The Forbidden Love of Disobedience

Faith, repression and passion take center stage in Rachel Weisz’s new movie, as she tells Den of Geek...

Out today (Friday, April 27) in limited release is Disobedience, directed by Sebastian Lelio (A Fantastic Woman, Gloria) and adapted from the novel by Naomi Alderman (The Power). Rachel Weisz stars as Ronit, a young, single woman who left behind the Orthodox Jewish community in which she grew up in London for a career as a photographer in New York.

But when her estranged father, the community’s rabbi, passes away, she must return to settle his affairs — and reignites her romance with Esti (Rachel McAdams), a woman who stayed behind and married their mutual friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola).

The community does not look kindly upon LGBTQ people within its ranks, so Ronit, Esti and Dovid are all confronted with choosing how to live their lives going forward. Disobedience takes an uncompromising look at love, faith, sexuality and personal freedom, anchored by a detailed, compassionate look at a community that many don’t understand and excellent performances from its three leads.

Den of Geek had the chance to speak with Rachel Weisz about making the movie — which she also produced — the issues it raises, doing that scene and her upcoming reunion with director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) on the 18th century royal period piece The Favourite, in which Weisz stars with Emma Stone and Olivia Colman.

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Den of Geek: This came to you as both a producer and an actor, sort of at the same time. Were you looking for something to produce?

Rachel Weisz: Yeah. Well I came to it, I guess, in that I read the book and I optioned it and I’d been actively looking for something that I could be in and be playing opposite another woman. I thought that would be interesting, not just that one female subjective point of view, but two, and have them in relation to each other because I think all films I’ve done up until this point have been in relation to a man.

What was it about the book that struck you?

Well I mean, a lot of the lesbian literature that I read was set in the 1950s or set in a time when it was, I don’t know, against the law. Times were different. This was set now. Set three stops on the tube from where I grew up and in fact it was kind of very far away, but very close. And it’s happening right now. It’s a community where you can’t be gay and religious and the same would be said with Amish communities in Pennsylvania or Mennonite communities or strict Muslim communities. It wasn’t necessarily the Jewishness that interested me particularly, but a place where it’s taboo to be gay.

The question that comes to me is, are these very ordered sort of cloistered communities, regardless of religion, are they almost a thing of the past? And the second part of that question is, are we in any sort of position to make that judgment, in a sense?

Well there is no judgment. I don’t have judgment over that community, it’s just, what happens if you are in that community, you love that community, you love God, you’re Orthodox, but you’re gay? What do you do? That’s the conundrum of the movie. How do you express yourself and be free? I don’t think the movie really judges them, and I certainly don’t, it’s just a really intense dilemma. What do you do?

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There’s no antagonist in this movie. Everybody remains more or less respectful of each other. It’s not black and white.

Yeah, that’s Sebastian. You know, that’s his storytelling. I thought Uncle Moshe, my character’s uncle, was going to be like a really nasty guy. But he cast Allan (Corduner), who’s such a sweet guy. I said, “Why wouldn’t we have someone like a bit meaner?” And he said, “No, no, no there’s no antagonist. The antagonist is within.” He’s not going to make it that simple for the audience anyways.

What was it about his films that made you want to work with him as a director on this?

Well at that point A Fantastic Woman hadn’t come out but I think this is a companion piece to that, you know. It’s people whose stories, living your life as a trans woman or a 58-year-old woman looking for love or a gay Orthodox Jewish woman, when you’re living that life you’re front and center, that’s your life, but in the way stories represent these people, they’re not front and center. In a Hollywood film…she’d be a type. She wouldn’t be a real character with an existential crisis and a longing for love, like a fully fleshed person.

So Sebastian just wants to journey to people who are not on the margin, they’re just on the margins of representation. They’re not represented in stories as much as heterosexual white people, you know?

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What was your familiarity with Orthodox culture?

None. My mom was Catholic, my dad was Jewish, but I didn’t identify as anything. I definitely know some things about Judaism and I know some things about Christianity so, but this community is like, unless you’re a part of it, you can’t know anything about it. They friend people on the outside. Naomi Alderman who wrote the book, grew up in that place and then abandoned it and went to New York, a bit like Ronit. So she’s someone who’s both inside and outside, and she was an incredible tour guide to that world. I mean, it’s very rare, I don’t know any other instances, in England, of someone who has grown up in that world and left it and written about it for a mainstream audience.

Did you spend any time within the community for research?

No. Rachel had to, and so did Alessandro. They had to be English and they had to be Orthodox Jews. I had to play someone who’d abandoned it and forgotten it and is not that comfortable to be back there so I didn’t have to really do deep research. They both did, I mean they both did serious Jewish immersion so you should ask them. They really had to learn all the prayers and the customs and they had to believe that they were Orthodox Jews. They had to make a real journey. I didn’t in that way.

You and Rachel have a very passionate love scene halfway through the film. Actors have spoken about the difficulty of doing love scenes on screen. Is it anymore comfortable to do it with a woman because maybe there’s some sort of more empathy or sensitivity there?

Less stubble. Much less stubble (laughs). I mean, what can make it difficult is if it’s meaningless in the story. It’s like, getting naked and romping around, it can just feel a bit generalized and you’re showing something private to the public that doesn’t really mean anything because just often it’s meaningless in the narrative, whereas in this case, it’s not meaningless, it’s essential to the story. It’s like the heart, the soul, the center of the movie.

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These women have to find some privacy to be able to be uninhibited and express themselves, particularly to Esti, for both of them, they’ve been waiting for however many years for this and it’s very emotional, very vulnerable, very romantic, very erotic, everything, but it’s like the whole movie’s about repression and it’s about this moment where the repression’s gone and it’s about freedom. It’s an expression of freedom, which I think is what the movie’s about. It’s about the importance of disobedience and why disobedience is essential sometimes.

Is this the way forward for you, to produce the material yourself at this point whenever you can?

Yeah, I mean I love to be just hired for a job as well, that the script arrives and it’s like, “This is perfect,” but I’m definitely really enjoying using a different side of my brain and figuring out the adaptation process. I love writing so it’s been wonderful to sit down with the writers and really get to know them and pick apart stories. So yeah, both.

How about directing? Is that something you may want to do at some point?

Not so much. Not at the moment. Maybe one day. I just don’t know if I am a director. I just don’t know if I’ve got what it takes.

You have a few other projects coming up, but I was very curious to ask about working with Yorgos again on The Favourite, because you guys had such fun on The Lobster.

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Well (The Favourite) was an instance of when a script just came to me and it was like, “Oh my fucking God,” you know, I wasn’t involved in the development, I was just hired. And actually that has three female leads, not two, so this is like Disobedience on steroids. It’s three female leads who are all jostling for power and subjectivity in the story. I haven’t seen it, but it’s an extraordinary script and it was a pretty amazing experience making it. I look forward to seeing it. It will be out at the end of the year.

Disobedience is out in limited release today.