The witches of Oz

Rachel Weisz, star of Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful, talks feminism, witches and Elizabeth Taylor

You need not be waist deep in Angela Carter (though such immersion probably helps) to know that fairy stories – both ancient and contemporary – have much to tell us about the impenetrable dynamics of gender relations. Take Sam Raimi's rather nifty prequel to The Wizard of Oz . As is often the case with such beasts, Oz the Great and Powerful presents its female characters in strictly binary form. One witch is an evil monster. Another is a divinely maternal Madonna (the religious figure, not the Michiganian pop singer). A third starts good then turns bad.

Rachel Weisz, who plays the irredeemable fiend, should be the person to disentangle this for us. The versatile English actor did, after all, study English literature at Cambridge. Nobody takes our Rachel for any sort of patsy to the patriarchy. Nobody calls her Aunt Tom.

“Well, L Frank Baum wrote 14 Oz books – none of which I have read – and he was an early feminist,” she explains. “His mother-in-law was a famous suffragette. His books all have powerful women. They are not just powerful; they are women with power. But they are fairy stories. So, there is no moral ambiguity. My character certainly hasn’t any of that. She’s just bad, bad, bad and more bad.”

Weisz makes a fair point. Unlike, say, Carter's revisionist stories – or the hit Oz musical WickedOz the Great and Powerful is not seeking to inject any contemporary values into the stories. It breathes much the same air as the immortal 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz .


“Is it a feminist film?” she ponders. “Well, it’s got three terrific roles for women. I get to fly. I don’t know too much about the relationship between feminism and witches. But there were a lot of women who were killed for being ‘witches’. As I say, it’s a fairy story.”

Weisz was raised amid the middle-class surroundings of Hampstead Garden Suburb in north London. Her dad, Hungarian-born, was an engineer who made his fortune designing pneumatic medical equipment. Her mother, born in Vienna, worked as (what else with that national heritage?) a prominent psychotherapist. It sounds like a secure environment in which to grow up. She remembers dad as a proud British industrialist who would only buy goods from his adopted country.

“But he had the strongest Hungarian accent you’ve ever heard,” she chuckles. “That was very sweet. He walked the shop floor and knew the name of all the hundred or so workers.”

Who were her female models in culture? I would bet she was the sort of kid who preferred Emily Dickinson to the girls of the Chalet school.

"I liked Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet ," she says. Mind you, I don't know if she did anything that made her into a role model. She rode ponies very well. What else happened in that film?"

Oh, come on. She won the Grand National disguised as boy. Poor wee Mickey Rooney was left standing by the rails.

“Disguised as a boy? She won the Grand National? Did she? Thank you so much. I couldn’t remember why I loved it so much. The most important thing is that she was disguised as a boy because women couldn’t ride in the Grand National. That’s right.”

At any rate, upon securing smashing A-Levels, she sidelined any equestrian ambitions and made her way to Trinity Hall, Cambridge. The acting bug had, however, set in. While at that windy university, she helped form a theatre company that secured a Student Drama Award at the 1991 Edinburgh Film Festival.

I wonder what her hard-working ambitious parents made of it all. She spent three years getting a good degree and then manoeuvred herself towards the insecure world of acting. Didn’t they want her to get a proper job?

“I don’t know if my dad was against it,” she says. “But he always thought I was very bad at acting. He used to come and see me at school plays and say ‘your mouth moves in funny ways.’ He had high standards.”

But he’s come round now?

"Oh yes. He has given me a few compliments. Ha ha! He saw me in a recent film called The Deep Blue Sea and he thought that was good

It's been a funny sort of career. As long ago as 1996, she appeared opposite Keanu Reeves in the fitful action thriller Chain Reaction . Then Bernardo Bertolucci hired her for his lubricious drama Stealing Beauty . The Italian director seemed more up Weisz's highbrow alley. But it took the absurd Mummy franchise – which had little to do with Mummies – to propel her onto the a-list. Thereafter, she quite deftly balanced pointy-headed material with more populist fare. Proper, deserved adulation came when she won an Oscar for her supporting role in Fernando Meirelles's adaptation of John le Carré's The Constant Gardener.

Does that change things?

“Well it means you have to beg much less,” she laughs. “Because a lot of acting is just begging people and trying to convince them they should hire you. That diminishes after winning an Oscar. Directors come to you and beg you just a little bit.”

For nine whole years, she was attached to the distinguished director Darren Aronofsky and, in 2006, they had a son, Henry Chance. They seemed like the perfect couple. Both were seriously bright. Both had impeccable manners. Neither had much to do with the gossip columns.

In 2010, however, they announced – in characteristically civilised fashion – the end of their relationship. Less than a year later, Weisz married current James Bond Daniel Craig. Whether she likes it or not, she is now part of a power couple. Later this year, they are to be directed by Mike Nichols in a Broadway production of Harold Pinter's Betrayal .

Is the house awash with chatter about acting?

"Oh acting is an incredibly boring thing to talk about," she laughs. "To do it is exhilarating. But it's a very hard thing to talk about and very boring. You keep your work at the office. You say what you did today. There isn't a ban on talking about it."
But a bit of mystery is good?

“Mystery is good,” she says, (literally) banging her fist on the table. “Yes to mystery! Yes to mystery!”

Oz the Great and Powerful is out now on general release