Even in 2018, in New York’s East Village, in a cafe full of adults who look like they could handle it, it still feels taboo to talk to Rachel Weisz about fake vaginas. The new movie Disobedience stars Weisz and Rachel McAdams as lovers oppressed within an orthodox Jewish community, and it features the most intense lesbian sex scene since Blue Is the Warmest Color. According to Weisz, inevitable comparisons were drawn to the 2013 Cannes sensation, but unlike that project, Disobedience isn’t freighted with reports of directorial misconduct, nor were its actresses asked to wear crotch prosthetics.
“People were calling it Jew Is the Warmest Color, and it spread like wildfire,” says the Oscar winner, herself half-Jewish. “But even though it’s wild and abandoned, the process was hugely respectful of the delicacy and emotion the characters were feeling. The director, Sebastián Lelio, storyboarded every single angle and position, frame by frame. It was like erotic grammar.”
Huddled over a cup of tea, her winter layers piled on the back of her chair, Weisz looks just as comfortable as she sounds, and she continues to assure that a fear of taboos only ever surfaced on one side of our table. She talks of her mother’s strict Catholic upbringing, of a Pakistani colleague’s plea to Parliament for better representation, and of her enduring fondness for gender play—her favorite childhood film was National Velvet, in which Elizabeth Taylor dons jockey drag so she can ride a championship horse. She eagerly asks questions about the queer community, her interest heightened after shooting Disobedience, Lelio’s follow-up to his Academy Award–winning A Fantastic Woman, about a trans singer dealing with the aftermath of her boyfriend’s death. “I’ve talked to gay women a lot,” Weisz says, “and I feel like they’re so much less visible than gay men. I see male gay culture around me all the time, but not much female gay culture.”
For Weisz, the notion of community seems both alien and deeply fascinating. Growing up in England, the self-described outsider was drawn to books by the likes of Jean Rhys and queer author Carson McCullers, who famously wrote about outcasts in the American South. Not fitting in made Weisz a better actress, while the art and literature she devoured sparked a kinship to those with chosen families. “All of that makes you want to observe people and become someone other than yourself,” she says. “I think people who feel like misfits often have a lot of empathy.”
Weisz was prepared, then, for her role as Ronit in Disobedience, which she also produced. A stylish New York photographer who’s estranged from her orthodox roots in London, Ronit returns home only after she learns of the death of her father, a rabbi. And her distance from her former peers takes new shape when she rekindles an old, forbidden flame with Esti (McAdams), who’s now married to her friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola). Yet, for all its condemnation of queer love, this tight-knit and highly religious U.K. community—which is rarely reflected on screen—was alluring for Weisz. “There are beautiful things about it,” she says. “Everyone lives so isolated now—you don’t really have community anymore. Here, people will literally buy you milk if you’re sick.”
Disobedience is an intersectional tale of otherness, where, within a group of outsiders, two queer women find themselves even further removed from the status quo. In Weisz’s personal life, this sort of thing doesn’t fly. Just ask her 11-year-old son, Henry. “When people talk about race he just goes, ‘I’m part of the human race,’ ” Weisz says. “One time I said something like, ‘Men are physically stronger than women,’ and he was like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ He was so angry. He really doesn’t have a gender bias. He doesn’t see like that.”
And while Weisz has noted a gender bias in the queer community, one thing she can say is that queer women seem to be cosigning the authenticity of Ronit and Esti’s sex scenes—the sort of scenes that historically draw criticism from lesbian audiences. Not long before our meeting, the actress—who’ll also play Olivia Colman’s lover in the upcoming Yorgos Lanthimos film The Favourite—spoke with a gay writer from Curve, a magazine with a largely lesbian readership. They discussed a specific moment amid the pair’s lustful reunion when, per Lelio’s storyboarding, Ronit spits into Esti’s mouth.
“She was down with it,” Weisz says of the writer. “She was like, ‘You inseminated Rachel McAdams.’ She got it.”