When you were younger you had a rebellious streak, you were quite disruptive, apparently, and you had to change school several times. . .
"Um, I think that's true. Yeah. It's about half a lifetime ago, but yeah."
Well now in a lot of these roles, you're playing women who take on the male status quo and disrupt it in a sense. In The Constant Gardener, the people Tessa takes on in the worlds of politics and big business are all men, for instance. Are you channelling that rebellious energy into your roles now?
"Well in this case I think there are women who work in the pharmaceutical industry. I don't think it's just a patriarchy."
I’m sure that’s true but in the context of this story, all of Tessa's antagonists are male. All of the diplomats, doctors and politicians she encounters are male.
"I grew up under Maggie Thatcher so I don't think of the political world as being male. I really don't. [Laughs] Do you?"
I'm talking about the way it's represented in the film. Also, Thatcher surrounded herself with men and took on the attributes of her male counterparts.
"She had quite big hair [smiles]. I can see what your question is but no. I'm playing an activist in this film and I've always been fascinated by people who will devote their life to a cause to help people less fortunate than themselves. As we're sitting here now, in the Dorchester in London, there are people in Africa and India, in refugee camps, who are devoting their life to helping people and who are putting their life in danger to do what they think is right. And Tessa is such a person. She knows that her life is in danger. I'm fascinated and in awe of these people who have that drive. What do I do for a living? I tell stories. I entertain. There's a place for that. It's an important thing. But I'm not saving lives. I'm completely different from my character but it was my job and my challenge to do these people justice."
Did you meet any of the women who work in the field?
"Oxfam were very kind and generous and they allowed me to meet a lot of people that had come back from the field and I talked to them and tried to absorb their stories. But the real inspiration came in Africa, mainly from African aid workers. There were some African women who were working with the HIV sufferers who were living in the shanty town [Kibera], and they allowed me to go on house calls - well, they're not really houses - but to visit people in their dwellings. She was sort of counselling them and checking up on them and this one particular woman was very gracious and allowed me to tag along. She'd been campaigning for a long time, she was also HIV+ herself and had been living with HIV, I think, for the last 15 years -- she'd lost her husband to HIV -- and she was a feminist activist and she was a very, very inspiring woman."
You said you just tell stories. Do you think that as part of your work you can help bring these issues to a wider public? Although the framework of this film is fiction, the issues it deals with are a fact, and I think this could sit alongside documentaries like The Corporation and, to some extent, Fahrenheit 9/11, which both, to a greater or lesser extent, talk about the dubious practices of big business, in terms of raising awareness about the way the pharmaceutical industry exploits the Third World.
"I think that's very dangerous what you're saying, personally."
"Because The Corporation is a documentary. This is a piece of fiction, as you know, that was written by John Le Carre in the year 2000. Even though it was meticulously researched, this isn't a documentary; it's a piece of fiction. You know, as Ralph Fiennes [her co-star] has corrected me before, it will continue a debate that's hotly being debated right now. It's going on. But I think it's important to separate it. A documentary is there to inform and educate people. This is primarily a piece of entertainment and a thriller that happens to have a huge soul, heart, and social conscience."
It seems to me, though, that through the dramatic elements of the story you are creating an emotional connection between the audience and the issues which will help raise awareness and hopefully make people who had never thought about these things take more notice. In that sense the film could be said to be doing something similar to the documentaries.
"It's not my job to make that claim. You can, as a commentator on the piece of fiction. But that's not my claim."
You have talked about wanting to make documentaries before. What do you think documentaries can do that a dramatic film can't and vice versa?
"My love of documentaries is not so much to do with what they can do but I love documentary because, you know, you're not watching performances. It captures reality. I like social documentaries and it's fascinating to me. It's often more fascinating to me than watching people act. It just is."
Are there issues/subjects you have in mind that you'd like to address?
"Um, they'd probably be very small subjects, just about people, individuals. They're not great big topics like Tessa would want to take on. If Tessa made a documentary we could imagine what it would be. I'm not Tessa. It would be smaller."
Were you engaged in any kind of political activity prior to the making of this film, say when you were at Cambridge, or been involved with any charities?
"Sure. There are charities that I support and give money to. During the time in Africa I shot an advert for the World Food Programme. I'm talking to them about maybe helping more. Also I'm involved with the Constant Gardener Charity Trust which is an ongoing fundraising organisation to build a school, particularly in an area of North Kenya where there's only a school that goes up to eleven. What happens, unfortunately, is that when the girls, particularly, leave school, they get married off and in school they kind of fend off marriage for longer. I think education's very important so I'm thrilled that we're going to be able to give back something to the country, as they were so hospitable and generous to us. Also, it's such a small amount of money, really, because it's very cheap to build a school and buy school books in Kenya, but it has such a huge impact on their lives."
Your decision to do this film looks quite brave to me, particularly given the anti-Iraq war argument you trenchantly deliver near the beginning of the film.
"Well, we didn't know how things were going to turn out. If you think about it, it's a year ago. But if you speak as yourself, people can take you up on whatever your point of view is. I'm playing a character in a piece of fiction that, as I said, was written by John Le Carre. So I don't think anyone will personally pick me up on something that happens in a piece of fiction. I'm playing a character. She's a student in a film. But I think her point of view will be shared by a lot of people; apparently, in America at least, by half the country. Well, just slightly under half. In England I don't know what the percentages are. I think it's more than half against the war."
Was her position one that you agreed with at the time? It is such an outright condemnation of the war that one assumes it would be hard to play if one didn't share those opinions.
"That's not true! Ralph Fiennes played a Nazi. Could he have played a Nazi unless he believed in Nazism? I don't agree with you."
But Ralph Fiennes had historical distance on his side. He was playing a historical figure in a Holocaust film directed by Steven Spielberg, which obviously indicated where the film was coming from. You're playing a fictional character who delivers a speech that is relevant to a debate that is happening right now.
"I see what you're saying, but no. Anyway, what were you asking?"
Was that a position that you held before doing the film? John Le Carre has railed against the Iraq war in the press and he's said that this film helps fill in the gaps that the media has left with its spin and so forth.
"But not to do with the Iraq war. . ."
[EXTRACT FROM REUTERS INTERVIEW WITH LE CARRE: In recent years le Carre has shed his image as a private man to rail against the war in Iraq. In 2003 he wrote an opinion piece in a British newspaper called "The United States of America has gone mad". Not everyone was impressed with his attack on Washington policy, but le Carre is not about to be silenced. "We have virtual news, we have crap news, we have substitute news all the time. So a movie like this [The Constant Gardener] actually steps in, and although it is fiction, (it) is an incontrovertible statement of human behaviour at its most dismal. It is our duty as patriots ... to get back in there and fill the media gap which has been created by spin, lies, deception and a contempt for the public."]
To do with the pharmaceuticals industry, but he has railed against the Iraq war in the Times. He's taken that position and it's been reflected in the film, and also stated that a film like The Constant Gardener, although fiction, helps to “fill the media gap which has been created by spin, lies, deception and a contempt for the public."
"Oh. Well, he's an ex spy and a political expert and I feel that he's very well equipped to verbally take on nations and governments and issues. Everything he writes is political."
Did you have discussions with him about your character, the issues in the film, and whatnot?
"No, I didn't meet him until the cast and crew screening. I'd never met him before. David Cornwell, as his real name is. He's very charming, a very lovely man, and he was very happy with the film. Very happy! That was nice."
But was the politics of the film an attraction for you as well as the love story and thriller aspects?
"The fact that it's smart and intelligent and raises a lot of . . . it's not a new subject matter, it's a debate that's been going on for a while now. It began with the debate over generics and patenting. It's a very current and important and interesting debate, so yeah, of course. It's a love story but they're also people that are . . . the idea, I think, that most appealed to me was that I think in our parents' generation they felt more idealistic and I think they felt more that one person can make a difference. I think there's much more a feeling now - I'm really generalising because there are individuals who prove my point wrong – but students today are not that politically active. Not like they used to be. And what I loved about this film is that it portrays people, Tessa and then Justin [Fiennes’ character], who really do believe, absolutely, that one person can make a difference. Not only that one person make a difference but if you just help one person - you know that scene that they have in the car where she says, 'Here is one person that we can help right now'? – that spirit, I don't want to call it a message because it sounds too preachy, but that notion moves me very, very deeply."
It does run counter to the apathy which has overtaken a lot of people.
"I think growing up under Thatcher has produced a very selfish, self-involved bunch of young adults. It was just a real kind of money-worshipping time. There is apathy. I think maybe things are changing. There were the [antiwar] marches . . . I don't know."
Going back to the Iraq War thing in the film, The Constant Gardener does seem to draw a thematic link between the exploitation of Africans by big business and a war fought for oil. It's the West taking from these countries with little concern for the people.
"Well I think the point Tessa is really making, and I think it's an important point, is that the United Nations was created, I think, as a result of the Second World War, and the point that Tessa's making is that diplomacy may or may not work but the idea of it was to use diplomacy to the hilt to prevent war. After the Second World War that was the idea and America, this is not a point of view it's a fact, ignored the United Nations. That's her point. They ignored the United Nations and they went to war. That's the point she is making. I can see the parallels that you're making, though."
You live in America. In New York I believe.
"Yeah, I'm between London and New York.”
So you still have your flat here in the UK?
"Yeah, north London."
You tried living in LA for a while and it didn't work out.
"Yeah, I'd been there to make films. I had a little stint there but it wasn't so much to live. I was a young actress and did auditions and stuff and didn't last too long. New York is fantastic. New York is a city of immigrants; there's China Town, Japan Town, Brazil Town, Korea Town, Vietnamese Town. There's the Greeks in Astoria, Italians and Russians in Brooklyn. I live in Manhattan, but in Brooklyn Manhattan Beach is where all the Russian community live and they call it Little Odessa. It's like going to Russia. Everyone is Russian. The food is Russian, caviar . . . it's a very exciting city. It's not America. I mean no one in America thinks so. It's very multicultural."
Will you make that your permanent home now that you're engaged to the filmmaker Darren Aronofsky?
"My family's here [England] -- my mum, my dad, my sister, my brothers, my stepmother -- I've got a whole family here, so I’ll be moving backwards and forwards."
Getting back to Africa, tell me about filming in the shanty town in Kibera. Seeing it on film, the people seem so alive and yet they're living in a kind of squalor that you think would grind one down.
“Yeah well, you know, I've never seen poverty on that level. A million people living in a very small space with no running water, no sanitation, no electricity, there's a very high level of disease, HIV, and yet there's that scene in the movie where the children come running up to you and they say, 'How are you?' They welcome you. I remember coming back and saying this to my sister and saying they've got such - I mean the kids have got nothing, they've got no toys, literally no toys, so they make footballs from plastic bags scrunched together and they just wrap string around it, and they kick it around, or they take a piece of string with a button on the end and they pull it as if it's a dog. Toddlers of three or four are already carrying their siblings on their back. And yet their spirit is so welcoming and there's a life going on. There's little cafes and they're barbecuing meat. There's a life. Anyway, I came back and I said this to my sister and she was like, 'You're being so sentimental. You can't say that. You're a wealthy white person. How can you go there and say that?' They said to me, 'Where you come from, do children welcome strangers?' and I said, 'Where I come from children are told not to speak to strangers.' We live in a different culture but you do ask a question whether with material wealth there can be spiritual poverty and vice versa. It's a dangerous territory, though, isn't it?"
But how did you feel when you first went into the shanty town? Watching the film I initially felt guilty at seeing the poverty. You’ve spoken in the past about feeling guilty about your success. Did you feel guilty going into Kibera?
"Of course you go in thinking that but then you think that actually that's so patronising. How patronising! A lot of these people are actually so much happier than a lot of the people I know, who are moaning about whatever it is we moan about when we're living in comfort in our Western cultures. There's song, there's dance, there's children looking after their siblings, they have very tight knit families. At Tessa's funeral, that was the Kibera Women’s Choir. They have a choir! There aren’t any street names or anything, there's no postal service, but it has its own logic, it has its own teachers, it has its own magistrates, it has its own legal system, it is its own society, and it is functioning. No one in Kibera is starving. There is enough food there. There is just a real problem with water and sanitation and disease. So we weren't in a refugee camp where people were hungry. There were the equivalents of pubs there where they make a local brew. There were barber shops. There was the equivalent of a cinema where they have a little room and a TV and they're watching lots of Jackie Chan movies. So there's a life going on there, a busy and full life. People are falling in love, they're having sex, they're watching movies, they're eating, but there are severe problems with the sanitation and running water. But in a way you feel very patronising to pity them."
Initially my feeling was, you know, 'Wealthy movie star coming into poverty-stricken Africa'.
"Well hopefully you felt it like it was the character."
Yeah, but the reality is that you are a wealthy movie star coming into this environment with a film crew to film, as you have said yourself, a work of fiction. So, from the outside, the perception could have been different.
"The point is I wasn't me. I wasn't playing myself, I was representing an activist. I mean that's what fiction does. One has to separate the two. There are people who do what Tessa does and I was portraying that. And those people deserve to be represented in fiction and celebrated."
But if Kibera and Kenya hadn't been such a part of the texture of the film -- I love that Africa is in the film's DNA, and that the film is so empathetic - but just a backdrop, it potentially could have looked horrible.
"Well, I had seen City of God so I didn't have any of those fears. I saw the humanity. I saw where this director was coming from and he is from a country that has extreme disparity between rich and poor and I saw the subject he had chosen to make his movie about, and I didn't have any fears that it was going to be a colonial type movie."
Had you read the novel when you signed up for the film?
“I hadn’t actually read it. I then read it many times once I had read the script. It’s a really fine piece of writing. A wonderful novel.”
Do you think Fernando was able to bring a different perspective to an English director, given where he came from?
“Yeah. I guess like Ang Lee making a Jane Austen piece, it was a Brazilian making a film from an African-English point of view. But it was from his point of view. I think you’d have to ask him but definitely. I think he comes from a country where there are similar issues. In Kenya there are the very, very rich and there’s the extremely poor, and I think he comes from a culture that is very aware of that, whereas in England we don’t have that level of disparity.”
Did you audition for the part?
"I didn’t audition, I didn’t read for him, but I really wanted the part. I was in LA working and I had 24 hours off and got on a plane and came to meet him. He wasn’t really familiar with anybody in England, I don’t think, so I got on a plane, flew over, met him for an hour and flew back. I’m just saying that as a measure of how much I wanted to do the role. And then, you know, I think he carried on meeting people, and I got more and more anxious, sent him a very passionate letter telling him how much I wanted to work with him and why I wanted to play the role, and eventually he gave me the part.”
What did you give as your main reasons for wanting to play the role?
“I mean, you know, I can’t remember the exact wording but just how much I respected him and how much I loved the character and the material.”
Do you think a film like this can help make a difference? Do you think cinema can make a difference?
“Um, I think, you know, film can be inspirational. I think if it works it can be emotionally very affecting. And then it’s up to people if the emotions lead them to do anything or not. I never would make that claim because I just don’t think that’s my job. I think if people feel affected to do something that’s wonderful. But that’s not my aim. I think you have to tell a story because you want to tell a story. And how that story affects people is up to how the world receives it.”
But does this film feel different to you from other movies you’ve done, because of the subject matter?
“Of course. The Mummy is a fantasy and that was just meant to entertain people. That wasn’t raising any social issue. I think people work very hard and they want to be entertained, and they don’t always want to be . . . you know, there’s a place for pure entertainment. I like to be just purely entertained sometimes. But yeah, of course this is different and there was a responsibility, as I’ve said, because there are people who are doing this job. I didn’t feel as much responsibility as I was portraying a librarian in The Mummy, although I did get a letter from a librarian who felt I hadn’t represented them properly. She felt it was a misrepresentation of librarians. But, you know, people are doing what Tessa does and people have died doing what she does. Tonally it’s a different world. It’s apples and oranges, I guess.”
How did it feel wearing the pregnancy prosthetic?
“Great. I love being pregnant. It felt good.”
Did it make you feel broody?
“Very. Very broody, yeah. Pregnant women, I think, are so beautiful. I think everyone feels that, don’t they? It is nature, isn’t it? That’s life, isn’t it? It is life.”
Have you talked to Darren Aronofsky, your partner, about kids?
“Yeah, I’d love to have children. Definitely.”
[A few months after this interview, Weisz and Aronofsky announced they were expecting their first child]