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Rachel Weisz - Biography

TalkTalk have created this exclusive biography of Rachel Weisz - we believe it to be the most comprehensive on the web

Rachel Weisz

Personal details

Name: Rachel Weisz
Born: 7 March 1971 (Age: 44)
Where: London, England
Height: 5' 7"
Awards: Won 1 Oscar and 1 Golden Globe, 1 BAFTA nomination

All about this star


The new millennium certainly saw British actresses making an impact in Hollywood. Following in the footsteps of multiple-Oscar nominees Kate Winslet and Emily Watson came Kate Beckinsale, a resurgent Julia Ormond and, of course, that scourge of mummies everywhere, Rachel Weisz. Though she broke through in action roles, Weisz has, from the very start of her acting career, exhibited a far wider emotional range than all of her peers (with the exception of Watson) and thoroughly deserved the Oscar she received for her portrayal of a passionate, flighty and doomed activist in John Le Carre's The Constant Gardener. Should she wish, she might well out-pace and out-last them all. She certainly has the looks, having been compared to Merle Oberon, with her "timeless and authentic beauty".

Rachel Weisz was born on the 7th of March, 1971, in London. The name is pronounced Vice - she actually considered changing it because she was tired of hearing Wheeze and Wise, but quite rightly thought Vice would make her sound like a porn star. Both her parents are Jewish and were brought to England before WW2 to escape the onrushing Holocaust, starting their new lives with nothing. Father George, from Hungary, became an inventor, most notably of medical devices, including a life-saving respiratory machine. Mother Edith, from Vienna, became a psychoanalyst. Rachel also has a younger sister.

Throughout Rachel's early life, her parents did not get on too well. Both being fiercely intelligent and highly critical, theirs was a fraught relationship. Rachel - perhaps to gain attention, perhaps to give her parents something to unite over - became rebellious, passing through a series of schools due to her "disruptive behaviour". So, she went from North London Collegiate to Benenden to St Paul's. At 13, her parents took her to a shrink to find the root of these outrages. The shrink sent her a letter saying "Congratulations. You are doing very well at keeping your parents together". Nevertheless, by the time she was 15, they'd separated.

Before this, though, Rachel was already working. Edith was ambitious for her and, having wanted to act herself, pushed her daughter in that direction. Sending a holiday snap to Harpers And Queen, she got Rachel a job as a model. Spotted by casting directors, at 14 she was offered a part in Richard Gere's King David but, not wanting her schoolmates to hate her for being different, she turned it down. Her parents would fall out badly over this, Edith being keen, George not. As said, they would soon go their separate ways.

By the age of 17, Rachel had decided she wanted to act, but her parents demanded that she finish her education first. At 18, she spent the summer studying with RADA-trained Ken Campbell who she describes as "absolutely bananas, but a visionary". He taught her the power of imagination. She went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, to study English Literature.

At Cambridge, Rachel studied hard. She did dissertations on Katherine Mansfield, Henry James and women writers in the Deep South, eventually ending up by falling a couple of points short of a First Class degree. She'd found love too, spending the last two years of college living with Ben Miller - former president of the famous Footlights club and later the co-star of the outrageous Armstrong & Miller comedy show. She'd stay with Miller for two years after college, too, then leave him. She says she still doesn't know why she did. She thinks maybe it's a longstanding commitment issue - one thing she loves about acting is how actors come together very intensely, then split quite naturally.

But Weisz did not need Miller to get things theatrical going. Very quickly she appeared as a Saxon girl in the first student production of The Romans In Britain, a play so violent that Mary Whitehouse sent representatives down to try to have it banned. Next she appeared with Miller in Removal, then came Lorca's Blood Wedding. And then there was Talking Tongues. This was the theatre group that really launched Rachel's career. There were two actors, Rachel and Sacha Hails, with David Farr (later director of the Gate Theatre) as director and Rose Garnett, Rachel's best friend, as producer. Together they performed six or seven improvised pieces - which Rachel described as "comic-tragic-absurd" - characterised by rapid dialogue and French-style clowning. In this, they were not unlike the groups started by Tim Robbins in Los Angeles and John Cusack in Chicago.

The last piece done by Talking Tongues was the winner. Called Slight Possession, they took it to the Edinburgh Festival after their final exams. In it, Weisz and Hails played two lovers, battling for control. With bare feet and garbed in little flowery dresses, they looked cute and vulnerable, but then started throwing each other around the stage and off a stepladder. It was hugely violent and very funny, and won a Guardian Award.

After this, they took the show to the Cottesloe at London's National Theatre. Here it was seen by director Sean Mathias (later to direct Rachel in a bit part as a prostitute in the film version of Bent). He cast Rachel in his revival of Noel Coward's Design For Living at the Gielgud, and she promptly won the London Critics' Circle Award for Most Promising Newcomer.

It was a strange time for Rachel. Before her university finals, she'd been wined and dined by an ex-Cambridge impressario who wanted her to ditch college immediately and star in his movie about Chekhov. She'd turned him down - luckily, as the film was never made. Then, after college, she'd been offered a place at drama school but, thinking she was too old to "carry on being taught stuff", she'd decided to look for work. And now everything was turning out fine and dandy. She was winning awards, getting TV work - it was looking good.

But Rachel was deeply unhappy. Some days, she says, she was so miserable she couldn't drag herself out of bed. Eventually, she did something her mother had told her never to do - she went into therapy. Three times a week for five years. First her dad paid, then she did. There was a lot to deal with. Working so young as a model, being so desired, so different. There were the parents - one massively ambitious for her, the other terribly critical - both, in their own different way, loving her too much. There was their separation - was she to blame? There was the constant success - did she deserve that? And, of course, there was acting itself - trying to be other people when you don't know who YOU are. Tough stuff, indeed.

As for the TV parts, they had started in 1993 with Dirtysomething. Here Paul Reynolds played a New Age traveller called Dog, with Rachel as girlfriend Becca, a drop-out from Surrey. Deciding to get off the road for winter, they squat with their sidekick Captain Larry, played by Bernard Hill. But a house means responsibility, so Rachel gets a job with flash architect Rufus Sewell and has - shock, horror - a career ahead of her. It was quite a sweet piece, teasing yuppies as well as crusties.

Next came Scarlet And Black, a French romantic drama by Stendhal. Here Ewan McGregor played the ambitious Julian Sorel, who models himself upon Napoleon. Seeking power by joining the Church, he seduces the married Alice Krige, then travels to Paris to work as secretary for an influential Marquis whose daughter Mathilde (played by Rachel) he seduces and makes pregnant - thereby assuring his future. Unfortunately, Krige is dead jealous and grasses him up to the Marquis, beginning a spiral into tragedy that sees poor Ewan guillotined. The series was supposed to end with Rachel cradling Ewan's severed head, but they couldn't find a realistic prosthetic bonce, so McGregor spent several hours between Rachel's legs, under her dress, with his head poking through a hole in a box she was holding.

After this came a small part in White Goods, where Lenny Henry and Ian McShane were friends who win a TV snooker quiz then fall out over the winnings. And there was Seventeen, a short concerning a young girl who fancies a lifeguard, only to find he likes her older sister. Rachel, not much enamoured of these early roles, would describe them as "Crap and more crap. I was crap, it was crap". Her first big screen role was not much better, when she played a Junior Executive in Death Machine, a kind of cross between Robocop and Alien.

But then things began to change, when Rachel was cast in Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty. Here Liv Tyler, her mother dead, goes to Italy to rekindle a teen romance and discover her real father in an artistic community. Is he the dying English playwright, the artist who carves with chainsaws, or the Italian journalist? Rachel stood out as the sexually voracious daughter of the artist, showing off her many charms by the pool, and acting as a foil to Tyler's innocent virgin.

Stealing Beauty won Rachel a chance in Hollywood. And what an inauspicious debut it was. In Chain Reaction, she played Dr Lily Sinclair, a scientist in a lab where they create a low-cost, non-polluting fuel source. What a present for the world! But dark forces want control of this invention and Rachel, along with lab-tech Keanu Reeves, finds herself framed for murder and pursued by the FBI, the CIA, you name it. Rachel found the shoot extremely arduous, mostly due to the sheer intensity of director Andrew Davis, who'd quite happily work 18 hours a day in the snow, doing take after take. Unfortunately, the movie, intended to be a special-effects bonanza, was a bit of a stinker. It would be three years before Rachel tried another blockbuster.

Unperturbed, Rachel moved on to something a tad classier - Swept From The Sea, based on a short story by Joseph Conrad. Here she played Amy Foster, a serving-girl who falls for Vincent Perez, playing the Ukrainian sole survivor of a shipwreck. Consequently, she finds herself shunned by a frightened and prudish society, it being 19th Century Cornwall. After this came Going All The Way. Here Ben Affleck played an ex-jock in Indianapolis, with Jeremy Davis his nerdy friend, both of them veterans of the Korean War. They're trying to decide on their futures and, of course, get girls. Rachel played Affleck's sexy new Jewish girlfriend, who suffers because Ben's jealous mum Lesley Ann Warren - an extraordinary flirt who may well have incestuous designs upon her son - starts feeding him vile anti-Semitic nonsense. Then came the aforementioned Bent, about a gay man sent to Dachau, featuring Ian McKellen, who'd appeared with Rachel in Swept From The Sea. As said, Rachel's appearance was brief, as were those by Jude Law, Paul Bettany and the magnificently gnarly Charlie Watts.

Now Rachel took a string of strong British films. In The Land Girls, she played Agapanthus, a Cambridge graduate who joins the Women's Land Army, sent to work on farms during WW2. She's quiet and reserved, where colleague Anna Friel is vivacious and sexy and Catherine McCormack is a beautiful romantic who falls for Paul Bettany's naval officer. All of them end up in bed with farmer's son Joe, though each of them is, in her own way, completely in control. It was an odd film, designed to make us understand the efforts made by normal people during the war - as such it was kind of an anachronism.

After this came Michael Winterbottom's I Want You. Here Rachel played Helen who runs a hair salon by the seaside, has a boyfriend named Bob and is continually taped by a young, mute Central European refugee-boy who's obsessing over her. Then ex-boyfriend Martin, played by Alessandro Nivola, returns from jail, intent upon winning her back - after a period of weirdo surveillance. He starts to get aggressive, the boy steps in to save her, but there's more to Martin and Helen's past relationship than we had realised. It's a dark little film, but intriguing nonetheless.

And then came something infinitely lighter - and a new romantic attachment. In My Summer With Des, Men Behaving Badly star Neil Morrissey played a very different Martin. He loses his job and his girlfriend, but everything is OK because he gets to watch the European Football Championship of 1996, presented by his hero, Des Lynam. Better still, he meets gorgeous, enigmatic football-fanatic Rosie (Rachel), who's more than happy to watch the games with him AND engage in rampant rumpo at half-time. And then she disappears. But, during the World Cup of '98, he remembers something she said...

It was a real slice of fun but, more importantly, it led to a relationship with Morrissey that had the tabloids on full alert. Rachel has since said that she often goes for men who've had a hard time (Morrissey grew up in children's homes), because tbey know how to have fun. And she had a lot of fun with Neil, despite having to put up with women literally throwing themselves on him and constantly slipping their phone number into his pockets. But she wasn't keen on the tabloid attention, something he loved, making it plain that "I'm not a celebrity, I'm an actress".

Like it or loathe it, the attention got worse in 1999 when Rachel appeared in Stephen Sommers' The Mummy. A scintillating, hi-tech remake of Boris Karloff's original, this was a surprise mega-hit, the biggest word-of-mouth success since Die Hard. In it, ancient Egyptian priest Imhotep kills the Pharoah and sleeps with his mistress, Anck-Su-Namun, but he's caught, cursed and mummified alive. Ouch. Skip to 1923, when adventurer Brendan Fraser decides to help Egyptologist librarian Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel) and her cowardly brother (John Hannah) search for the Book Of The Living - a major historical find, if found. Unfortunately, they inadvertently awaken Imhotep who re-covers himself with flesh in a similarly unspeakable manner as Uncle Frank did in Hellraiser. Worse, he wants to raise Anck-Su-Naman, using Rachel's body to do it. The FIEND!

Rachel was superb. Her character Evelyn (coincidentally sharing the name of Lord Carnarvon's daughter, who was present when her father broke into the tomb of Tutankhamen) was no pretty make-weight, simply there to scream and be rescued. This was a brilliant comic turn, with Rachel having to transform herself from "bespectacled bluestocking" to daring heroine. One great moment came when, drunk beside a camp fire, she stood unsteadily up and proudly declared "I... am... a... LIBRARIAN!"

The Mummy was silly and trite, but it was also the best buccaneering action flick since Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (Rachel took the part because it reminded her of Indiana Jones, and Romancing The Stone). Costing $76 million, it passed $100 million in the US in just 17 days. It would make hundreds of millions more.

Now she was a star. Playboy offered her vast sums to be their US centrefold. She laughed at the notion that they saw her as an "Egyptologist Playmate", and turned them down. Hollywood was beckoning. But Rachel had never really wanted to be a star. Instead, she returned to her first love, the theatre, starring in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer as Catharine, a young girl whose aunt wants her lobotomised due to mental breakdown. Then, gradually, we discover what she has seen, and what happened to cousin Sebastian... The play was put on at Bath, Malvern, then in the Comedy Theatre in London (an odd venue for it, it must be said) - a long, long way from Beverly Hills. Again, Rachel was excellent. She must have been because her father - who's so critical she calls him "the one person I can trust" - admired her efforts for the very first time. So did the judges of the Barclays Theatre Awards, who voted her Best Supporting Actress.

Rachel continued her avoidance of Hollywood with Sunshine, an epic which took her back to her dad's roots by covering three generations of Hungarian Jews, before, during and after WW2. Ralph Fiennes played all three male leads, alongside a strong female line-up including Rachel, Jennifer Ehle and Deborah Kara Unger. Then came Beautiful Creatures where Rachel and Susan Lynch played Glasgow girls abused by their violent boyfriends. Accidentally killing one of the men, they try to escape these horrible streets by getting rid of the body, pretending it's a kidnapping and conning money out of the dead guy's brother. And then, naturally, things get complicated. It was both a grim and joyous film experience, a kind of cross between Thelma And Louise and Bound, with Rachel blossoming wonderfully under Lynch's hard tutelage, as Geena Davis had under Susan Sarandon's.

Then there was some engaging European-ness, with Enemy At The Gates, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and set in WW2 Stalingrad. Here Jude Law played Russian super-sniper Vassili Zaitsev, who must fight a long-range duel with German counterpart Konig, played by the great Ed Harris. Zaitsev has become famous throughout Russia due to the promotional efforts of political officer Danilov - but it all gets tricky when both fall in love with Rachel, as soldier Tania Chernova.

But Hollywood will not often be denied, and Rachel returned, as did The Mummy. This time, the action took place in London, 10 years after the original, when Imhotep is exhibited in a museum and is once more awoken. Rachel, now married to Fraser and with an 8-year-old boy, must save the planet from awful beastliness yet again. Really, The Mummy Returns was not a patch on the original. The plot was thin and confused, the special effects were over-ambitious to the point of incompetence, reducing the actors to mere slapstick players. Still, it broke box-office records.

It was unsurprising after these two films - her Enemy At The Gates role being fairly unchallenging and The Mummy Returns being rubbish - that Rachel would return to the theatre again. This time it was for The Shape Of Things, by Neil LaBute, playwright and director of the tremendous Nurse Betty. Here Rachel played a bad-assed sculptress, again named Evelyn, who seduces the nerdy Adam in a mid-Western college town. By transforming his looks and boosting his confidence, she inadvertently allows him to approach the wife of his best friend, a woman he was scared to date years before. Couples swap, secrets are revealed, art is questioned, post-modernism is frowned upon, as are superficial things.

The play opened at the Almeida, then took off for the Promenade in New York City. And Rachel - angry, artful and intoxicatingly powerful - was wonderful. Two bad things did happen, though. Just before the production, she split from her boyfriend, director Sam Mendes, who'd quickly move on to Kate Winslet. Then, during the London run, she had a day off due to a cold and, on the way back from the doctor's to her Primrose Hill house, her cab was hit by a truck. It was the luckiest of escapes.

2002 would bring a welter of releases. There'd be Nick Hornby's About A Boy, where Hugh Grant played an incorrigibly irresponsible bachelor who's shocked to find himself in love with Rachel's beautiful illustrator, and receives advice in life and love from a troubled 12-year-old. Rachel was given very little screen-time to convince us that he couldn't help but love her. A stroll in the park, as it happened.

After this came a screen version of The Shape Of Things, and then Confidence. This starred Edward Burns as a con man who plots a double-cross scam against crime boss Dustin Hoffman, Rachel appearing as one of his gang-members, a pickpocket femme fatale who may or may not be his downfall. The film did not fare well, but Rachel's star remained in the ascendant as she had just signed a two-picture $11 million deal with Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks company.

The first of these would be Runaway Jury, a John Grisham adaptation, once more with Dustin Hoffman. Here a widow takes on a gun manufacturer, with Hoffman taking her side in court and evil Gene Hackman acting as jury consultant for the bad guys. Rachel would play a dangerous game by placing arch-manipulator John Cusack amongst the jury, then attempting to sell a favourable verdict to the highest bidder.

After this would come Barry Levinson's Envy where Ben Stiller and Jack Black played friends, neighbours and co-workers who are brought into conflict by Stiller's uncontrollable jealousy when Black invents and successfully sells a substance that vaporises dog-poop. Rachel would appear as Stiller's wife in this nutty comedy, a film which, amazingly, was almost sent straight to video. Indeed, had Black not struck paydirt and thus raised his profile with School Of Rock, that's certainly what would have happened.

Naturally, Weisz moved immediately back into the indie arena, and not simply by entering a relationship with Darren Aronofsky, acclaimed director of Pi and Requiem For A Dream, in Daisy Winters. Here she was the cancer-stricken mother in small-town Oregon, whose young daughter who fears mum's impending death will leave her in the care of a mean aunt. Consequently the youngster (played by Emma Roberts, Julia's niece) seeks out alternative possibilities, one being the father she's never known.

And then it would be back to big-budget blockbusters with Constantine, based on DC Comics' Hellblazer series, a reunion with her first Hollywood co-star Keanu Reeves. Here Reeves would play John Constantine, the supernatural detective who's actually been to Hell (Peter Stormare appearing as the Devil). Rachel, as a skeptical cop trying to solve the mysterious suicide of her own twin sister (also played by Rachel), would team up with Reeves and thus be drawn into an otherworld of angels and demons on and under the streets of LA.

With so many comic book adaptations hitting the screen, Constantine was not a big success. But Weisz's star was nonetheless very much on the rise. 2005 would bring The Constant Gardener, based on the John Le Carre novel, where she played a hot-headed activist who, after a passionate fling with detached diplomat Ralph Fiennes, marries him and returns with him to Kenya. Here she's killed with the movie now flashing backwards and forewards through time as Fiennes attempts to discover the truth behind her death, uncovering possible drug company conspiracies as well as his own true character and that of his dead wife. It was a brilliantly shot and angry film and named as one of the year's very best, Weisz herself winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. And she'd keep the quality high in 2006 by teaming up with boyfriend Aronofsky for The Fountain. Originally set to star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett the production had fallen through and the sets had been sold off. Now, with the budget dropping from $90 million to $35 million, Weisz would star alongside Hugh Jackman in an extraordinary sci-fi drama set in three time periods, each segment dealing with fear of death and the desirability of immortality. The first section would see Rachel as Queen Isabella of Spain, sending conquistador Jackman off to Central America to seek the fabulous Tree of Life. In the second, set in the present day, Jackman would be a research scientist desperately seeking a cure for wife Weisz's terminal cancer, then the titular Fountain of Youth. Finally he'd be an astronaut in the 26th Century when we'd see the results of this centuries-old quest. Fascinating stuff, as you'd expect from one of the most impressive directors of modern times.

It was said that Rachel turned down $3 million for The Mummy 3. As quoted earlier, "I'm not a celebrity, I'm an actress". And so, quite clearly, will she remain. Rachel Weisz has said that she would like to possess Katharine Hepburn's "flair for comedy", Batte Davis's "self-dramatising" and Elizabeth Taylor's "burning sensuality" (she played Taylor's role in Suddenly Last Summer). It cannot be denied that she's well on the way.

Dominic Wills

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