Blanche DuBois on stage last year in A Streetcar Named Desire. That performance, at London's Donmar Warehouse, recently earned her the best actress prize at the Critics' Circle Theatre Awards -- the same body that named her most promising newcomer in 1994. If, despite all that, Weisz is still best known to many American movie-goers as nerdy egyptologist Evelyn in action-adventure The Mummy, perhaps it is testament to her selective attitude.

While some Hollywood A-listers confine their efforts to lucrative blockbusters, Weisz is more picky when it comes to selecting film projects. After becoming a mother in 2006, she decided against rejoining the Mummy franchise, because of her commitment to the low-budget film, The Brothers Bloom -- only the second feature film to be directed by Rian Johnson. Cambridge-educated Weisz was the first to sign up for the mischievous comedy (notably before Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo or Robbie Coltrane), evidently choosing it for love, not money.

"We had a real blast on this film," she coos. "We were travelling round like a circus, from country to country and on boats at night, with Robbie Coltrane."

She pauses, before adding: "I will leave it at that!"

Precious

One of many memorable Brothers Bloom moments for Weisz involved a scene in which Penelope burgles a precious book in Prague. Filming on the Charles Bridge, the Czech capital's main tourist thoroughfare, in front of gawping crowds, Weisz was happy to make a fool of herself, merrily launching into infantile improvisation.

"I just decided that I was going to start to sing a smuggler's song," she recalls with a smile. "I started to think 'Oh, what is my smuggler's song?' and someone said, 'Action!' I remember turning to Graham, our make-up artist from Scotland, and saying, 'Graham, sing me a Frank Sinatra song'.

"So I had Frank Sinatra filtered through Graham, which is much funnier if you've met Graham, filtered through Penelope and I started to kind of sing this smuggler's Frank Sinatra song."

Weisz's performance garnered critical acclaim when it was released overseas last year -- much of that down to what Johnson calls her "tremendous sense of play". With no real-life character to interview or research, explains the London-born actress, Penelope was "all just fantasy and imagining".

While Weisz admits her own nature is eccentric and childish, like Penelope's, the character's constant frenzy exhausted her. "I used my quota of enthusiasm and magic juice -- it'd run out by the end," she says of her performance. But there was also another reason behind Weisz's exhaustion. Isolated from society in her mansion, Penelope "collects hobbies", from playing musical instruments and pinhole photography to skateboarding and juggling chainsaws.

It gave Weisz a daunting list of skills to master -- skills she says she had next to no prior experience in.

"No, none of them I could actually do," she confesses. I had piano lessons as a child but I couldn't really play piano, so I had to learn to look like I was proficient at piano, accordion, violin, banjo, fiddle, juggling, skateboarding . . . I'd never been on a skateboard in my life.

"Adrien Brody taught me how to balance on a skateboard; they're really dangerous if you haven't learnt as a child."

Among all the kung fu kicking and breakdance spinning, though, it was one of the more sedate skills that caused Weisz the most trouble.

"The card trick, which I do whilst delivering a long monologue about my dysfunctional childhood . . . that was actually me," she says, with pride. "The hardest thing I've ever had to do in my career was learn to do that trick. I'd played snap as a child and that was about it. I didn't know how to shuffle, nothing. I had a teacher from the Magic Circle in England who came to where we were filming in Montenegro and taught me every day for two weeks straight. I had to practice for hours and hours and hours."

The film's original working title was 'Penelope' and, as its female lead, Weisz is feasibly in contention to win yet more awards. And if Weisz collects roles as many and varied as Penelope collects hobbies, it surely won't be long before she's in the running for the Best Actress Oscar.

The Brothers Bloom opens in cinemas on Friday

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