Published: April 27, 2018
Award-winning actress Rachel McAdams talks about her new film, Disobedience, shot in London, which explores a lesbian relationship in an Orthodox Jewish community.
Rachel McAdams is exceedingly polite and mild-mannered. She smiles when she greets you and has a seemingly pleasant nature. The Canadian actress, highly regarded for more than a decade, is best known for her work in The Notebook, Sherlock Holmes, True Detective, Southpaw and Spotlight, and she rarely plays the same sort of character twice. ‘I’m always looking to take on roles that push me further than I might like to go,’ says McAdams. ‘I don’t want to repeat myself and stay safe. One of the things I love about acting is how I never know exactly where a character is going to take me.’ That philosophy certainly applies to her new film, Disobedience, directed by Sebastián Lelio, in which she plays Esti, a married Orthodox Jewish woman who has an affair with her former teenage lover, Ronit, played by Rachel Weisz. Ronit fled both their affair and her faith 20 years earlier, but the women’s passions resurface when she returns to their Jewish community in north London, following the death of her father, a noted rabbi.
In order to learn more about that secretive world, McAdams tried to do some stealth research. ‘I went undercover in the Orthodox Jewish community in Los Angeles, but it didn’t go so well… People were very warm and helpful, though. They recognised me right away and, by the following day, everyone knew about everywhere I went. But they were very kind, and I was even invited to a beautiful Shabbat dinner.’
Apart from the film’s groundbreaking depiction of a lesbian relationship within the conservative Orthodox Jewish community, it also created plenty of controversy at the Toronto International Film Festival, due to the torrid, uninhibited six-minute sex scene between McAdams and Weisz.
Lelio was reticent about discussing the sex scene with the two Rachels until two weeks before shooting began in London. McAdams says: ‘We had been speaking about everything except that scene, so I gathered my strength and said, “OK, I think we should start talking about the sex scene.” I explained that, for me, it was the heart of the film. It had to be long, we had to find specific acts for them to do, because the real force of the scene would come out of that hyper-specificity of bold moments that avoided being exploitative… and make it unique.’
Born and raised in Ontario, McAdams graduated with honours in drama from York University in Toronto, which she continues to make her home today. She is currently in a relationship with screenwriter Jamie Linden, and is reportedly pregnant with her first child.
It’s rare that we see films explore Orthodox Jewish life…
It was a fascinating exploration, which was part of the reason why I was drawn to the film; it’s a community that the world knows very little about. They’re so tight-knit, which is such a beautiful part of it.
How did you immerse yourself in that world?
I did a lot of research that took me all over London. I went to the deli, bakery and local supermarket, and everyone was welcoming; no question was taboo. The experts on the Jewish community who worked with us were incredible; they shared information on the culture and their homes. I also hosted a book club, focusing on the novel [of the same name] the film is based on, by Naomi Alderman, and I cooked traditional Jewish meals.
What was it like co-starring with Rachel Weisz in this film?
We had a wonderful time working together. I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time, but we had never had the chance to work together properly before. I was so happy to finally get to know her and have this opportunity. What I appreciated about her was her effortless way of working, even though there’s always so much going on behind her eyes. I tried to be as present as I could during each scene and just follow her lead.
Was it important that the two of you got along during the production of the film, given the level of intimacy that your characters share?
Even though the director was very supportive and sensitive the whole time, Rachel and I tried to take care of each other, and that helped us while we were filming.
Apart from your character in True Detective, this is probably one of the most daring roles you’ve had. Is it important to you that you play determined women?
I’ve never worried about that. I’ve worked on serious dramas, such as A Most Wanted Man, and I also played a nasty woman who tormented Owen Wilson in Midnight In Paris. I judge projects by the people involved and the quality of the writing. As long as I feel a connection to the character, I’m willing to play almost any role. Something either clicks in your head or it doesn’t.
You made your reputation starring in romantic films. Are they your natural preference?
I do have a romantic side. I enjoy stories that explore the nature of human relationships and especially what makes people want to be together and how they manage to stay together. Love is such a precious and beautiful thing, but it seems so hard for people to sustain their love and appreciation for each other. I’m just fascinated by films that offer insights into that process.
What do you think your varied roles have taught you about life outside of the film industry?
I think the biggest lessons I have learned are to be as honest and as present as possible. That applies to both acting and in my own life. We sometimes have an overly idealistic or romanticised view of the world, and then, when we try to experience that kind of life, we’re often disappointed. I have taken a much more realistic outlook on things and how people behave, because it’s better if you can operate under no illusions. Human nature is flawed and complicated, I find.
You tend to stay out of the limelight, even though you’ve been part of some prominent films. Is that your nature?
Maybe that’s my Canadian side showing. I like the sense of community and feeling I have from being in Toronto. I’ve lived in the same house for many years and I like to cycle around town and live a quiet life for the most part. Being in Toronto allows me to relax between projects, and you feel very far away from the film business. I’ve never been interested in attracting attention to myself when I’m not working and, so far, that’s worked out pretty well.
You’re a major advocate of eco-friendly causes. Are you eco-conscious in your private life?
I ride a bicycle whenever I can, and I try to live responsibly when it comes to the environment.
You choose to live in Toronto, rather than LA. Does that make working life difficult for you?
No. I’m used to flying back and forth, but I could never manage to live in LA, except when I’m there for meetings or working on a project. I travel a lot when I’m doing films and I feel so much more at home and grounded in Toronto. I prefer living there because I’m close to my family… I also have a lot of friends there. LA can be a rather lonely place; I don’t know why exactly, but everything revolves around the film industry and people are always talking about business. When I go back home to Toronto, I can just forget about work and be myself.
Hot on the heels of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman, comes his English-language debut, Disobedience. Miles away from the electric fever of his previous film, this is a far more staid and restrained affair. However, the stakes are just as high for the film’s two heroines, Ronit (Rachel Weisz) and Esti (Rachel McAdams), childhood friends raised in an Orthodox Jewish community in London. As Ronit returns from New York for her father’s funeral, the pair can’t help but reignite their secret affair; a love which is as forbidden now as it was all those years ago.
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