Published: October 2018
Rachel McAdams is a rare creature. A leading lady with a luminosity that places her at the heart of every film she is in. A consummate character actress who is just as believable as a Mean Girl, a love lorn romantic lead or a hard bitten investigative journalist. A true beauty whose appearance is usually the least compelling thing about the characters she inhabits. A highly bankable star who walked away from the industry at the height of her fame before returning with increased control of her choices, who makes her home in Toronto not Los Angeles, who repeatedly wrong foots Hollywood expectations. This year she became a mother for the first time and produced the most mesmerising performance of her career as Esti in Disobedience, an exquisite and important film that studies love, sexuality, devotion, religion and feminism in a way that might only be possible now. Here she talks to Rebecca Lenkiewicz who co-wrote the screenplay.
Okay, the recording has started. Hi Rachel [laughs]. Hi, how are you.
I’m okay, how are you? Good, good, that was a very official beginning, ‘The recording has started.’
[Laughs] Yeah. Shall I just plunge in with some talk about Disobedience and we’ll go from there?
When I read the novel Disobedience [by Naomi Alderman], and I read the script that Sebastian [Lelio, the director of Disobedience] had written first, Esti, the character you played so hugely—the strange thing was, all I could feel of her was the back of neck, physically; that’s the only image I have of her, is from the back and clothed, and the back of her neck, which is rather long and beautiful. And then you came along, and you played it so fantastically and I wondered what your response was to the script and how you play some-one who is seemingly very different to you. How do you do that?
Right. It’s so interesting that that’s how you saw her, and that I was so covered up [laughs].
Yeah. But I mean, as soon as you were her, as soon as I saw her, you were her, and it was strange when I saw a shot of your neck. I was like, ‘Oh’. I got a shiver down my spine.
Oh, well thank you. You know, I think she was just so beautifully drawn that by the time I came to the table she was already so fully realised by you and Sebastian, and that’s something that, unfortunately, doesn’t come along every day. So there was so little to imagine because there was so much on the page, and at the same time it just totally got me thinking and dreaming about her every waking moment. I think that’s when you know it’s right to do something, is [when] they just kinda get hooks into you.
I felt that way about all the characters and I think that’s what I was drawn to initially, was this script, where every character had their own really rich and complete arch and no one was using the other person just to surface the story, you know, and everyone was on a really interesting journey. It didn’t feel like anyone was pushed to the side, and even Dovid [played by Alessandro Nivola], the cuckold—you know, he wasn’t just a device, he was a real person.
I wonder, was that on purpose? Did you read Naomi’s book first before you read the script? Or you read the script first?
I read Sebastian’s script first and responded to that with Sebastian, we did a rewrite, and then I read the book, which is brilliant and quite different to the way we do the script.
But both Estis stayed the same in spirit, whether events were different. What I thought was so striking about the way you portrayed her and how she is in the book is that some people could see her as trapped, but there is an absolute strength to her and I suppose that’s what appealed to me, that strength and dignity.
Right, well I think if she had just been trapped, then you’d lose a lot of the conflict, and as an actor you’re always looking for the biggest obstacle and the highest stakes.
Yeah, and she had a choice in her life in many ways, but the one [about] her sexuality was forbidden, you know, and how she negotiates that… I think it’s sort of brilliant and fascinating.
It’s such a hard thing to say, and with the other two [characters Dovid and Ronit, played by Rachel Weisz], you’re like this kind of trinity, and I suppose the advan-tage was that you had some [sort] of soul, didn’t you, and in film sometimes there is no rehearsal, is there, but you had a little time to work with each other.
Right, right [laughs]. Yes, we did. It was almost more like rehearsing for a play, the way we set up in New York. Rachel [Weisz] very generously opened up her office and brought everybody in and it was very differ-ent from any film I’ve rehearsed for before. The costume designer was there and a pho-tographer to take pictures of Rachel and I side by side in our costumes, in our different looks that we were experimenting with, and the make-up artist was in the back bedroom working away, and the hairstylist… Everyone came together as a whole company in a way, and Sebastian was there throughout the entire thing, and we’d stop and have lunch and just Rachel and Alessandro and I and Sebastian would just sit around and just talk it all out. It was amazing.
It was really so rare and so much came out of it. I think it was just imperative that we did that, and I wish that was done all the time. But yeah, it’s a bold piece. There was a lot to sift through and it was just nice to come to camera I think, [having] already done a lot of that, but not knowing exactly where we were going either. There was definitely room left for experimentation and kind of a sense of danger and, ‘Ooh, what is this going to be?’
So we didn’t know how that all came down.
I mean, he’s an incredible director, I think. In terms of his vision and preparation and
stuff, and also, it was beautiful. I got input from you as cast, which is very wonderful…
…and unusual; it was brilliant. He [Se-bastian] says, you know, ‘Rachel feels this about Esti’ and ‘Rachel Weisz feels this about Ronit’ and it’s because, however much you write characters, you’re not playing them, you know?
And I remember you saying, ‘I don’t think she’d walk out of the room.’ And it really was true, you know, and that was wonderful and very liberating for me to feel like the characters were being read by their authors.
But it is rare in film to have that freedom I suppose.
Yeah, and I think it’s just like, Sebastian is a very humble, giving, generous soul, you know?
He was very frank about what he didn’t know and when it came to the culture, the religion or something—he’s from Chile but he lives in Berlin—and he often [would] say, ‘I’ll check back with Rebecca about that.’ So I’m curious about what you were facilitating with him—did you do a lot of research? I know you do a lot or research before your work.
[Beforehand,] a Jewish expert [was] tell-ing me very gracefully, or bluntly, what was right, what was wrong. So it was a thoughtful process.
But I mean, would you not do a project unless you knew that you could have that input, or can you not tell until you’re on it, do you think? Directors I’ve come across, they’re just rather neurotic, you know, and sometimes I don’t know it until I’m working with them and then I think, ‘Oh, that’s a shame.’
Yeah. It’s true, I mean, you don’t know what you’re getting into. Especially in film, like I said, without the rehearsal, and it’s just like, all the stars have to be aligned. Sometimes I’m just amazed that movies get made, I’m amazed that they come together, there’s so many moving parts, and I do think a director often is… I would never want to direct because I’m terrible at decision making. I can’t make snap decisions, I have to really think things through and sort of waffle back and forth and play devil’s advocate and be my own worst enemy and then I come back around and— Anyway, it’s exhausting.
But I could never be a director because it’s just constantly having to make decisions, and sometimes I’ve talked to directors and they’re like, ‘You almost just fake it ’til you make it’, and so I think there’s no much on a director’s plate. I’m kind of a pest [laughs]. But that’s just my process.
I always felt like I could never be a director because they have such confidence, but I said this to Steve McQueen and he just sort of looked at me quizzically and said, `Do we…?’
You have to have such confidence that you know everyone in their discipline is just doing what they do.
You know, it’s kinda like where people think that you’re that inspiration or some-thing, and [actually] it’s just about the hard work and the craft and coming back to an idea, and I think that acting is the same in terms of working through a character. But what amazes me with acting in film is that sometimes you’ll have so little rehearsal and just have to be in it, and with writing you can put it down.
You can put it down, go back to it. I started acting and I loved it, but that confidence, you know, on a day when things are not going right or when you just have to go out and be… I suppose you’re just honing yourself for that, so in terms of concentration—
Yeah, I think concentration is a big thing and sort of blocking things out. I have to fool myself into thinking no one’s gonna see something. If I went into everything thinking [laughs], you know— So I sort of act like no one is watching, in a way.
But yeah, I think that’s what’s so vulnerable about acting, is that on those days when you don’t feel confident, and there’s so many—I would say maybe 8% of a shoot I feel confident about something [laughs]. The rest of the time I don’t. That’s such a gift in a way, to lean into that and to show that on camera, and that’s so scary, but that’s kind of one of your greatest assets. The sensitivity of an actor is often the very thing that you want to watch, as an audience member—that rawness—like, I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know exactly how to say this line, and it’s those moments when people stumble, those really organic mo-ments that everybody remembers, I think.
It’s that curious mix. You have to be quite robust to survive, and quite tough, in terms of making a film, in terms of a film being reviewed, in terms of, you know, all of the noise that you have to ignore in some way and keep just the joy.
And just hone in on it.
Feel comfortable, right?
Yeah, what was it that Uta Hagen—was that her that said you have to have the heart of a rose and the hide of an elephant?
Exactly. And those two things are so contradictory, and yet, when you get that alignment… And there’s some similarities in writing, people just kick your script around like a football, you know? And then expect you to produce something that’s wonderful. Gosh.
Is it only once, in Spotlight, that you’ve played someone who’s alive and kind of based on someone real? Have you had other roles like that?
Still alive [laughs], who I’ve actually met. Yeah, I think that was the first time I played someone still alive and being able to spend time with her was so… She’s such an amazing woman, Sacha [Pfeiffer]. That was just great because—again, I feel like the director really guides that so much, because I said to Tom McCarthy, the director, ‘How closely do you want us to feel for them?’ And he was always very like, ‘I want it to be as close as possible, you know, just every mannerism and everything about them that you can possibly take in and bring back out.’ Even to the point where he said, ‘I want you to know Sacha better than I do and you let me know if anything feels inauthentic.’ It was great. He was like, ‘Would Sacha say it like this?’ and I could literally go back to her and ask.
So that’s what was great about Disobedience, too, being able to talk with Sebastian, and you through Sebastian, and Naomi who wrote the book, who grew up in this community in London… You know, just being able to speak with her directly.
Absolutely. And the fact that Naomi loved the film. Obviously we all loved her book and wanted to honour it. It’s very satisfying that she said when she watched it she had a sense of déjà vu, that that [had] all absolutely happened to her, which I thought was wonderful and she was very moved.
Oh, wow, yeah.
And I think that’s the fantastic kind of role model, in terms of a woman making up her own mind. And Sacha is a fantastic role model in Spotlight.
So, besides the craft and the making and executing of a film, there’s the other aspect, isn’t there, that young women are watching these films. And it’s interest-ing when girls say, ‘I realised I could do something because I saw someone else doing it.’ So if I see—
—you know, a fantastic female journalist unfolding a ring of paedophiles, then I feel like I can do that, it’s not just a band of men [who] will do it. And I think it’s so encouraging-I mean, feminism has a long way to go, but it’s so encouraging with young people, with young women at the moment, just kind of seizing the day. I didn’t use to feel a responsibility in life and I feel it now. I don’t know if you feel anything akin to that with acting.
Yeah, I do. I did something called Mean Girls, that Tina Fey wrote years and years ago, and that’s when I kind of started to feel responsibility [laughs].
Yeah, that was huge.
You know, when reading this book—because Tina Fey based that on a book for parents about how to talk to their kids and how to deal with what was really going on with girls in this difficult world that they find themselves in, and, because I read that book to prep for the film, I thought, this is so much bigger than just a fun [movie].
I think that’s when I first started to think, like, oh, use your voice as best you can, and then, at the same time, just show a variety of people. I think that goes to show a diverse swath of characters and that women can be all kinds of things. They can be strong in one moment and weak in another, and it’s not over, you know—weakness is suggestive, and so not just get into playing the idea of the strong woman, which is quite limiting.
I think it’s just about being honest and showing many different paths and possi-bilities and, I mean, this is a little bit of a tangent but I remember seeing The English Patient and seeing Kristin Scott Thom-as—do you remember the scene where she comes out of the bathtub and she has small breasts? I hadn’t actually seen that before in film.
[Laughs] Yeah, it was treated in such a way that I hadn’t seen before and I felt better about my own body, and I’ve thought about that in terms of doing nudity in film and the responsibility to show all sides of things. Do you feel that responsibility as well?
I do. And more and more as I get older. I’ve worked with Kristin and she’s adamant that she’ll never have surgery or whatever because she wants to be proud; she just says, I want to have facial expressions and I want to be proud to be, you know, 50 or whatever. It’s kind of this constant pressure to be younger, and a compliment is about how young you look. Which I’m totally guilty of, but it’s so wrong that we don’t wear our wisdom and age with pride.
You see pictures of the Native American Indian women and then you think of us and how, Western society, we just try and, you know, take out the lines. I think it’s incredibly sad.
But I feel a responsibility in writing, yeah, and to write for a lot of women, just be-cause we normalise absolutely that most heroes are male. So I try and redress that.
And have you felt that way for a long time? Like, where does that come from?
I think in my early days, I was just happy to write between dysfunctional love and was quite self-obsessed and then—
[Laughs.] That’s all there is.
—I wrote a play about the Suffragettes because that was deep in my heart, and I think ever since then… I think time be-comes a currency, too. I think it’s a very difficult time for young women, I do. It’s one thing not having the vote but there are different challenges, and I feel very proud and protecting of a teenage girl at the moment. I think it’s a very hard environment, you know?
Yeah. And have you noticed things changing? Have you noticed, like, the needle moving at all?
I think it is changing, but I think there’s also such… For instance, the Internet can be a fantastic thing and I think that there’s a lot of female empowerment going on, but I think there’s also… Just the other day I was reading songs from the songbook that is issued to the military air force and there are hate songs against women, you know, and they are published and they are sung, and all these men are encouraged to think of women as objects. And the songs, if they were published in newspapers, people would be shocked—they’re not jolly banter, they’re vicious. And I just think, gosh, we’re in an environment where men are encouraged, young men are encouraged to be so, not lavish—that’s too innocent—but, you know, so misogynist that it’s dangerous.
It’s an underbelly going on that we have to address.
Yeah, how do we not swing so far the other way? With #MeToo and everything I feel like it’s been amazing. There’s a revolution happening, and just in my industry, all the older, seasoned actresses are looking back and thinking, ‘Oh yeah, we did this as well in the 60s and 70s and now it just came back around again.’ And is this just a reincarnation of it or is there real change happening? I feel like there’s real change happening. But I suppose the danger is, I don’t know, you swing so far one way and then, you know, it’s like with American politics [laughs], you wind up in this echo chamber. And then the other group suddenly feels marginalised and like they’re losing their power and start to rise up and it’s like, how do we find that middle ground where everyone feels heard and everyone feels human and everyone has compassion for all people. But I also think you kinda have to fight hard and use your anger to get anywhere.
It’s so complicated.
It is. Anger I think is not to be kept at a distance. I think anger gets things done, and even creatively, anger is incredibly useful. But I think the March for Women was such an incredible movement, so poetic and strong and, you know, things can be done; and I think there is a sea change happening, but at the same time, I feel so worried for individuals who suffer. It’s not going away, the problem [isn’t] going away just because we highlighted it, you know?
Yeah, and as you said, it sort of moves into a new area and we’re just scrambling to keep up. I just saw this film, Eighth Grade. Have you heard about this film? It’s about a little girl trying to find her way through eighth grade through social media, it’s just amazing. I don’t know [laughs], I’m not in eighth grade but I’m trying… It was a real eye-opener I guess. It’s beautiful. I mean, she finds her way and she’s celebrated for being an individual and, you know, all those things we wish we could go back and tell our young selves.
It’s just that when you’re young, you’re so hungry for everything, aren’t you? And then things can happen, good things, bad things, but it’s just a maelstrom I think. And there are very dark times at the moment; yet, I think there’s incredibly strong, brilliant movements throughout this thing, and the events of the last few years have almost been dream-like in politics, you know—surreal. And you feel like something has to happen against all of that, some revolution against this idea of selfishness and greed. It’s like the idea of community, the environment, is kind of going out the window and the money man is it, you know, and it’s terrifying. It also feels like people [are] ready to shout and take action.
I feel relief to be Canadian [laughing], you know what I mean? People might assume you’re American but whenever I see that an actor is Canadian I always give a sigh of relief, like, ‘Oh, how wonderful.’
I mean, Los Angeles, it’s the angels, it’s a very strange city, isn’t it—but people love it. Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I’m encouraged. Someone sent me a chart the other day, there’s less war on earth than there’s ever been and there’s more literacy—it was a sort of graph of how far we’ve really come and it’s hard to see that when you’re in the middle of such atrocities, you know. Anyway, it was kind of encouraging.
But it is nice to go home to Canada [laughs], and composting is, like, a way of life. It’s a great country to be from. How is it in the UK in terms of the #MeToo movement and your industry?
A lot is opening up, a lot of conversation, a lot of everything—so that’s hopeful. And I think it can happen without being all sanitised, because it can go too far one way, with political correctness and this and that, but I think that the conversation is a very healthy one. I think people are far more aware and taking more care of how they treat each other, which is important.
And here, women are being incredibly brilliant and there’s a lot of theatres and a lot of actresses who have taken it on in a huge way and it felt fantastic. But I don’t know, you can’t know until ten years down the line, can you?
It’s just every-day sexism is still around. The statistics are pretty terrifying, in Britain at least, of how many women direct or how many women, you know, are at the top. There’s a lot of women in [the] development [phases] in film but they don’t push through to the other stages. So it’s quite a male world. And what is difficult is that if you are strident as a woman, you get a reputation as [being] difficult or a bitch, whereas if you’re strident as a man, you’re just seen as good at your job. And that’s the task in hand—to make sure that a female strength is not the seat of hysterical, which, of course, comes from women.
So many times, I’ve met women who have been called difficult by other people and they are just this supreme vision of quest and questioning and curious and, you know—absolutely brilliant. And my intro-duction to them is a quiet kind of just, ‘Be careful because she can be awkward’. And it’s like talking about some sort of weird horse or something and then you meet the horse and they’re just wild and wonderful, and they kick and they spit and they’re not just chained up, [because] that’s depress-ing, you know? So it’s more than just men who are over-tactile or manipulative. It’s changing the whole condition.
Yeah, we just want equality.
It’s the best. And it’s just gonna take, like you said, time to start to dismantle it and pull it apart and rewire our brains, and as you said, women’s, too. We’ve kind of all been wired this way.
I mean, it’s education, isn’t it? It comes down to education. We’ve been told in our twenties that it’s this way or that way—it has to stop. At school and preschool, just in terms of labels, you know?
Right. And so was Disobedience something that… [Laughs] Just bring that back around there.
Yeah. Well done [laughs].
Did you see that when you read the script? I mean, did you see it first as just a powerful woman’s story about strong women, or what was it that appealed to you about this?
Well, I was very happy that two of the three protagonists were women and they had this huge story with each other that attracted me, and then when I heard that Rachel Weisz had been specifically wanting to do a project that was, you know, women-centric, I just thought it was brilliant. I just love to see women talking to each other—two women, so powerful. And surprisingly rare, you know, it doesn’t happen a huge amount.
In Mean Girls there’s a fantastic sense of the female, isn’t there? There’s a few fantastic men thrown in, boys, but—
Sure [laughs], boys.
—the power of the female is incredible. So yeah, Disobedience just absolutely cried out to me. I think it’s come out beautifully. I think it’s very tender and intense and it investigates love, and that’s I suppose why I write.
Yes, exactly. I’m just wondering, people al-ways asked me why Sebastian tells women’s stories so beautifully, and I wondered what your take was on that?
Hmm. I think he’s very in touch with a female sensibility and a male nature, too. I think he’s just interested in the strength in women, rather than women as secondary. Gloria was so much about the agency of a woman in her fifties, you know, what hap-pens. [Gloria, Lelio’s film of 2013, is set in Santiago and is about a free-spirited older woman and her relationship with a former naval officer she meets at the clubs.] I remember him saying that he felt like, with Gloria, that American audiences wouldn’t respond to it because they would have seen that story a million times over, and he was so surprised when it came out in America and people really embraced it as something so new and fresh.
Just telling the story about a woman exploring her sexuality and what she’s gonna do with her life next and, you know, that her life isn’t over and she’s not this little sad granny or something, and he said he was just so shocked that that wasn’t a thing here, that that hadn’t been exhausted, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, no, that’s the only one.’ Gloria is the only one.
Yeah, and very rare. And historically, the sexuality of a woman has been terrify-ing, hasn’t it? Men have been terrified by it. Although, if you look back to the 30s and 40s, there were amazing films with women—Barbara Stanwyck and that whole era, where the women were at the centre, Mildred Pierce . Suddenly, a few decades later, it was all about men.
A question I wanted to ask you was, is there a time in your childhood or teens or whatever when you sort of thought, `Oh, I want to do this. I want to act’? Was there a moment or was it incremental, or a scene in a film or something, where you just thought, ‘Oh, that’s the world that I want to be in’?
Well, I feel like I watched a lot of movies and TV growing up and was lucky enough to go to some plays and stuff—you know, Cats when I was like eight—and I always felt inspired when I saw a great piece of art, or even just something that touched me as a kid. I thought, ‘Oh, I want to be a part of that. I want to be able to express that way.’
And so from a very young age I wanted to do that in some capacity. I just didn’t under-stand exactly what it was. And then when I was about 12 I started doing Shakespeare at this children’s theatre camp and I had this amazing director who treated us like grownups and said, ‘Shakespeare shouldn’t be intimidating’, and then we did Greek theatre the next year.
That’s another thing—it’s the people you meet along the way that just change your entire course. It’s such a combination… But yeah, it was sort of all those things that came together. And then I had an amazing teacher in high school and I didn’t know what I wanted to do in college, I was gonna go into something like cultural studies, and I don’t even know what that means. I still don’t know what that means [laughs].
Yes, was it the language that hit you, the Shakespeare language, or just acting with other people, or just the whole of everything, just the whole experience? Or just being someone else?
Yeah, the language; it felt scary, it felt like I was [turning] something on in myself. And I was pushing myself. It was like nothing pushed me faster or harder than getting out on a stage. and the amount that I was learning suddenly, like, stories about other people and other ways of living and, you know—[it] just sort of cracked me right open.
So, not to overstate it, but I think that’s where it would have rose for me. And what was it for you? Because you were an ac-tress as well.
Yeah, but I grew up with books, I liked books. I grew up in quite a… You know, it was the docks. It wasn’t sickly picturesque, and just that sense of [escaping], I think I loved—that you could escape in some ways.
Well, I wanted it down on record I think you’re the most incredible actress [laughs].
Will they print that please—take that from me, I think you’re absolutely amazing. And all of the cast, it just flew. It was beautiful, it flew by.
Aw, thank you.
I’m so proud of the thing we did together, with Disobedience. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my life. And thank you for bringing it to the page and letting it be something out there for all of us.
Well, it was my absolute pleasure, and it’s very rare that you bring something to the page and then you just watch it fall—that was fantastic. I can’t really stop talking about it.
No, you were awesome.
But you know, you can’t stop a writer from talking, can you!
A conversation, those are the best. The best interviews are anything that grows the conversation, so well done.
Okay, well thank you for being brilliant.
© 2018 Violet Book | Written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz | No copyright infringment intended.