Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams open up to Roxy Bourdillon about playing lovers in Disobedience
BY ROXY BOURDILLON
Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams are making out. In an anonymous hotel room, they kiss each other hungrily, their bodies straining with lust. McAdams tips her head back and in a move that seems practiced, like this isn’t the first time they’ve done this, Weisz gently dribbles her saliva into McAdams’ expectant mouth. It’s a shockingly sensual act. McAdams swallows and parts her lips again, ready for more.
A few days after watching Disobedience, my head still filled with flashbacks from the acclaimed new film about forbidden sapphic passion in the Orthodox Jewish community, I can’t quite believe it but I’m on the phone to Rachel Weisz. Seizing the moment, I ask what she thought when she first read that spittle stage direction. There’s a pause. A pause so long I worry I’ve overstepped the mark and already blown this A-list interview. Then finally, I get my answer. “Erm… pretty hot, I think.” I exhale with relief as she continues, her tone considered and charming. “I’m not saying it’s this universal gesture that would turn everyone on, but I thought it was original, something I’ve not seen onscreen before. Very, very intimate.”
Like the infamous peach scene in Call Me By Your Name, the exchange of bodily fluids in Disobedience has become shorthand for the film’s portrayal of transgressive, queer desire. Following the death of her estranged Rabbi father, Ronit (Weisz) returns to the north London Orthodox Jewish community she grew up in. There the free-spirited photographer discovers that her teenage sweetheart Esti (McAdams) has remained pious and married their mutual childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola). There’s a gut-wrenching moment where Ronit asks Esti if she still only fancies women and Esti whispers that she does. She’s chosen duty over desire. But Ronit’s homecoming brings Esti’s repressed lesbian urges to the forefront once more, and the second act is gratifyingly full of furtive, fervent encounters between these two women.
It’s a quietly devastating film, adapted from Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel and simmering with intrigue and tension. The much-discussed love scene is at its core, an exquisite release of the sexual tension that’s been mounting since the beginning. When I talk to director Sebastián Lelio, he describes how he storyboarded all the action in advance. “I didn’t want to do a generic love scene. The question was how to create a hopefully highly erotic scene in an era where we, for the first time, are overexposed to sex images. So how to create eroticism without nudity and make a scene about the pain, pleasure and abandonment of giving your whole body and soul to someone else. That’s why the entire scene almost is centred on their faces. That forces the spectator to complete what is not being shown. They do that with their own fantasies. What can be more powerful that? I’m not imposing my desires. I’m using yours.” Weisz agrees that this approach is brilliantly effective. “The audience has to imagine where the other woman’s face, tongue, fingers are, which is, I think, more erotic than actually seeing it.”
Understandably, both Rachels were nervous beforehand. Weisz recalls, “We’d been waiting so long to film it and the characters had been waiting so long to do it. There was a lot of pressure. We both felt vulnerable and scared and our hearts were beating, but I also felt very, very safe with her, and she said the same about me.”
As she emphasises, this scene hasn’t just got heat; it’s got heart. “It’s really erotic and sexy, but it was full of soul and vulnerability, which is not something I’ve experienced in the sex scenes with men I’ve done. It wasn’t just sex, it was everything. It was about a spiritual connection. It was about 20 years of waiting for something. It was about Esti releasing into her true self, her gay self. It was very, very emotional. It wasn’t meaningless going through the motions of sex. It felt like a love scene, rather than a fucking scene.”
When I speak to the equally thoughtful and passionate McAdams she confesses, “Sex scenes are always awkward and strange, but this one much less so. We were able to laugh and admit to each other how nervous we felt. Once we dove in, the day flowed quite naturally and easily.” And what about that now iconic spit? “It took me a minute to wrap my head around it – I’d never heard of that as a thing before. But I understood Sebastian’s impulse and that made it easier to, err, swallow. Sorry, I couldn’t resist! He wanted us to have a ‘move’ that you could imagine we did when we were younger and experimenting sexually together. Something that would stand out and be our own. It’s also just such an incredibly intimate thing to do. It leaves no doubt these two woman were meant to make love to each other.”
McAdams obviously adored working with Weisz. She grins, “When I mentioned my next project was a love story with Rachel Weisz, men and women alike would just swoon and say, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky!’ The wonderful thing about Rachel is she brings so much soul and sensuality. It’s hard not to fall in love with her.”
That feeling of admiration is mutual. Weisz gushes, “She’s just heaven, so easy to be in love with, I can’t tell you. The loveliest, kindest, deep, funny, irreverent, mischievous – she’s just great.” I compliment her on the electricity they create together onscreen. “I just don’t think you can work at chemistry. It’s either there or it isn’t. It’s like having chemistry with someone in a non-fictional situation. It just happened between us. She’s completely delightful.”
So we’ve discussed the sex, the spit and how much two of Hollywood’s all time greatest actors named Rachel like each other. But just how did this queer romance come about in the first place? I learn that Weisz, who produces as well as stars in Disobedience, was searching for a story with more than one strong female role, which led her to the world of lesbian literature. “I thought it was time to tell a story about a woman in relation to a woman. There’s something very freeing about that, free from the history of ownership between men and women. I really wanted to explore it and I do think it’s not explored enough. There’s millions of lesbians and not millions of lesbian films. I’m interested in things that have been pushed to the margins. They’re often the most interesting.”
McAdams was Weisz’s first choice to play Esti. Luckily, she was on board immediately. “When I first read Esti on the page I found her so heartbreaking and at the same time triumphant. I loved how much she takes charge of changing her fate. She knows she’s gay, but because her faith doesn’t allow it, she directs all her passion into her job and being a good wife to Dovid.” Prior to filming, McAdams spent six months immersing herself in Orthodox Jewish culture, perfecting her British accent and developing her character.
“Being sexually cut off from herself informed the way she moved and talked. She had a certain stillness and tightness to her. And the way she dressed – the Orthodox dress code is very covered up. This further encouraged a disconnect from her body. We chose a wig that allowed her to feel hidden and unassuming and kept the colours of her wardrobe very muted so she could just disappear into her community.” I discover that during her extensive research process, McAdams even attempted to go incognito to a kosher supermarket in LA. Sadly her cover was blown when some children recognised her and starting asking for autographs and selfies.
On the topic of faith, I’m curious to know how the Orthodox Jewish community has responded to the film. Weisz gives the matter some thought before commenting, “Naomi Alderman, who wrote the book, grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community. She’s since left it but her family who are still in it, her dad and her brother, actually had small parts in the film. They came to see it and really liked it. But on the whole, I don’t know how many people in the Orthodox Jewish community will see it.”
It’s safe to say, though, that the film will attract a large queer audience. The issue of who should get to tell LGBTQ stories is hotly debated, but it’s worth nothing that the engrossing script was a joint effort, co-written by Leilo and playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, and that Lelio boasts impressive queer cinema credentials. Earlier this year his widely praised film, A Fantastic Woman starring trans actor Daniella Vega, won an Oscar. I tentatively broach the subject: how does he feel about being a man telling a queer female love story? “I’m aware of the ongoing discussions about who is representing who. The only thing I have to say is I think artistic freedom should never be menaced. This is about expanding the limits of what’s possible, not restraining them. I think a cisgender actor can interpret a transgender role, or a transgender actor can interpret a transgender role, or a transgender actor can interpret a rock. We should be free.” He speaks vehemently about his art, but it’s also clear he values his queer audience. As I’m leaving, he calls me back into the room to proudly show off the fan art he’s saved to his phone. Thrilled Disobedience has touched viewers in such extraordinary ways, he smiles warmly, “Some of them are very romantic.”
Personally, I find it incredibly exciting to see actors as celebrated, talented and stunning as Weisz and McAdams play lovers on the big screen with such depth, charisma and commitment. And I’m not the only one, as Weisz assures me. “The lesbians I’ve spoken to have felt happy about being represented and like there was a truthfulness to it.” She pauses before adding knowingly, “And they seemed to like the sex scene.”
This article first appeared in the December 2018 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!
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