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Tracing Amy

Rachel Weisz brings a special understanding, not to mention beauty, to her role in 'Sea.'

January 22, 1998|STEVEN SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Amy Foster may be the title character of Joseph Conrad's 1901 short story, but that mysterious English country girl isn't someone her creator seemed to trust.

Distant and secretive, Amy wins the heart of another outsider--Conrad's true hero, the Russian traveler Yanko. His passion for Amy ends in tragedy, leading the tale's narrator to ask, what was Yanko thinking? He probably wouldn't ask if he'd met Rachel Weisz.

The British beauty adds a glowing inner life to Amy in director Beeban Kidron's screen version of the story, "Swept From the Sea." It opens Friday in Los Angeles, and co-stars Sir Ian McKellen, Kathy Bates and Vincent Perez ("Queen Margot") as Yanko.

The film marks the best showcase to date for the versatile Weisz, 25, who has time-traveled on-screen through 1990s Italy ("Stealing Beauty"), '50s America ("Going All the Way"), '40s Britain (the upcoming "The Land Girls") and 19th century Cornwall in "Swept from the Sea."

But unlike the taciturn Amy, Weisz is articulate and concrete in conversation--especially when discussing the complexities of Amy Foster, which she did recently in Toronto, shortly before the film's world premiere.

"I don't think Conrad likes Amy," Weisz says decisively, as cigarette smoke curls around her hazel eyes, distinctive nose and mouth. Her striking beauty is offset by an engaging lack of pretension.

"Amy's an enigma to Conrad. He understands Yanko profoundly, and he can't understand how this wonderful man falls in love with this boring, uncommunicative, unsociable peasant girl."

Enter screenwriter Tim Willocks, whose longtime fascination with Conrad's work led to his telling Amy's side of the story.

Its themes, says Willocks' collaborator, director Kidron, "are all contemporary--how we treat foreigners, how the strangers in our community are ostracized, how passionate love can go beyond tragedy and beyond death, how people need each other to find their own selves."

The pivotal role of Amy seemed destined to attract a major star, and Kidron admits it was the quest for "more famous actresses" that took the director to Los Angeles. It was there that she met Weisz.

"I was on the telephone when she walked into the room," Kidron recalls. "I signaled her to sit down, and even while I was on the phone, I was struck by a quietness she had, a simplicity. Then when we spoke I was struck by her intelligence."

The London-born Weisz says she identified strongly with Amy's inner passion and privacy, despite an upbringing with few obvious echoes. The daughter of a psychoanalyst and an inventor (her father devised a pioneering artificial respirator), Weisz found her niche early at Cambridge University, where she co-founded the theater group Talking Tongues.

A performance at the Edinburgh Festival earned the troupe a Guardian Award and gained Weisz an agent. By 1994 she was on the West End, in Noel Coward's "Design for Living"; her work attracted Bernardo Bertolucci, who cast her in 1996's "Stealing Beauty."

"The making of that movie was a bit like the story," Weisz recalls. "Lots of English people living together in a house in Tuscany, slightly all on top of each other, all watching this beautiful young Liv Tyler. I thought the film was going to be a lot sicker than it was; it felt a lot darker making it. That would've been more to my taste."

Weisz's next film, the Keanu Reeves thriller "Chain Reaction," promised a more mainstream success; instead, after a costly, turbulent production, it disappeared in days.

"What we were trying to do, and it was an honorable desire, was to be real people in an action story, rather than superhuman people. And the lesson is, real people can't climb bridges and do all that!" Weisz says with a laugh. "I think the lesson is, you've got to be superhuman, you've gotta have jokes, you've gotta be cool. And English people are notoriously not cool!"

Weisz may not be cool, but she can certainly smolder, as the almost nonverbal role of Amy shows.

"It's always most interesting to play characters who have secrets," Weisz says, with a smile that suggests she knows of what she speaks.

"Some people have secrets and want to show off about them, but Amy is very private about hers. She has an intense, rich, internal world and fantasy life, which she's completely fulfilled by."

Weisz, Kidron and co-star Vincent Perez all agree there was something magical about the shoot, which began in the rugged seaside hills of Cornwall in September 1996. (Conrad's original story was set in the more docile Kent.) "We were helped by gods," says Vincent Perez. "We needed a shot to show springtime . . . suddenly we had this rainbow; it was there for 10 minutes. We needed snow, it snowed. The cinematographer, Dick Pope, said after making this movie he really believes in God."

Weisz says the weather and setting also illuminated her character. 'You're fed so much by the landscape. I think it becomes a character in the film. You have an epic outdoors to match your epic feelings--it's beautiful, but it's quite brutal, unforgiving."

Weisz has since moved on to a brutal contemporary drama--"I Want You," from director Michael Winterbottom, and the World War WII-era comedy "The Land Girls," which recently earned her raves at Sundance.

Her ability to slide in and out of this century befits an actress graced with a "timeless beauty," says Kidron. "Rachel is a movie star in the old tradition, the kind that have a long career life, and are still elegant and beautiful and available when they're 50 and 60.

"I think we'll see her on the screen for the rest of her life."

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