What makes queer films so affecting is the way emotions play through subtext; desire is repressed and channeled through longing glances and touches that toe the line between platonic and something more. Queer romance movies tap into our evergreen cinematic obsession with forbidden romance. In Disobedience, the latest film from newly Oscar-winning director Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman) that hits theaters today, this repressive atmosphere is put through an even stricter filter: the Orthodox Jewish community.
Taking place in North London, the film follows Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a Jewish woman who’s been estranged from her religious community because she had become romantically involved with her best friend Esti (Rachel McAdams). Ronit, who’s spent her adult life in New York City, returns home to the life she left behind to attend the funeral of her father, who was a rabbi. There, she discovers that Esti is now married to Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), Ronit’s father’s pupil. But the spark between Ronit and Esti hasn’t gone out—the two women, now older and leading completely different lives, meet again, and are faced with great challenges of genuine feelings and familial duties, all under the strict eye of their surroundings.
Broadly spoke with one of the leading Rachels (Weisz) about finding the source material for the film and producing it, and trusting their director not to objectify the lesbian sex scenes.
BROADLY: I know you have a few producing credits to your name, but I want to know how you got involved in this particular movie creatively and why you wanted to do this.
RACHEL WEISZ: I guess I just got to a point where I figured out what kind of stories I was interested in telling, apart from the ones that arrived on my doorstep, which were wonderful. So I started looking, reading, and I was looking for a book that would have two really interesting female characters, and I read Disobedience and it had three. It had a really great male lead as well as two female leads. And it just seemed really interesting to me. It kind of reminded me of that movie Witness with Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis because she's in the Amish community. There's something about people that are living in the contemporary world, but living under different laws. You can't express your homosexuality, your gayness; it would be the same in the Amish community or the Mennonite community in Philadelphia. But yeah, there's something about the modernity plus the ancient rules, like the mixture of that together that really intrigued me.
I found the book and took it to Frida Torresblanco, the producer. She introduced me to Sebastián and he read the book. And then I went through the development of the script with Frida, and then another producer, Ed Guiney. So there are like eight or nine drafts. Then we found Sebastián a co-writer. So in terms of the development of the text, I was very involved. But then with the filming of the film, I just became an actor again.
I know you grew up near a similar community to Ronit's.
I did, yeah, down the road. But I mean I might as well have been in Timbuktu. I lived on a different planet. But yeah, it was three tube stops from where I grew up. So I would see people dressed like this, and women with their wigs, but I had no access to their world.
Did you do any research in that neighborhood while filming this?
I didn't really have to because my character, as you know, has abandoned it and gone to live in New York, and when she comes back she's kind of uncomfortable. I mean, I was raised Jewish enough that I know, as Alessandro says, he goes, "Yeah, but you know the songs." And I'm like, "I know the songs, yeah. [But] I also know Christmas carols and the Lord's prayer." You know what I mean. It's not alien to me, but Alessandro and Rachel had to really immerse themselves. I mean, first of all they both had to become British, and from North London—there's a particular accent—and then they had to believe that they believed in God in a deep, deep way and that God governed every single aspect of their life. And Rachel and Alessandro got that. They had that, I didn't have to do that. My character’s rebelled from any kind of religion and is kind of being all punk rock about it.
Yeah. How do their British accents sound to you?
Perfect, perfect. I mean, Alessandro has got this certain kind of North London Jewish accent that I wouldn't be able to do. I would have to work six months to get it. It's really insane. He nailed it.
I know the chemistry between you and Rachel McAdams is very important, so I'd love to hear how she was brought on and then how you established that dynamic.
Sebastián, the director, felt very strongly that she would be right, and I was a huge fan. Rachel read the script, and I spoke to her on the phone. We were very lucky in that she was the first person who read it and she just really wanted to do it. She was like, "I love this. It speaks to me. My heart breaks for this character." And she just really wanted it. And you can't—won't—get anything better than that: a fantastic actress who's also invested. And then we all met. Sebastián and I went to Toronto just to sit down with her. You can't fabricate chemistry. It either happens or it doesn't. So Sebastian's good at casting.
And a recent Oscar winner too.
Yeah, I know. He'd just finished editing A Fantastic Woman. In fact, here was one point where the script wasn't quite ready on Disobedience and he was like, "I'm just going to go off and make this movie in Chile." I was like "Okay" and then he went and won the Oscar for it. Yeah, he's amazing.
There can be a lot of sensationalism when it comes to lesbian movies, and you also have a male director, which can be tricky territory. How did you make sure the love scene was respectful and not gratuitous?
Well, it was really Sebastián. I can't claim any part of that as a producer. In the script it just said something like, "They make love." You didn't know what it was going to be. But he blocked out a day to shoot it, and he storyboarded it, so every gesture and every frame was pre-designed. It wasn't improvisation. He didn't say, "Get naked, and see what happens." So we didn't come up with the ideas that were there, he did. I knew, from knowing him and seeing his work, that his gaze is male, but his empathy is such that he was not going to objectify us. The whole way he makes films and tells stories is the opposite: he subjectifies. So I just trusted him, I guess is all I can say, and I think Rachel McAdams did, too.