Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams had to tread respectfully in the shoes of lovers hiding in a conservative religious circle, for spiritual identity and sexual freedom are at odds in their new movie Disobedience. A masterful character study in the vein of his 2017 Oscar winner A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio’s emotionally wrought tale of forbidden love (adapted from Naomi Alderman’s novel of the same name) centers on a pair of women from an Orthodox Jewish community who fall for each other — and apart — under the scrutinizing gaze of family and peers. Ahead of the film’s April 27 bow (and Tuesday premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival), producer-star Weisz (who plays Ronit, a rebellious pariah exiled for her sexuality who returns home in the wake of her rabbi father’s death) and co-leading lady McAdams (who plays Esti, Ronit’s former lover now married to an up-and-coming congregational leader played by Alessandro Nivola) spoke to EW about probing into the conservative community and the nuances of shooting one of the most beautiful sex scenes of the year. Read on for the full interview.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why was it essential for you to tell a story about the repression of identity at this time?
RACHEL WEISZ: I wanted to tell a story that had two great female roles. I felt a sure way to make that happen was to make sure it’d be a love story, because they were the object of each other’s desire. It’d be from their point of view. I read a lot of lesbian literature [to prepare]. This story is extraordinary because it’s set in London, three stops down the tube from where I grew up, and still it’s a world that I didn’t know anything about, but it’s happening right down the road. It seems like a foreign world, but it’s happening a few blocks away from us, everywhere…. it’s timely to speak about identity, community, and agency, just to be able to conform or not conform…. I’ve read thousands of books from a male point of view about male desire, so it was nice to address the balance.
RACHEL MCADAMS: That’s always an issue people are grappling with, being able to find themselves in their community. How do you make amends with what you’ve grown up in? How do you maintain a connection to what you come from or what you want to be? That’s a universal theme. There’s always oppression out there to fight against and to disobey, so it felt timely, but also a story that needed to be told for the specifics, that this is a corner of the world where being gay is still not entirely embraced.
Do you view the film as a critique of religion?
WEISZ: Judaism isn’t the antagonist, but [Esti] can’t be who she is and love who she wants to love. The film shows the great beauty of spirituality, but there’s a dilemma: You can’t be gay and be in that Orthodox religion…. When there’s any fundamentalism or Orthodoxy or inflexibility, it can be impossible for someone like Esti to fully be herself. I, personally, have a problem with that, but I have empathy for people who are religious.
MCADAMS: Sebastián was interested in not having any villains or vilifying anyone in the film. Sebastián embraced the beauty and complication of the religion, which exists in every religion… the film is an exploration rather than a damnation.
Is there something specific about the Orthodox Jewish religion that makes it the right dramatic backdrop for a movie like this?
WEISZ: Naomi Alderman, who wrote the novel, she grew up in this community. So it’s not something she had to anthropologically explore, it was her story. It could have been set in a Christian-Amish community or a Mennonite community or a fundamental Muslim community, but that’s not what Naomi knew about. What’s right about this community is it gives a sense of belonging, of spirituality, and of faith, but you can’t be gay if you live there. It’s taboo. You don’t have sexual freedom to express yourself, so that’s an incredibly interesting dilemma for Esti’s character, because she loves the community….
As beautiful as the film is as a whole, the big sex scene is so arresting and absolutely gorgeous. It doesn’t feel like any other sex scene I’ve seen before. Was there a significance and sensitivity to how it was plotted and shot?
WEISZ: The sex scene is a massively important and beautiful scene. Sebastián storyboarded it precisely a couple weeks before we shot it. He made it clear everything he wanted: the wetness, me spitting in Rachel’s mouth, and [a focus on] Esti’s orgasm — my character [originally] had an orgasm, too, but I had to agree as a producer, even though it was a very good orgasm, it wasn’t as good for the story as Esti’s. In that moment, Esti’s orgasm is both a sexual release and a metaphorical release to freedom, it’s like she’s free to find out who she really is.
So it was carefully constructed from the beginning?
WEISZ: This is the only approach that [Sebastián] suggested. The only thing that was particular to it was as I mentioned was normally as you do a sex scene it’s kind of freestyle. You get in the bed and in my case it’s always with men and you see what happens. It can come out a bit meaningless and generalized. I think Sebastian would say it’s the center of the movie, the heart of the movie, the deep inside of the movie. It was important to him. We had a whole day to shoot it. It was full of meaning, it wasn’t just random. All the ideas he came up with, you know spitting in Esti’ mouth, those were ideas he authored as an auteur, they were his authorship. They weren’t mine or Rachel McAdams’, we just saw the storyboard and thought, “That looks really interesting and beautiful.”
MCADAMS: Often, you’re trying to decide if it’s gratuitous or not. But this scene felt so integral to the plot and moving the story forward. The characters need this release to open up… There was energy to that scene that I haven’t experienced in any other sex scenes [with men] in my career. There was camaraderie to it. We both felt safe and free…. All those things that you love about being a woman, you get to be with [in the scene], so I understand the attraction and appeal to that in a sexual context.
I certainly hope so! Especially since you’re looking at storyboards and you see that Rachel Weisz is going to spit in your mouth. What was your reaction to that?
MCADAMS: [Laughs] I was excited that Sebastián was doing something new. It’s provocative and brings the audience into something intimate…. The makeup department tested out different flavors of lube the night before to use as the spit. We settled on lychee-flavored!
Was it hard to get into the groove of the scene at first? How did you foster comfort?
MCADAMS: There’s a lot of buildup… You feel every person that’s in the room who’s clothed, holding a boom, and snacking on trail mix or whatever, but we had an incredibly respectful, closed set. Everyone was very quiet and there was such warmth in the room. It was a wonderful day. [I] realized that I was doing a scene like any other scene. They should all make you feel vulnerable, some more than others, but they should all be risky. In became another day at work, in that way.
What was it like performing a sexuality you don’t identify as?
WEISZ: I’ve fictionally been in love with and told stories about being in love with many men, but it was about being in love with a woman. I didn’t have to rearrange my DNA or anything. Esti was the woman that I loved. But I thought the aspiration of sexuality and desire… in the middle of repression for the first powerful minutes of the film, you get into this moment where the women are alone in the hotel room and I think the scene is very beautiful and emotional. Like Sebastian had plotted it out so there were coordinates and pieces of music we had to play. As actresses we had to fill it with emotion like a musician would fill a note. It wasn’t freestyle and we weren’t improvising. It was scripted. Film’s a really good place to show desire in close-up. It’s all about our faces and you didn’t know where the other woman’s fingers, tongues, body, or head are. You couldn’t see where the other woman was. It wasn’t just on one woman’s face. I think it’s an emotional, passionate, almost spiritual love scene.
MCADAMS: I don’t think I thought about it being different. I knew we were telling a lesbian story and that was necessary to concentrate on. Beyond that…. It’s just humans being with humans. I didn’t’ think of it as gay versus straight, only in that there was unfair oppression of their love and sexuality…. I actually overheard a couple after a screening say, “We don’t spit in each other’s mouths. That’s not a lesbian thing!” I never thought of it as a lesbian thing, it’s just a unique sexual thing between these two people, not necessarily between these two women. That’s not a “lesbian move.” I don’t think I concentrated on that so much.
I saw the film for a second time in a press screening, and there were a few people nervously laughing during the sex scene. Are people still that uncomfortable watching gay sex in movies?
WEISZ: We’re pretty used to watching men and women being desirous and women being the objects of desire by a man. That’s pretty normal….. They’re just not used to it. It’s very new. Straight men are used to seeing it in pornography, but this isn’t that. It has love, sadness, pain, and power; it’s full of emotion. It’s not at all for the titillation of a man. And that’s so underrepresented. Gay women I’ve spoken to…they felt represented, massively happy, and relieved that their sexuality is represented in film.
MCADAMS: It comes down to a lack of exposure or understanding. We haven’t told enough of these stories. Or they’ve been categorized or put in a certain box. It’s hardwiring, and we’re loosening it up!
Is it troubling to you that we constantly need these kind of cinematic affirmations that tell us it’s okay to be able to love who we want to love?
MCADAMS: Humanity goes in weird phases. We kind of seem to forget the lessons that we learn through history…. but I think there’s something also amazing about the way these stories are being embraced and that people are getting the money to make them…. But we have to keep knocking on the door all the time to remind ourselves that we can be better and be compassionate. There are miles to go, but I think we’re on the right path in cinema, anyway. There are steps backward as with any revolution, but I think it’s charging forward.