The British actress Rachel Weisz plays historian Deborah Lipstadt in the new film “Denial.” The film resonates with the actress’s own life: Weisz’s father is Jewish; her mother became a Jew, and both fled the Nazis. Weisz met with the Forward’s Jane Eisner recently to talk about the film, her visit to Auschwitz and what it took to play a woman raised in Queens.
Jane Eisner: How did you capture Deborah’s Queens accent?
Rachel Weisz: I recorded her. I filmed her. I had lots of recordings of her giving lectures. And then also I recorded her in my kitchen, because how she talks in lectures is slightly different than how she is in everyday situations.
There wasn’t much background about Lipstadt in the film. How did you imagine her background, and how did that inform how you played the character?
She told me stories. There’s one in the book as well, when she was a toddler, and even then the first thing she said was ‘Me do it.’ She also told me a really interesting story that if she was ever in trouble at school, her parents — her mom, particularly — always assumed it wasn’t her fault, that somehow she had been misunderstood.
What impressed you most about Deborah?
Her verbal ease. You know, she can talk very easily; she’s very expressive, not inhibited. Deborah says what she means, which British people tend not to do quite so much. And she’s very vibrant. I feel she’s very honest, and I’m very honest with her, in a way that you can’t normally be with someone you’ve only known less than a year. I can be very blunt with Deborah and she doesn’t mind. I think she likes truth. Passion plus intellect is a good cocktail, right?
Had you been to Auschwitz?
What was that like for you?
The thing I found most staggering was just seeing how the procedure took place, the level of mechanized, industrialized organization. It wasn’t murdering in the heat of passion or a rage or a fit; it was so scientific. Nothing was wasted — not a hair on the head, not gold on the tooth, not a pair of spectacles; everything was reused, recycled. And the scientific knowledge and sophistication that had gone into seeing how quickly you can kill the most people in the smallest amount of time, and the church bells ringing from a few miles away, knowing the smell, the smell. It’s just very hard to reconcile that with being human.
Were you making a statement about anti-Semitism in doing this film?
No. I don’t believe in making statements. I was telling a true story. If it shines a light on those things, then good. Otherwise I would just be a politician.
Contact Jane Eisner at Eisner@forward.com or on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.