Rachel Weisz has had a busy month. After probing audiences to question the absurdities of modern coupledom in the indie hit The Lobster this spring, the Oscar-winning actress closed out the summer playing a woman of many lives in Complete Unknown and a grieving mother in The Light Between Oceans. Next up, in Denial (Sept. 30), she takes on a true story in which history was, essentially, put on trial.
Weisz plays the historian Deborah Lipstadt, who in 1996 was sued for libel by British author David Irving, who objected to an assertion made in her book Denying the Holocaust that he was a Holocaust denier. Because the English legal system places the burden of proof on defendants in libel cases, Lipstadt’s legal team took the approach of justifying Lipstadt’s comments, based on the fact that the Holocaust did, in fact, happen—making Irving’s claims to the contrary false. (It bolstered the case that he had a long history of anti-Semitic positions.)
For Weisz, who grew up in England but now lives in the States, the movie raised unsettling questions about the ways in which current events—from the U.S. presidential election to Brexit to the refugee crisis—echo frightening chapters in global history. She spoke to TIME about nailing Lipstadt’s Queens accent, filming at Auschwitz and the online trolls who won’t give up the argument that her latest film is rooted in conspiracy.
TIME: You have a very pronounced Queens accent in the movie.
Rachel Weisz: Yeah! Deborah’s accent is Jewish Queens. She has a Jewishness in the way she talks. There’s a kind of call-and-response—like a Talmudic thing. My son’s grandparents are from Brooklyn and they’re Jewish, and I had their wonderful accents in my mind and had to get them out.
Being British and playing an American who’s an outsider in England, did you look at your home country differently?
It was very funny to be in my hometown where I grew up with wonderful English actors and pretending to be [in Queens accent], “My God, you people are so polite!” It was just funny. But I’m suspending disbelief about all sorts of things.
Were you raised Jewish?
Not religious, but culturally. My dad was born in Budapest and my mom in Vienna. She left Austria two weeks before the war broke out. It was talked about a lot in my family because both my parents fled the Nazis. But this film isn’t really about the Holocaust. It’s about the insanity of trying to put fact on trial. I think screenwriter David Hare was inspired by Donald Trump—this idea that you can just have an opinion one day and an opinion the next day and speak as if it’s a fact. I see it as like, what if you put climate change on trial? It’s a f—king fact!
What was filming at Auschwitz like?
What struck me was the industrialized level of organization. The fact that nothing would be wasted, not one human hair, not one pair of spectacles, not one piece of gold from a tooth. It wasn’t killing in rage, which is still terrible, but that’s human. There was something disconnected from humanity. You stop to think, How does a human get to a place where that was O.K.? A lot of people say, “It happened ages ago—let’s get over it.” Historically, it’s a minute ago. My parents were children.
It brings to mind the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s “Report on the Banality of Evil,” where many people performing the killing said they were just following orders.
Yeah, and what would we have done if we had been there? It’s hard to know. It’s not quite the same thing, but the Republican Congressmen who are supporting Trump now, they’re not saying, “It’s not O.K. to be racist and bigoted.” That people in power are not standing up and going, “This is not O.K.”—I find staggering. They’re going to be, I think, on the wrong side of history.
There’s been a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. It sort of begs the question, how far have we come?
In Hungary, where my father comes from, there’s a right-wing party called Jobbik, which is really gaining momentum. There are pictures of when Syrian and other refugees arrived in Hungary, and Hungarians shut down the borders and the trains so they couldn’t even pass through to get to somewhere else. They were behind barbed wire and with markers, they’d written numbers on them. And this is 80 years later.
What did you make of the fact that Deborah was not asked to take the stand during the trial?
I think they didn’t want it to become personal. Of all the academics that wrote about him, and there were many, she’s the only one that he went after. She says [it was] because she’s a woman and a Jew. She’s an academic and a scholar and I’m sure she would have done very well. But it might have been immensely pleasurable for him to take her apart on the stand.
Did you envision the alternate reality, had Irving won the case?
I guess it would have said that you can’t prove that the Holocaust happened. Even now, online, there are thousands of comments saying, “Oh God, another Jewish conspiracy film paid for by Jews with a Jew in it about the ‘Holohoax.’” But freedom of speech is a good thing, and Deborah very much believes in it. A lot of people say she was trying to shut down Irving’s freedom of speech and it’s actually the reverse. He sued her. He brought it on himself.
You’ve begun producing films. What was the impetus for getting into that?
I really love developing material, finding novels or articles. It’s just a different skill set to acting. I love working with writers.
Does it have anything to do with a lack of good roles for women?
There should be more. It’s strange, talking about women as if we’re some tiny minority group that needs to be represented in cinema. It’s like saying we need to find some good roles for sheepdogs. Films where women are front and center, that tell their stories—there probably aren’t enough.
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