Exclusive: Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams on New Film ‘Disobedience’

I went into watching Disobedience with nothing but the trailer as a preview of my experience. I prefer not to watch trailers at all, actually. If the movie is a book adaptation, I’m especially pleased if I haven’t read the book yet–you remember how if you loved Harry Potter, you spent all eight movies writhing in agony, screaming THAT’S NOT HOW IT HAPPENED at an uncaring screen. Reading the book after is better, although then you’re stuck with images of the film coloring in every page. We never come to art without outside influences. But I like surprises. If that’s the kind of movie watcher you are, I would suggest waiting to read these interviews until after you’ve seen the film. There are no spoilers here, but there is some really thoughtful conversation with the actors about the process of making the movie and bringing their characters to life. Of course, I would expect nothing less from artists with the entire range between absurdist comedies and statue-winners. Here is what Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams had to say about their roles in Disobedience.

Disobedience movie

Interview with Rachel Weisz

Afterellen.com (AE): I saw you say in interviews that you were looking for films with two strong female leads – how did you find Disobedience?

Rachel Weisz (RW): I read the book and I optioned the book and went on the journey of transforming it into a screenplay with Sebastián [Lelio], and later with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, British playwright/writer, so it was a journey from novel to screenplay to film, where my job became just an actor, and then post-filming I was a producer, and I watched the cuts and edits, and I was involved in shaping the film with and for Sebastián.

AE: Why was this the story you wanted to tell?

RW: I think it had two wonderful roles for women and then a really wonderful role for a man as well. It had three spectacular roles.

I was interested in stories of freedom, self-expression, taboo, morality. if you set something in the 1950s or before or within the Amish community– like there was a film in the 80s, Witness, Kelly McGillis and Harrison Ford–it’s when things are kind of far away from us–or like the Shape of Water, where its 1950s/60s plus fantasy–you can talk about really relevant, contemporary ideas like freedom/liberty/sexuality because it’s sort of removed from you. No one knows about the Amish community or the British Orthodox community–they’re a closed world, closed universe. I thought it was a really interesting way to talk about sexual freedom, personal expression–what are the kids saying these days?–agency. I think of it as existential self-determination: you can be who you want, love who you want. I thought within this microcosm, this world, it became a universal story.

AE: The story is not specific to Orthodoxy or even lesbian culture, it’s like–are you familiar with conformity and wanting to belong?

RW: Exactly.

AE: I haven’t read the book yet because I didn’t want it to spoil my movie experience. But I’ve read in reader reviews the romance was not the only aspect of the novel. I wonder what elements from the book did or didn’t make it into the movie. How could the romance be used to frame the question of freedom and belonging?

RW: I know when Naomi Alderman saw the film–she was full of grace. She didn’t want to be involved in the adaptation. She just wanted to see the film after it was done. She said it was all she’d hoped for and more because it was a meditation on what she had written, but it was its own version. It wasn’t a documentary of the book.

I guess film is a good place for desire isn’t it? Desire and longing, it really suits film (not that it doesn’t suit novels as well). It was just always clear to us that it was going to be about desire and repressed desire and desire unleashed. You know that the sex scene, particularly for Esti, was symbolic, this incredible release into her true self. It interested Sebastián and myself.

AE: I’m glad you brought up the sex scene. I really wanted to ask you about this. I was really pleased with the sex scene for not being too objectifying, and yet at the same time, it was not lesbian 101, it’s not trite or just kissing, it was advanced lesbianing.

RW: Good I’m so glad.

AE: I was wondering how you and the team managed to move beyond stale, pornified versions of lesbian sex to this thing which is really original among movies about lesbians.

RW: I give the credit to Sebastián. He obviously thought about it a lot. He storyboarded the sex scene. He showed us the images; he wanted to show us he wasn’t really interested in showing pubic hair, vaginas, buttocks, the erogenous zones. It was the face; it was all about what was happening outside the frame. You’re left to imagine where tongues and fingers are and what is happening, because you see the pleasure on the face, on both faces. We knew in advance.

Ultimately what happens in sex scenes, whether heterosexual, between two men, two women, is that you just see what happens, you get in bed and wriggle around…We were given coordinates, like notes of music if you like, like a musician would be given notes, but it was up to us to fill it with emotion or technique or whatever you want to call acting. So it was thought out, and we were allowed to abandon ourselves to the shots that he set up. The idea of, you know, the wetness and the spitting in her mouth, all those things– he didn’t say ‘oh why didn’t we try this’ in that moment, which is really smart, we felt very in charge and we knew what was happening and we could just really get lost in the emotion, the desire and passion, but really the emotional connection they both have.

Esti comes for the first time probably in a long time, it’s a big deal, it’s a really big deal. So that orgasm is not only erotic and beautiful, but it’s also very emotional. It signifies freedom. And where is Ronit? You don’t know. Everyone imagines their own version of what’s happening outside the frame, which to Sebastián and me is more erotic than showing absolutely everything because our imagination is quite good at being erotic.  Laughing Sorry we’re talking a lot about sex.

AE: Well we are a lesbian publication after all! So… this question is kind of for my own clarification. Many of the promotional materials for the movie sort of say that Ronit was pushed out of the community for her sexuality, but I thought it was more about the fact that she was unruly on many levels. Her sexuality was confrontational [to the community], but she’s actually bisexual or maybe specifically gay for Esti, whereas Esti’s sexuality is cut and dry, as far as how she describes it. So Ronit is kicked out because of the one incident where she was found with Esti, or was it bigger than that?

RW: It was her father the Rav who found them in bed, and you’re probably right, it was an amalgamation of rebelliousness. They wanted to split us up, the community wanted us to be apart. They chose me to exile. The Rabbi felt like he could control her a little more and he was right; he arranged her marriage. He felt like she would be more pliable and more amenable to staying, whereas I was a bit of a lost cause. I was a little more independent. [Ronit] is bisexual or she’s gay for Esti. She loves Esti. It transcends definition–Esti is the love of her life and she happens to be a woman.


Interview with Rachel McAdams

AE: What drew you to this project?

Rachel McAdams (RA): So many things! It’s very rare to read a script where all the main parts are really rich and everyone has a lot to do, and there was this interesting triangle between my character, Rachel’s and Alessandro’s that I hadn’t really come across before. They were all well-developed. Sometimes it feels like one character falls by the wayside, or a character is just there to be on the arm of another. These characters all had rich individual lives that all intersected beautifully.

And then I had had the pleasure of working with Rachel for ONE day years ago and it was kind of a bit of a tease I guess and I hoped our paths would cross again, because she is such an extraordinary person and actress, so I jumped at the chance to do that, to really dive into something with her this time.

And then Sebastián. I hadn’t seen A Fantastic Woman yet; he was finishing it when we started this film–he’s always busy, so we were lucky we got him for this–but I had seen Gloria, an extraordinary film about a woman who’s middle aged, her children have all left the nest, she’s single, and she needs to figure out who she is now. And often those women play supporting characters on someone’s arm or they’re the granny, and this film was all about her and this time of life we don’t see reflected on film very often. So it was just his sensibility about stories that aren’t told but need to be told. It was very exciting and inspiring.

AE: Esti, Dovid and Ronit are like the three musketeers in their childhood. But Dovid is not as rebellious as her and Ronit. What draws Esti to Dovid?

RM: I think Dovid’s a really good man and both Ronit and Esti were always drawn to his goodness and his affection for them. I think–based on Naomi Alderman’s book–I believe Dovid was always drawn to Esti, and in the film, she’s saying ‘if you have to be with a man why not be with your best friend?’ So it was a combination of him wanting her and her feeling like ‘well this is the next best thing if I can’t be who I am.’ And I think the community really approved of it, and that can’t be taken lightly either. The Rav, Ronit’s father, really approved of Dovid and Esti being together and encouraged and enforced that, and it’s hard for either of them to get away from.

AE: So I asked Ms. Weisz this question and I really wanted to hear your take too. I was really happy with the sex scene for not being too objectifying, and yet at the same time, it’s not trite or just romantic, it was advanced lesbianing. So how did you make sure it wasn’t pornified?

RM: Sebastián was very interested in “the new.” Like–how do you shoot a sex scene that doesn’t feel like an old trope you’ve seen a million times? how do you make it specific to these two people? and how do you make it advance the story rather than just ‘ok pause for the sex scene now’? It was a real plot point in the story, and we couldn’t have advanced without it. It had so much meaning and so many layers to it.

AE: For this role, you did a lot of research and met with Orthodox families [McAdams also learned some Hebrew and there were Orthodox consultants on set]. I wonder if you took away any lessons about self vs. community, modernity vs. tradition from this.

RM: In all religion, there’s a lot of contradiction. Within Judaism, community is so much a part of that religion, and there’s a togetherness that makes it hard to individualize within it. And yet when I got inside of it, I found that that’s not true at all, that’s kind of an outsider’s viewpoint and there’s a lot of contradiction. It was very surprising to me, it seems very different from the outside than when you get inside of it.

For instance, women are revered and the mother is revered in Judaism, and yet women have to sit separately from the men in worship. So I was always confused and interested by all the contradictions and I realized there’s a lot of rules. And you don’t have to follow all of them, but in Orthodoxy you have to follow most of them–but not all of them. I was a little lost in it sometimes, but that kind of helped me understand, it can be all or nothing. You have to take it on, or you reject it entirely in Orthodoxy. There is not a lot of wiggle room, and that’s where Esti lives. She has to be on one path or the other, and yet at the end, she finds middle ground, a loophole, a way to believe in what she believes in, but that God did give her free will, and it’s her choice to disobey. She is still within her religion to disobey.

AE: Now I don’t want you to flirt with any spoilers, but I really want to know how do you feel about the ending? Do you think Esti has what she needs in the end?

I love about the film imagining what happens to these characters after the movie is over, you know Disobedience: the Sequel. I think she’s made the biggest step she needs to make toward self-actualization and being a more fulfilled person. She’s taken the hardest step. But I imagine her world is gonna really open up from there and I think it will be difficult and painful for her but I think she has a much better road ahead. I do think she has what she needs because she was the one holding herself back and she has the courage to face that. And that’s the hardest thing for any of us to do.

Based on Naomi Alderman’s book,  Disobedience stars Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola. The film will be in theaters on April 27th. 

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