Beauty, energy and an edge of quirkiness -- such were the qualities sought by American director brothers Paul and Chris Weitz (American Pie) for Hugh Grant's hard-won true love in About a Boy, the tender story -- based on British cult novelist Nick Hornby's 1993 book -- of idle bachelor Will Freeman, who finds purpose in his life through his friendship with a 12-year-old boy.
The pivotal role of the single mom who wins Will's heart went to the alluring actress Rachel Weisz, whom Paul Weitz describes as "magnetic on screen. The moment you see her, you understand why Will falls in love."
"I can't possibly comment," says the exotic British beauty, blushing at the compliment. "All I know is, when I read the script, I was like, Wow, I'm very honored. I was just a bit worried about the wrong girl, the wrong girl...the right girl. I didn't really feel like I could be the 'right girl,' because I feel I'm a bit off-center. I don't feel like I fit."
While the 31-year-old Weisz may consider herself a Hollywood outsider ("When you're in London everything feels very far away"), she is all over the American movie map these days. A brief scan of the "new releases" in your local Blockbuster yields her fine-featured visage again and again -- as Victorian librarian Evie Carnahan-O'Connell in The Mummy Returns; as a World War II-era Russian soldier in Enemy at the Gates; and as a bleached-blonde bad girl in Beautiful Creatures.
Having taken the red-eye from Los Angeles, the willowy Weisz (she's 5 foot 7 and slender as a siren) is gracefully enduring a jam-packed schedule to promote About a Boy. It's an unnaturally warm April day in New York City, and she's feeling a bit chilled in her air-conditioned hotel room, where she has retreated for a brief respite and a healthy lunch (steamed fish and vegetables, and a green salad).
"My theory is, working actors have got no right to grumble," she says squarely, popping a water chestnut into her mouth and delighting at its crunchy reward. Indeed, Weisz graciously accepts all the perks of her own celebrity as the lucky gifts of a charmed lifestyle, one that she has finally begun to accept.
"I used to think, Oh, I better get a proper job, because it never really seemed like a job to me," she confesses, dismissing the stress of her career as typical, and the luxury of first-class travel, makeup artists and hair stylists at your disposal as marvelous. "It's astonishing to me that you get paid. It's an incredible life; it's an incredible thing to do for a living. It's like when you put on plays when you're a child; it's make-believe, it's pretty extraordinary."
Weisz, whose immigrant parents are academics (her Hungarian dad is an inventor, Viennese mom a psychologist), studied at Cambridge, where she was a founding member of a theater group called Talking Tongues, which performed experimental pieces, including many that Weisz had a part in writing, directing and performing in. She got her first big break in a theater production of Noel Coward's Design for Living, for which she received The Evening Standard award for Best Newcomer. She then did a fair share of British television before being offered small parts in feature films (Stealing Beauty, Chain Reaction, Going All the Way).
Weisz's 1999 turn opposite Brendan Fraser in The Mummy sealed her success as a film actress, but she wasn't always convinced that show business was her true calling.
"I wanted to be a lawyer," she reveals. "I said a couple of years ago to my dad, 'That's it. I'm giving up acting to go back to college.' But my dad said to me, 'Your character is too molded into an actress now; you'd be a terrible lawyer.' And I said, 'You're probably right.' Somewhere my work ethic got in the way, and I felt like I should be doing something proper. But anyway, I'm acting now."
The actress spent the better part of 2001 performing in New York and London in The Shape of Things, a relationship play by Neil LaBute (In the Company Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, Happiness) -- in a role she originated and which she reprises in a forthcoming screen adaptation that she also coproduced with LaBute.
"Right now I'm in a real film mood," says Weisz, who plans to buy a home in New York City in 2003 but who has been living in Los Angeles while making Confidence, "a contemporary gangster, grifter movie" in which she's the only woman in a cast including Ed Burns, Dustin Hoffman and Andy Garcia.
"Theater I understand a lot better; film is a lot more mysterious for me, and I need to get a handle on film acting. I will always go back to theater. But I did [The Shape of Things] for almost a year in total -- that's a long time. So I'm really film hungry now."
In addition to The Shape of Things and Confidence, the actress will turn up onscreen in the low-budget Marlowe, a biopic on the life of the English playwright Christopher Marlowe, costarring Jude Law as William Shakespeare. "It's dirty as hell. A real antidote to Shakespeare in Love," she says wryly. The actress also lets slip that there has been some talk about another installment of The Mummy franchise, which she would likely opt to do, and that she is interested in a romantic comedy script but in search of a funny American man with whom to match wits.
And as if her proverbial plate weren't already full, Weisz has yet another gig in the works. The actress, who says she substituted cigarette smoking for yoga this year, claims to be extremely low-maintenance when it comes to self-primping, but her natural glamour has not escaped the notice of Revlon: The company has hired her to be their new "face" in television and print ads. "It's pretty exciting," she admits. "Halle Berry and Julianne Moore have done it, so I'm in good company."