Rachel Weisz doesn't care about the royals, but loved playing one in 'The Favourite'
Watch a vicious competition between two assistants to Queen Anne in the early 18th century. USA TODAY
NEW YORK – Sometimes a lady likes to have some fun.
For Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), the caustic Duchess of Marlborough in "The Favourite," that means going out to the palace lawn and firing guns to blow off steam.
"That's the way she likes to relax," Weisz says. "Most of us watch TV or Netflix, but she likes to shoot pheasant."
Reuniting Weisz with "The Lobster" director Yorgos Lanthimos, "Favourite" (in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expanding through December) is a surreal, pitch-black period comedy set in the 18th century during the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), a petulant, ailing monarch who has all but ceded England's throne to her longtime confidante (and paramour) Sarah.
But Sarah's power starts to slip through her fingers with the arrival of her newly employed cousin, the beguiling Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), who schemes her way out of the servants' quarters and into the queen's bed.
"It's a tremendous arc," says Weisz, 48, whose character endures Abigail's increasingly ruthless attempts to usurp control. "Sarah goes from basically being in charge of the court to getting dragged through the countryside by a horse with a big scar on her face."
The film, which is loosely inspired by true events, is considered a lock for a best picture Oscar nomination, as are all three stars in the lead (Colman) and supporting actress (Weisz and Stone) categories. Prior to signing on, Weisz didn't know much about Queen Anne or the history of the royal family, despite her British upbringing.
Unlike many Americans, "I don't really have a fascination with (them), although I was very moved by" Duchess Meghan and Prince Harry's wedding last spring, she says. "Now every little girl of color can think, 'I could be a royal princess,' if that's what they want."
To research, the actressread some of the real-life love letters between Anne and Sarah, which were "quite passionate" and showed a relationship that went beyond a lust for sovereignty.
“They knew each other before they were ‘famous,’ if you’d like; they were childhood friends," Weisz says. "Sarah protected Anne her whole life, and while she likes the power of running England, she loves the queen. And that's a really handy person to love if you love power. It worked out until it didn’t work out."
"Favourite" is the second same-sex love story Weisz has starred in this year, after lesbian drama "Disobedience" with Rachel McAdams.
"I've always played opposite men, so it just seemed like about time. It was very refreshing and very liberating," she says. Plus, "you're guaranteed at least two (meaty) roles for women, rather than just one, so you're off to a good start already."
Lanthimos first read the "Favourite" script more than a decade ago and says he was drawn to "the opportunity to create three complex, complicated female characters." He initially sought Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett to play Sarah, but turned to Weisz when the others' casting fell through.
"Rachel has a very particular warmth in her presence," Lanthimos says. "I thought it would be interesting to pair her with the character we had written, who if you weren't careful, could come across as cold and calculating. Rachel brought a contradicting quality to her: a humanity that may have been missed."
Weisz, for her part, is excited to be back in the throes of awards season, having already won a supporting actress Oscar in 2006 for John le Carre's political thriller "The Constant Gardener." She stepped out at Sunday's Governors Awards in Los Angeles and the film's London premiere last month, having spent most of her time in New York since welcoming a daughter with husband Daniel Craig in September. (It's the couple's first child together, although both have kids with exes Darren Aronofsky and Fiona Loudon.)
"I'm just living my life," Weisz demurs. That said, mother and daughter are "good, thank you. Both of us probably need to sleep a bit more."