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Rachel Weisz was intent on playing the role of ill-fated activist

Rachel Weisz was intent on playing the role of ill-fated activist

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Rachel Weisz was in Los Angeles, shooting the supernatural thriller "Constantine" with Keanu Reeves. The mostly middle-of-the-night shooting schedule was exhausting, and time off was rare. When she finally did get a day to rest, she packed an overnight bag and flew to London.

Twenty-four hours later, she was back on the set in L.A.

No, the British actress had not suffered a sudden bout of homesickness.

She had heard that director Fernando Meirelles was in London, and Weisz needed to speak to him as soon as possible. The script of "The Constant Gardener" was that good.

Meirelles, the Brazilian filmmaker best known for his celebrated "City of God," had been tapped to direct "The Constant Gardener," based on the John Le Carre best-seller, and rumor had it that he was still searching for an actress to play the pivotal role of the determined, outspoken activist Tessa Abbott Quayle.

The ill-fated character, married to a British diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) stationed in Africa, takes on the powerful pharmaceutical industry, which she accuses of exploiting underdeveloped nations by using its most vulnerable citizens as guinea pigs for dangerous new drugs and reaping excessive profits in the process.

The film, which unofficially kick-starts the fall season for Oscar-worthy movies, opens Wednesday.

"I knew I wouldn't have another day off for a while, so I needed to get to London immediately," the actress recalled during an interview in her Beverly Hills hotel suite. "I wanted to work with Fernando because he's an extraordinary director, but it really was the character that got me on that plane.

"Sometimes, you read a script, and you believe passionately that you must play this character. And I needed to show that passion to him, although I think I downplayed my passion a bit because I didn't want to scare him off. I didn't want him to think I was crazy enough to be a problem."

The director laughed when he was told what Weisz had said. He said he felt honored that she would fly to England on her only day off to speak with him.

"I'm just some Brazilian guy who barely speaks English, and this movie star flies from Los Angeles just to meet me. I'm still impressed."

Meirelles said he was familiar with Weisz (it's pronounced "Vice") through her work in "The Mummy" movies, but he had never considered her for the role of Tessa before meeting her.

"Honestly, I originally considered casting a younger woman as the diplomat's wife because I thought there might be an interesting Lolita dynamic going on with the older husband and younger wife. Then I realized that audiences would have a hard time believing that an 18-year-old woman would be so effective an activist that certain people would want to see her dead.

"So, I decided to go with a woman in her 30s (Weisz is 34), but I hadn't thought about Rachel, that is until I met her. She had read the book and the script, and she knew much more about Tessa than I did. She understood the character and knew exactly how to play her. I hadn't even gotten to that point in preparing to direct the film.

"I gave her some improvisational exercises and then, the next day, I rented her movie "The Shape of Things." As soon as I saw that, I put her at the top of my list."

Weisz said she wasn't taking any chances. As soon as she got back to the set of "Constantine," she wrote Meirelles a letter.

"I knew he was still meeting with other actresses, and I was dying inside," she said. "I needed him to know how much I wanted this role. I suppose I was stalking him."

The director said his meeting with other actresses was just a formality.

"Rachel was my Tessa, and she performed the part beautifully. She is amazingly human in this film. It would have been easy to play her as a caricature. The character isn't very likable in the beginning, and some people actually find her annoying. But Rachel pulls it off because she is so real, and her intelligence comes through on screen."

The film is clearly a love story and a thriller, which are both welcome themes in Hollywood movies. But it also is a message movie in that it takes a clear stand on pharmaceutical companies (they're the villains of this film), and that occasionally scares people in Hollywood.

The Cambridge-educated Weisz said she was drawn to the political message in the movie but does not necessarily endorse the message.

"It's not just a love story or a thriller, but it is really about something. It is a movie with a social conscience. Hopefully, it will show the people of Africa in a way they haven't been seen before.

"As for the specific politics, I have no idea whether this type of thing is really happening in Africa. I have heard that John Le Carre believes it is, and as an actor, I have an overactive imagination and can always imagine terrible things.

"But we must not forget that it is a fictional story. Thought-provoking, but fictional."

Meirelles said the political message was essential to his film.

"I wouldn't just do an entertainment film," he explained. "I never just do entertainment films. It is important to me that my films talk about something.

"I try very hard to avoid preaching because I hate it when I go to see a film and suddenly I can see the director or the writer preaching to me. Watch out: Here comes the message.

"In this film, I'm just trying to remind people that there is this place on the planet called Africa where people are living in terrible poverty. That is the message of my movie."

Weisz, who visited Africa once before as a tourist, said she was profoundly moved by what she saw when filming commenced in the worst slums of Kenya, where the story takes place.

"It's complicated," the actress said. "On the one hand, I had never seen poverty like that. It was extreme and tragic, and I felt a wave of guilt being a wealthy white Westerner walking through those slums filming a movie.

"On the other hand, I was struck by the spirit of the children, who clamored around us and welcomed us. The conditions in which they live is a tragedy, but their spiritual wealth is so much more powerful than the poverty.

"In the end, one wonders who should feel sorry for whom."



Born: London, England, March 7, 1971.

Parents: Her father is a Hungarian inventor; her mother an Austrian psychoanalyst. They were separated when Rachel was 15.

Education: Graduated from Cambridge University.

Residence: Divides her time between New York City and London.

Significant other: Engaged to writer/director Darren Aronofsky.

Early dreams: "When I was younger, I wanted to be Madame Curie, but I wasn't very good at science. And I wasn't the star of the school plays. That was Rebecca Crenshaw, whom I've never heard of since. It was in college that I got passionate about acting, and a friend and I formed our own theater company."

Acting credits: She started on the English stage and had her first significant movie role in Bernardo Bertolucci's "Stealing Beauty" in 1996. She since has appeared in "The Mummy," "The Mummy Returns," "Runaway Jury," "Confidence," "About a Boy," "Envy," "Enemy at the Gates," "The Shape of Things" and "Constantine."

What's next: She will star opposite Hugh Jackman in Aronofsky's "The Fountain."


(c) 2005, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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