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CHICAGO - You've probably seen Rachel Weisz in several movies, yet the next time you catch her - which should be in "The Constant Gardener" - you still won't know what to expect.
That's because Weisz isn't one of those actresses who arrives on screen accompanied by a carefully crafted persona or well-publicized dating history. Actresses such as Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Sandra Bullock have branded themselves, their names selling tickets because viewers feel like they know they know these performers on screen and off.
Weisz, a 34-year-old British actress who does American accents often and well, has the kind of beauty and talent that could make her a natural fixture of our tabloid culture, but she hasn't gone that route. When you watch her act, you see her character, not some extension of the person you assume she is - and that's fine by her.
"I take that as a compliment," Weisz, casually stunning and thoughtful in real life, said while in town earlier this month. She attributes this lack of expectations to the fact that "I've just done lots of different kinds of things."
That may be true. When you've played a librarian-turned-adventurer in two special-effects-filled blockbusters ("The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns"); a determined manipulator of juries in a legal drama ("Runaway Jury"); the down-to-earth girlfriend in a smart, character-driven comedy ("About a Boy"); a classic noir femme fatale ("Confidence"); and a female cop and her dead twin in a supernatural thriller ("Constantine"), you're not looking to get pigeonholed.
Although her kind, soft features often convey sweetness, in certain roles - such as when she is mercilessly remaking her boyfriend in Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things" or rebelling against the power structure in "The Constant Gardener" - they make her characters' ferocity that much more startling.
The flip side to all of this is that Weisz's work has never become overshadowed by her celebrity. To her, appearing regularly in star-fixated shows, magazines and gossip columns is a choice.
"Most definitely," she said. "I think then it sometimes gets out of their control, and then they become the victim of their choice."
The week we spoke, for instance, Vanity Fair had just published its interview with Jennifer Aniston in which she appeared to be taking the high road while offering up for public consumption her wounded feelings about her split from Brad Pitt.
"They're at a level where their relationship has become in part public property," Weisz said.
Weisz lives in New York City with her fiance, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream," "Pi"), and though they're not at the stop-and-stare level of Brad-`n'-Jen, they've made adjustments to cordon off their private lives from their public one ones.
"There's a way of organizing your life so you will be photographed more," she said. "There are restaurants in New York where you know there are going to be paparazzi there. The Mercer Hotel - I live in SoHo, and I won't walk past the Mercer because there are always paparazzi outside, and you know you're going to get photographed.
"I broke my leg there recently, so I was on crutches for six weeks, and that was a real bummer because I would be having lunch somewhere, and normally Darren and I just slip away and go down into the subway if we see a photographer. But I was on crutches, so I was very slow moving." She laughed. "I couldn't get away."
Maintaining boundaries is important because, as Weisz said in a 2003 interview, "I think mystery is kind of great. I don't know anything about Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn or Ava Gardner - not really - and I like that. I love watching their movies because they're my personal movie stars. I don't know what they eat and who their trainer is."
The lack of preconceptions about Weisz serves moviegoers well, particularly with "The Constant Gardener," a much-acclaimed political thriller based on John Le Carre's 2000 novel. Much of the film's tension involves trying to discern the actions and motivations of her character, Tessa, an American activist challenging British government officials and the pharmaceutical industry over drug testing on poor Kenyans.
Before her murder (revealed in the film's opening), Tessa is married to a mild-mannered diplomat named Justin, played by Ralph Fiennes (another star who hasn't lived out his personal life in public), but diplomacy is far from her No. 1 priority. She says what she thinks when she thinks it, and decorum be damned, much to the irritation of Justin's colleagues.
Weisz said she found playing Tessa, particularly under Fernando Meirelles' unobtrusive direction, to be a liberating experience.
"She's a very free person," the actress said. "She's not inhibited. She doesn't care what people think of her at all. ... She wanted to get justice done, and if she makes some enemies on the way, she really doesn't give a monkey's. ... It's just a very free place to be in life. On the whole one wants to be liked."
In other words, Weisz doesn't shoot off her mouth like Tessa. "No, no," she said. "Maybe with my family, but that would be the only place."
Meirelles, the Oscar-nominated Brazilian director of "City of God," said Weisz was the first actress he interviewed for the role. Because the director was hired on the project just weeks before production began, he never actually completed the script, and Weisz wound up improvising scenes to help fine-tune her character and the story. Weisz also was active in the production's efforts to set up a fund to aid the poverty-ridden Kenyan community in which "The Constant Gardener" was filmed.
Meirelles said Weisz surprised him in several ways - one, for the "humanity" she made so apparent in this strong character; and two, for her lack of vanity.
"She didn't want to use any makeup," he said. "Beautiful women, usually they like to look beautiful because everybody expects them to look beautiful, and so of course I thought she would always have her makeup next to her and would try to look beautiful. But she didn't. All the scenes she spoke in, she never uses makeup. The scene that she's using makeup is when she's at the hospital, but we used makeup to make her uglier."
Meirelles was so wowed that he thought she should have carried this approach over to her promotional efforts for the film. "Actually for the press now she's using some makeup, but I think she shouldn't," he said. "She's so beautiful when she doesn't use anything. She's even more astonishing without anything."
Weisz was complimentary of her director as well; in essence he reinforced her current strategy of choosing roles based on who's making the film. "When you're in your 20s, you just have to be working, really, just try all different things," she said. "Now I realize that it's the director, the director, the director."
Such thinking led her personal and professional lives to collide after all. Her next movie, probably to be released early next year, is an intense a science-fiction love story called "The Fountain," written and directed by Aronofsky. Filming already has taken place, and the couple survived.
"I got to meet the director, and he got to meet the actress," she said. "That's the simplest way I can put it. One's professional self is very different from one in a relationship, so I got to see him at work, and he's tremendously talented. And he got to see me at work. We're both very passionate and committed about our work, so it was like turning the object around and seeing it from another angle."
The fact that they enjoyed working must have been, let's say, helpful - because who wants do discover you're engaged to someone who's a professional pain in the tush?
"Yeah, it's definitely helpful, and it's also very ..." She took a long pause. "It's pretty sexy to see someone be good at something, isn't it? It's very attractive. It made me find him even more attractive."
Blush. Next subject.
(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.