Born March 7, 1971, in London, England; daughter of Georg (an inventor) and Edith (a psychoanalyst) Weisz; children: a son (with Darren Aronofsky, a director). Education: Earned degree from Cambridge University, c. 1993.
Addresses: Agent —Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212. Home —New York, NY, and London, England.
Actress in films, including: Death Machine, 1995; Chain Reaction, 1996; Stealing Beauty, 1996; Swept from the Sea, 1997; Bent, 1997; The Land Girls, 1998; The Mummy, 1999; Sunshine, 1999; Beautiful Creatures, 2001; Enemy at the Gates, 2001; The Mummy Returns, 2001; About a Boy, 2002; Confidence, 2003; The Shape of Things (also producer), 2003; Runaway Jury, 2003; Envy, 2004; Constantine, 2005; The Constant Gardener, 2005; The Fountain, 2006; The Lady from Shanghai, 2006. Television appearances include: Inspector Morse, 1993; Scarlet and Black (movie), 1993; Dirty Something (movie), 1993; White Goods (movie), 1994; Seventeen (movie), 1994; My Summer with Des (movie) 1998. Stage appearances include: The Year of the Family, Finborough Theatre, London, England, 1994; Design for Living, Gielgud Theatre, London, 1994-95; Suddenly Last Summer, Comedy Theatre, London, 1999; The Shape of Things, Almeida Theatre, London, 2001; The Shape of Things, Promenade Theatre, New York, NY, 2001.
Awards: Most Promising Newcomer, London Critics' Circle, 1995; Golden Globe for best performance by an actress in a supporting role in a motion picture,
British screen siren Rachel Weisz won her first Academy Award in 2006 for her role in The Constant Gardener, the well-received adaptation of the John le Carré novel. After just a decade in the business, she was one of the most sought-after actresses on both sides of the Atlantic, appearing in such works as The Mummy, About a Boy, Enemy at the Gates, and Runaway Jury. With homes in Manhattan and the Primrose Hill section of London, Weisz avoids Los Angeles, though she once attempted to settle there when her career was just beginning. "I couldn't make a life there," she admitted to Sean O'Hagan in London's Observer newspaper. "You're in a car all the time, and there are no seasons."
Weisz, whose surname is pronounced "vice," was born on March 7, 1971, in London. Both of her parents had come to England from elsewhere on the Continent—her father, Georg, was a Hungarian-born inventor, and her psychoanalyst mother, Edith, was originally from Austria. Both were from Jewish families that had fled the Nazi German threat before World War II. In England, Weisz's father rose to prominence as a developer of a self-contained respirator unit and also conceived a detector for deadly landmines. The family lived in the ritzy Hampstead area of north London, home to a long list of illustrious residents, from Charles Dickens to Bjork, and Weisz was sent to the prestigious St. Paul's Girls' School in west London, where one of her classmates was another future film star, Emily Mortimer ( Scream 3, Match Point ).
Weisz pursued a career as a catalog model in her teens. That led to her discovery by a talent scout, who offered her a part in a planned Richard Gere film, King David. Weisz's parents disagreed on whether she should take the role, and she herself was ambivalent about it. "I didn't want to do anything that would make me different, make people at school hate me," she told Harriet Lane in an interview with the London newspaper the Observer. In the end, she declined the offer.
Weisz's parents divorced when she was 16, and she struggled to finish her secondary-school obligations. When she failed her exit exams, she nearly missed her chance at a college education, but a sympathetic teacher convinced administrators at Trinity Hall College, part of Cambridge University, to let her enroll anyway but on a form of academic probation. She did well once there, studying toward a degree in English, and began performing in student theater productions. With a few friends she took a train trip through Eastern Europe on one of their breaks, visiting its major cities to attend the avant-garde theater performances that were a staple of the Communist-era cultural life in the Eastern bloc. Back in Cambridge, Weisz and her cohorts founded a theater company they named Talking Tongues.
Weisz's first brush with professional success came when an improv piece her group staged, Slight Possession, won an award at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. She recalled her student-thespian days fondly many years later, telling Jasper Rees in the Independent on Sunday that the period was "probably the most exciting time I can ever remember. It was all ours, and that's never been repeated. We did some of the best work I've ever done, which probably about 100 people ever saw."
Not surprisingly, Weisz's parents were uneasy with her extracurricular drama activities, and had expected her to pursue a career in law. "They weren't skeptical," she explained to O'Hagan in another Observer interview. "They just thought I was pretty crap. They saw me in my first play and were justifi-ably underwhelmed." She graduated from Trinity Hall after completing her dissertation on the ghost stories of Henry James, and decided against drama school, unlike some of her Cambridge theater friends. Hoping to break into the business right away, "I did some TV, so I completely sold out," she told Rees in the Independent on Sunday. "All my friends at Cambridge just thought I was the lowest of the low."
Weisz did manage to land one stage role, in a 1994 drama called The Year of the Family at London's Fin-borough Theatre, but desperately hoped to win a part in an upcoming production of a Noel Coward play, Design for Living, at the Gielgud Theatre. Finally, the well-known director agreed to see her, but warned her agent ahead of time that she would not be cast; she was anyway, as Gilda, one of the leads in the racy farce, and the role won her the Most Promising Newcomer of 1995 award from the London Critics' Circle.
Despite her seemingly effortless early success, Weisz felt adrift, she told Suzie Mackenzie in the Guardian. "Not suicidal, never that, but days when I couldn't get out of bed that kind of thing." Her psychoanalyst mother had warned her against delving into therapy, but Weisz disobeyed and spent five years on the couch. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done," she said in the same interview, but worthwhile in the end. "At last I was able to get on with my life."
Weisz made her film debut in a little-seen action thriller called Death Machine in 1995, and went on to win a lead role alongside Keanu Reeves in Chain Reaction the following year. She and Reeves played beleaguered scientists on the run from evil conspirators in the film, which earned largely negative reviews—though New York Times critic Janet Maslin did notice that "Weisz makes a strong sidekick for Mr. Reeves' character, even if the film doesn't give her much to do."
Weisz fared somewhat better with her third film, Stealing Beauty, a 1996 Bernardo Bertolucci tale of American and British expatriates in Tuscany. The cast included Jeremy Irons and Liv Tyler, and Weisz stole more than one scene as a vixenish daughter of the villa. Rees, writing in the Independent on Sunday, asserted that Weisz's Miranda "embodied a certain type of Englishwoman: bored, laconic, plummy, fantastically at ease with herself, jaded with disdain for the foreign surroundings in which she baked her largely naked body."
Juicier film parts were offered to Weisz after that: she was cast in a nineteenth-century romance alongside Vincent Perez in Swept from the Sea, and then appeared in The Land Girls in 1998, a World War II-era drama about a trio of women serving Britain in uniform. Her first experience with Hollywood came when she was cast in the hit 1999 flick The Mummy opposite Brendan Fraser. Weisz liked the role of Evelyn, the earnest librarian, she told Lane in the Observer interview. "Evelyn's a good character," she said. "She's not just the token girl: she has a good, meaty, feisty role, and I thought the idea of a librarian on an adventure was funny."
Weisz's dark hair, porcelain skin, and vintage-style beauty seemed to make her a natural choice for period films, especially those with a Central European flavor. She appeared with Ralph Fiennes in the Hungarian family saga Sunshine in 1999, and was cast as a Russian adventuress alongside Jude Law in the 2001 siege-of-Stalingrad story Enemy at the Gates. She was reportedly rejected, however, for the lead in Bridget Jones's Diary, because the film's producers considered her too attractive to play the title role convincingly.
Weisz reprised her Evelyn role for The Mummy Returns in 2001, and next appeared as a single mother who so captivates Hugh Grant's character in About a Boy that he pretends to be single parent, too. Interestingly, one of the film's two directors, Chris Weitz, had also been at Trinity Hall when Weisz was there. Because their surnames were similar, he once received a piece of mail in his slot that had been meant for her, which he found absolutely thrilling, for Weisz was known as the "Trinity Hall heartbreaker," according to the Sunday Times ' Jeff Dawson.
After 2003's Confidence, in which she starred alongside Ed Burns and Dustin Hoffman, Weisz appeared in the film version of playwright Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things. Two years earlier, she had appeared in both the London and New York stage productions in the lead, as an American art student who remakes a somewhat disheveled, introverted young man into a more appealing mate. The story was marked by LaBute's razor-sharp dialogue delivered by characters whose amorality is the plot's centerpiece. Weisz also served as one of the film's producers, which was one of the reasons, she told Sunday Times journalist David Eimer, that she accepted such a wide range of film roles. "If you do a big movie like The Mummy and it's successful, you can help finance small movies that are more your thing," she explained. "They call them 'passion projects' in America, which sounds odd, but it makes sense."
Weisz appeared in Runaway Jury, the 2003 adaptation of the John Grisham novel, with John Cusack and Gene Hackman, before tackling another comedy, 2004's Envy, that teamed her with Jack Black and Ben Stiller. Revlon recruited her to appear in its celebrity-laden ad campaigns, which put her on a roster that included such Hollywood heavyweights as Halle Berry and Julianne Moore, and in 2005 she re-connected with Reeves for the superhero action flick Constantine. But it was her role in another film that year that earned Weisz her first Academy Award: she was cast as the mysterious and maddening Tessa Quayle in The Constant Gardener, based on espionage-thriller author John le Carré's novel of the same name. The plot centers around her murder, and the quest her diplomat husband Justin (Ralph Fiennes) embarks upon to ferret out the truth. Their unlikely romance is told in flashback, as is Tessa's involvement in unmasking nefarious pharmaceutical-company misdeeds in Kenya.
The Constant Gardener won laudatory reviews as well as some industry honors. "Weisz makes it easy to believe Tessa's fearlessness," declared Entertainment Weekly 's Lisa Schwarzbaum. "She's as mobile, open-faced, and sexually alive as Fiennes is shuttered, and the two make a potent couple." Her Oscar win was preceded by a Golden Globe award, each in the best actress in a supporting role category, and Weisz accepted her Academy Award visibly pregnant, a development she had been forced to announce just a few weeks earlier as a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. She had been romantically involved with director Darren Aronofsky ( Requiem for a Dream ), since 2001, and the two were engaged to be married. Weisz gave birth to their son on May 31, 2006.
In 2006, Aronofsky was busy finishing work on The Fountain, a science-fiction thriller he directed that starred Weisz and Hugh Jackman. The three-part epic was set in sixteenth-century Spain, the present, and the future, and it was the first time Weisz had worked with her fiancé. Journalists often asked her if any tensions arose from being forced to combine their personal and professional lives, but Weisz ventured only that it was "great to watch someone at work," she told Eimer, the Sunday Times interviewer. "I don't know if he feels the same. I guess he does. I don't get any special treatment."
Entertainment Weekly, September 2, 2005, p. 58; September 16, 2005, pp. 38-40.
Guardian (London, England), March 22, 1999, p. 4; August 1, 2003, p. 6.
Independent on Sunday (London, England), March 14, 1999, p. 20.
New York Times, August 2, 1996.
Observer (London, England), June 13, 1999, p. 6; October 16, 2005, p. 16.
Sunday Times (London, England), July 27, 2003, p. 4; March 13, 2005, p. 4.
Times (London, England), February 4, 1995, p. 5.
— Carol Brennan