The heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel is suspected of being a poisoner – a black widow who’s bumped off her husband. But the real killer in Du Maurier’s tale of obsessive love in the Victorian era is the claustrophobically adoring men who want to control Rachel and maintain patriarchal power over women.
‘Can you hear me? Oh bugger. I’m in a lift.’ I’m on the phone to Rachel Weisz, who’s at home in New York. She was here until last week, filming – ‘I’m in London half my life. So I don’t miss it.’ The other half of her life is in Manhattan, with husband Daniel Craig and her 11-year-old son. Somehow timings to meet in person didn’t work out. Which is probably for the best. Weisz is distractingly beautiful. Face to face, I would probably have blurted out questions like ‘How do you make your skin so luminous?’ The actual reason for our chat is a new film of Daphne du Maurier’s ice-cold ‘My Cousin Rachel’, in which Weisz plays a woman who may or may not have killed her husband.
Apart from having the same name as your character, what drew you to the film?
‘It explores a woman’s sexuality and desire. Du Maurier wrote the novel in the 1950s but set it in the nineteenth century. I liked that cocktail – risqué in a period drama.’
Rachel’s a complex character, who refuses to be swept off her feet by her cousin, who is obsessively in love.
‘Yes. Rachel finds that humiliating, the idea of a man coming to her rescue. And I don’t think the novel’s issues are out of date. I think there’s always going to be obsession in love.’
Du Maurier famously leaves readers to judge. Do you have a take?
‘Yes. I think I know who Rachel is. But as in life, I think people are really mysterious, endlessly unfathomable.’
Recently you’ve made more arthouse European films. Is that what you find yourself drifting towards?
‘Maybe. Or maybe they’re drifting to me. I’m being asked out more in Europe. And I’m Polish-Hungarian-Czech-Austrian. I’m an EU cocktail.’
You grew up in north London. Did you want to act as a teenager?
‘I didn’t burn to do it, and I wasn’t the star in school plays. I was too shy. I definitely got over that at Cambridge. We started an experimental theatre troupe. That was some of my best work!’
Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin in ‘My Cousin Rachel’
‘I wasn’t the star in school plays. I was too shy’
Your mum is a psychotherapist. Do you think there’s a link to your job, getting under the skin of people?
‘Yes, and a desire not to talk about yourself but to listen.’
But people want to know about you, especially given who you’re married to. How do you cope with that?
‘I’m definitely very private. I have to put myself out there in order to discuss work. But beyond that, I think my private life is just private.’
Actresses are marginalised in their forties. You’ve started producing. Is that you being proactive?
‘Probably, and me being greedy. I want to make the sort of films I want to be in.’
Are you still working on a film about the woman who passed as a man in Victorian London to work as a doctor?
‘Margaret Ann Bulkley, yes. That’s being written now. I’ve been obsessive about it for a long time.’
Are you shocked that she’s not better known, like Florence Nightingale?
‘It’s interesting, because not only did she become a doctor, she became a prestigious doctor. She performed one of the first caesareans where both mother and baby lived. She was progressive and brilliant, and a difficult personality. She was always challenging people to duels. She didn’t lie low.’
‘My Cousin Rachel’ is in UK cinemas June 9.