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Rachel Weisz Plays With Identity In 'Complete Unknown'


"Complete Unknown" is a film that opens with a montage of Rachel Weisz playing Connie, a hipster botanist, then Paige, a trauma surgeon, then Mae, a magician's assistant - the same woman in different guises. Then she contrives to see Tom, an old lover, played by Michael Shannon, at his birthday party, where she's Alice, a biologist. In the night that follows, she reveals to Tom that she's been inhabiting new identities for herself every few years.


MICHAEL SHANNON: (As Tom) How many times have you done it?

RACHEL WEISZ: (As Jenny) Nine.

SHANNON: (As Tom) Jesus. Did you rob some banks a long the way?

WEISZ: (As Jenny) It's not like that.

SHANNON: (As Tom) Oh, so you just get off on deceiving people and playing master of disguise.

SHANNON: (As Jenny) That's not what it is.

SHANNON: (As Tom) Oh, yeah? So what are you doing here, Jenny?

WEISZ: (As Jenny) I wanted to see you. You were the last person who really knew me before I left. And I needed to see someone who knew me.

SIMON: The film's directed by Josh Marston - also stars Kathy Bates and Danny Glover. Rachel Weisz joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

WEISZ: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Why did you want to play this character - or characters?

WEISZ: Well, I think what's interesting to me about the film is that it's such an outlandish thing to actually do with your life, to fake a diploma and pretend that you've had many years of training as a nurse and go and work in a hospital and get a new name and a new social security number and a new group of friends and to begin life again - to be reborn for five or six years, and then change again and become a scientist. And, I mean, it's such an outlandish thing to do.

I mean, the other thing was when Josh Marston had finally finished the script because I read many drafts, and I kept questioning him and I kept saying, but why did she do what she does? Why did she do what she does? And he was not interested in answering that question.

SIMON: Boy, that's interesting to me. So, like...


SIMON: ...So what happens when you reach the classic actor question - what's my motivation?

WEISZ: I asked more or less that question. He didn't have an answer, and he wasn't interested in his narrative having an answer to that. So I guess, rather like the title, she remains unknown on that level. But one thing I did say to him on reading it - I thought I was being very clever reading it - I said to him, but Josh, I mean, I really don't want to say this because you obviously don't realize this, but the script keeps changing tone. Like, it begins and it kind of feels like a Woody Allen film and everyone's at a dinner party having a great time. And then suddenly feels like "Fatal Attraction" and I feel like it's a thriller, and she's going to try and kill him. And then suddenly, it changes tone all - it's got these different tones. And he said, yeah, I know. That's the whole point. He said, I'm writing, and I'm going to change tone stylistically as I make the film to reflect or pay homage to her life choice.

SIMON: It's not as if the character, we'll call Alice, is a con artist who fleeces people out of money. She's not on the lam from the law. If you'll (laughter) forgive a James Bond reference, she's not a spy. So what is Alice - Jenny?

WEISZ: She has a particular pathology - a particular psychological makeup where she can only stay within one particular identity for a certain amount of time and then she has to flee. There is one line that I actually improvised that made it into the movie where she says, as soon as people feel they know who you are, then you're trapped. She has some kind of intimacy issues. For her, her art form is reinvention.

SIMON: I happened to go to the movies the other night to see a film you weren't in but you were in three trailers (laughter) for films that are either recently out or about to come out - "The Lobster" with Colin Farrell, "Denial" with Timothy Spall, the David Irving Holocaust denier film, and then "The Light Between The Oceans."

WEISZ: Yeah, so "Denial" I made at the end of last year. And, yeah, David Hare, wrote the script. So Deborah Lipstadt, who's a professor at Emory University, she has written many books, one of which she writes about the Holocaust. And she devoted half a page to talk about David Irving, who's a British historian. And she called him a liar and a Holocaust denier. And he sued her for libel in the British courts. So effectively the Holocaust was being put on trial, like, did it happen or didn't it happen?

David Hare was fascinated by this, in part, inspired by Donald Trump, who, I guess at the time when he wrote it, had not yet become a presidential candidate. But he was intrigued by the distortions of facts and the degree to which freedom of speech allowed people to kind of say whatever they wanted and change their minds the next day. So it really is an examination of of course there is freedom of speech, but it is possible that if you continue to lie that you might be held accountable. So that's really what the film is about. There are things that - there is a difference between an opinion and a fact.

SIMON: And given all the number of films that you're in now, is there some particular pleasure in doing a low-budget film? Does it renew something in you as an actor?

WEISZ: Yes. I mean, I think, "Complete Unknown" is somewhat of an experimental film. And it was a chance to get to work with Michael Shannon. I'm a huge fan of his. And I've watched his career from the early Tracy Letts' plays like "Bug" and "Killer Joe" and - as well. So it was a chance to get to work with him. And yeah, I mean, the level of experimentation is what, I guess, can come with a low-budget film, which I definitely enjoyed.

SIMON: Rachel Weisz stars with Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates and Danny Glover in "Complete Unknown," Thanks very much for being with us.

WEISZ: Thank you - thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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