The Autostraddle Interview: Rachel Weisz Opens Up About Disobedience’s Six-Minute Lesbian Sex Scene (Plus an Exclusive Clip)

By now you need no introduction to Disobedience, Sebastián Lelio new lesbian film that stars Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams as Orthodox Jewish women who rekindle the romance of their youth after Ronit (Weisz) returns home for her father’s funeral and is thrown into Esti’s (McAdams) path. The film opened to a fawning response at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, has pulled in a 90% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and wowed our own Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, who gave it a glowing review. I was blown away by the film, and fell in love with it even deeper after I had the chance to chat with Rachel Weisz about it. She was more than happy to chat about the sex scene that everyone’s talking about, and even gave me a few lesbian book recommendations to add to my collection.

Before we get to that scene everyone’s talking about, I want to talk about your role in getting Disobedience made. You didn’t just star in this film; you actually acquired the rights to it and developed it after reading Naomi Alderman’s book, right?

Right. I read the book and hired the director and went through the process of adapting the screenplay, and then I was an actress, just for the filming, and then in the post-production, I was in the edit room. I really did produce it, start to finish.

I’m wondering if your thought process was, “It’s time for me to add ‘lesbian’ to my illustrious list of roles” or if you really wanted to star in a film opposite another woman and that just naturally led you into lesbian stories.

I really wanted two fabulous female roles. When I was looking for a book to adapt, I was looking for a female love story, not because I wanted to add lesbian to my resume, necessarily — but female-on-female desire and eroticism and friendship and love and intimacy is so overlooked. Just a woman being portrayed with a full sexual appetite and desire is massively lacking in Hollywood. So, I thought, how wonderful to see two women together in this intimate relationship.

I read a lot of lesbian novels, some good, some not so good. I read a lot of pulp fiction from the ’50s, a lot of Ann Bannon, who is just wonderful. I’ve met the real author, Ann Weldy, who’s now a linguistics professor.

We actually have an exclusive clip from the film of one of the most moving moments from the film, when Ronit and Esti discuss her desire.

One thing that really moved me about Disobedience is that most films that grapple with queer people in a religion that oppresses them and tries to “cure” the gayness in them, the queer characters leave and that’s the end of the story. But for both Esti and Ronit, they both really do have a deep affection for their faith and their religious community.

Yes. You know, if you set a story in an Amish community like Witness was in the ’80s or you set it in the ’50s like Carol was, it can seem like it’s very far away from you. With Disobedience, setting it in this small Orthodox Jewish community, it’s just down the road from you in London, right now. It’s a good environment for talking about conformity, not fitting in, personal expression, sexual freedom. Just all the questions that are really interesting.

Right. I’ve never seen a queer film that explores the truth of that oppression but doesn’t make a good vs. evil dichotomy out of it.

Sebastián and I spoke about this, about the antagonist being within. Yes, this community has exercised an oppression on these women, but there’s no simple “bad guy.” These are existential questions. There’s a great beauty in spirituality, and in family, and in belonging. Even if we abandon our heteronormative communities and families and we say, “Well, they can fuck off if they don’t accept me” there’s probably, for most people, always a small part of them that still longs for that acceptance. Spiritual life is about that tussle, isn’t it?

At the end, the three of them, they find their own family. Dovid leaves his faith, in that particular shape, and maybe he’ll start his own Orthodox Jewish synagogue that welcomes gay people. They exist. I know of at least one wonderful Orthodox gay rabbi here in New York.

There going to be bonded for life, the three of them.

The thing most people were talking about coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival, and the tease most magazines and websites used, focused on the sex scene. Lesbian sex always makes a good headline. Is that frustrating to you, or is it liberating?

I think it can only be a wonderful thing. When people talk to me about this movie, they talk to me about Judaism and they talk to me about sex. It’s freeing.

Some of the first critics clocked the sex scene. It’s six minutes.

I didn’t realize it was six minutes! But it’s massively important. For both of them, it’s about rekindling a first love, but for Esti it’s also about her liberation. It’s her true self. That orgasm is such a rush of pleasure but also deeply emotional, because she probably hasn’t come for years — and it’s just, I don’t know, it could have been longer. They’re stuck in this world of patriarchal oppression and suddenly they’re alone and finally free to love each other.

I also love the way Sebastián chose to shoot it. It was storyboarded. All the wetness, the spitting in the mouth, the pubic hair, the vaginas, but also leaving some of it to the audience to imagine. Where is the other woman’s mouth, where are her fingers? It was important for him to focus on our faces to really capture that desire. There’s something very spiritual about their sex. I’m really proud of it. What did you think?

What did I think? [Laughs] I loved it. I would say I’ve probably seen every lesbian sex scene in every lesbian movie ever made and there are very few at this point that really move me, and this was one of them.

Wow, that’s amazing to hear.

What are you looking forward to as Hollywood continues making these cultural shifts we’re seeing with regards to women in film?

I’m just looking forward — as a viewer, as an actor, and as a producer — to seeing many, many more stories about what the myriad complexities of being a woman. I’m excited to be alive at this time, where women can be portrayed with sexual appetites and intellectual appetites and a hunger for careers or for other woman. I don’t want to see anymore spiritually anemic women on screen.

One last question. Now that you’re an expert on lesbian pulp novels, I have to ask you for a book recommendation.

Oh, easy: Journey to a Woman by Ann Bannon. It’s great. The sex scenes are sort of 1950s PG, but they’re actually quite erotic.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Heather has written 724 articles for us.

46 Comments

  1. *Rushes off to buy “Journey to a Woman”*
    If Ms.Weisz ever happens to drink or dine in the same place I do, I’ll pick up her tab.
    Because there’s assuming and “getting it” and “having a girl crush on Angelina Jolie, because ha,ha who doesn’t?” and there’s research and not assuming and simply wanting to tell a story about female desire.
    I cannot wait to get my eyes on that movie!

  2. Thanks, Heather! This is an excellent interview 🙂

    It’s lovely to hear about her motivation for this film. It’s refreshing, really. Just another reason for me to go see this!

  3. Heather, I love you so much and the interview is mostly great but it’s disappointing how much bi erasure is in this piece since Rachel’s character clearly is a bisexual woman.

    • Hi Erin, I love you too! I’m curious what’s giving you the “clearly a bisexual woman” read! I haven’t read the book so maybe there’s more there, and I don’t want to spoil the movie if you haven’t already seen it, but if you have I really am genuinely curious about your take on that!

      • This is so interesting — I also got the sense that Ronit was bi and Esti was gay. I’m not sure I would go as far as “clearly,” though? I think it was meant to be implied by the fact that Ronit still chose to have sex with men (although it’s so hard to tell if she’s miserable in that sex scene because she’s sad about her dad and having to go back to the community etc. or because she doesn’t like men and is sort of going through the motions?) and that she asked Esti if she still “only” fancied women (by implication, as opposed to Ronit who fancies both).

        I just did a little googling though, and it sounds like there’s a lot more in the book: “Like Ronit’s bisexuality, more arrestingly explored in Alderman’s novel, this isn’t something that Lelio is very interested in” — https://filmschoolrejects.com/disobedience-review/. Which makes me super curious to read the book!

        All of that said, I don’t get the sense that Heather actively erased Ronit’s sexuality here. I think it’s fair to describe a sex scene between two women as a “lesbian sex scene,” and a movie with a F/F romance as a “lesbian movie,” even if one or more of the women involved is bi/pan/queer/etc, and I know Autostraddle often does this for SEO reasons, and she also uses “queer” to describe the characters and the film.

        • @ Laura, Heather wrote: “I’m wondering if your thought process was, “It’s time for me to add ‘lesbian’ to my illustrious list of roles” or if you really wanted to star in a film opposite another woman and that just naturally led you into lesbian stories.” And the article and interview include the word bisexual zero times. It’s entirely possible Weisz doesn’t know the difference since she didn’t involve any queer women the making of the film, but again that’s why queer people need to educate straights, even well meaning ones.

      • There was a discussion awhile ago in the comments here about the book and in it Weisz’ character was carrying on an affair with her male boss, but even just going from the film she’s an independent woman who left her stifling home and family to live her truth and in the beginning of the movie she has sex with a man because she wants to. Without the character saying otherwise why would you make the leap to lesbian instead of bisexual? I see almost every mainstream reviewer and article doing the same but I expect better of Autostraddle.

        • Laura and Erin, thank you for sharing your takes on this with me. So outside of the movie, I’d seen everyone involved with the film calling Ronit and Esti lesbians and calling it a lesbian film, and then inside the movie I didn’t actually read Ronit as bisexual. I thought she had sex with that guy in a mindless drunkn grief spiral panic attack. It wasn’t filmed to look like she was enjoying it or even, like, inhabiting her body at the time? To me it seemed like the point was having sex with men (or that man at that time) wasn’t something she was really about. Like I said, I hadn’t read the book (or anything about it for fear of being spoiled) so I can see the frustration there if Ronit was clearly bi in the books, for sure. But just inside the film I didn’t get that, which is why I used the word lesbian.

          • great interview, great piece. i think it’s impossible to write for every imaginable audience. i see autostraddle and its many writers and editors taking extreme precautions to be inclusive and supportive of every reader and their associated identities. so, i’d just like you to feel validated in and appreciated for those efforts.

          • Yeah, I totally see that re the sex scene at the beginning too. I think *maybe* what they were going for is that growing up Orthodox sort of fucked her up around sex for life/she never really got over Esti, and that plus the grief made it weird? Because they also went out of their way to have her say that she mostly only sleeps with men in New York (or at least that’s how I read the convo about whether she’s been with other women — she said “not really” iirc). @Erin, I like the idea that she’s independent and has escaped and is going and having sex with whoever she wants in NYC! But I didn’t fully get that sense from the movie. She seemed still very haunted, and clearly doesn’t have a queer community there or even seem to be ready to refer to herself as *anything*, much less bisexual or gay. So I think maybe that’s why it came across to many viewers that she wasn’t sleeping with men because she *wanted to* and was attracted to them. It’s hard, because you get so few moments of background for her character, and it’s a little unclear exactly what they’re trying to convey with each element, especially that sex scene.

            But it’s a super interesting conversation! Thanks to both of you for your thoughtful responses (and for being kind about the fact that I totally butted in here).

        • Ah I’m sorry, I meant to tag you @backbeat below, but accidentally tagged another Erin (sorry also other Erin!).

          Anyway, I didn’t read her life back in NYC in quite the same way, but it’s interesting (and cool!) to hear that you did. More below.

    • I’ve not seen the film yet as it’s not out in the UK, but from the sounds of it, the film and the book aren’t quite the same — for example, Dovid doesn’t leave his community in the book, and indeed Ronit is truly bisexual in the book. So it seems to me like the bi erasure came at the adaptation stage, rather than the viewer interpretation stage… still frustrating though!

  4. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

    I would be interested to know if the unclear parts that got edited out were Heather’s screams of delight whenever Rachel Weisz gave another perfect answer.

  5. How the heck did you survive this interview? All I did was watch the movie and I still felt like my soul was fleeing my body. Rachel Weisz is so great.

    Also this was the first ever lesbian movie I watched in theaters! It was really good and there were many lesbians and also a lot of old men watching which was surprising!

  6. This is so great. I wonder if I’d have felt differently about the movie if I’d read this interview first! Rachel seems so smart and dedicated and respectful, and I really love everything she has to say about the complexity of being a woman and depicting that onscreen. I think in general my opinion is crystallizing as “everything good about the movie came from the Rachels and most (all?) of what I didn’t like came from Lelio.”

    I’m especially interested by this: “At the end, the three of them, they find their own family” because it’s such a lovely way of reading the ending. Maybe I just didn’t care enough about Dovid/wanted him to just get out of the middle of the story to see it this way, but it’s definitely a lovely way to look at it.

    I will say that I didn’t realize that the sex scene was 6 minutes long, and that’s a great detail — unlike with Blue is the Warmest Color, this one didn’t feel endless at all. I actually felt like it ended really soon, and I wished it were longer (or there were more!).

    • I was conflicted about Dovid too and if it had been only him who had experienced any character growth I would have been SO disappointed, but I guess where it landed with me is that both Ronit and Esti were transformed and he had the choice to step into the light because of their transformation or cling even harder to his religion. His religion was his entire identity! And at the end he chose to say, “I don’t actually know what I thought I knew but what I now know is enough to keep me from perpetuating this specific incarnation of this thing any longer.” There was a certain wish fulfillment for me in that moment, for my own life, for the people I love who never could do that and never will be able to. Dovid was only the representation of something to me, I guess; not even a real character. He was just a rumination on the the ability of faith to transform and be transformed and that’s something I think about all the stupid time.

      • I love this so much!! Yes, definitely looking at it as wish fulfillment/a representation of the possibility of transformation for very religious people w/r/t queers in their midst makes his character arc MUCH better. I think I’m so jaded and tired of seeing men seemingly centered in queer women’s stories that I was set up to hate him before he even did anything. Before he even said a word I was like, ugh it’s Jenny’s dad from Jenny’s wedding meets Richard from Carol. I guess I felt like he could have had the same arc more…in the background? But seeing him as a metaphor instead of some dumb man is so so much better.

        I also was angry that Dovid seemed to get a happy ending or at least like, a satisfying ending, in a way that the women didn’t. But knowing that Rachel at least thinks that they’ll be in each other’s lives forever, in some way, makes me look at the ending a little differently.

        (And now is the part where, even though I’m like 90% convinced to see your side my heart is just being stubborn!!) I don’t know, I think the thing is that, with Dovid being the perfect satisfying representation of people changing their minds for the better, I wanted the romance to *also* be a representation of two people choosing to take the giant leap that scares them. You know? The scene with Dovid in the synagogue was so unrealistic (but like, in a good, movie way), that I also wanted the running-after-the-cab unrealistic but wonderful romantic movie ending!

  7. I saw the movie and then went several towns over to snag the last available copy of the book from my local library system. And this? This interview? It is the best thing. Rachel Weisz is a freaking gift.
    I like how different the movie and the book were; they both stand in their own storytelling. Like, the movie felt like a hat tip to the book in that it was steeped in the same culture and characters, but given room to breathe differently. Dovid was actually interesting to me in both because in so many ways, both book and movie just don’t give a shit about what he wants. Like, he’s there, and he makes choices that are important to the story, but… we’re not following down the path of where Dovid’s choices lead.

    Heather, if I were you, between this interview and your essay about your virtual brunch with Dolly Parton, I think I would be able to die now and feel like I’d accomplished everything I meant to on this earth!

  8. From this interview and the clips I’ve seen, this movie looks beautiful and full of feels, and I can’t wait to see it . . . . BUT, I also have to say I’m kind of disappointed to see yet another movie in which the driving point of the plot (at least, from the trailer, and, well, the movie’s title) is other people disapproving of queer folks and queer folks having to be secretive about part of their identity. I totally acknowledge that queer representation in spaces like the Orthodox community is rare and that you probably can’t talk about being queer and Orthodox without acknowledging the tension between faith and sexuality (I’m not Orthodox, so I can’t say for sure) . . . And I think all that is very important. HOWEVER, for me personally, the time in my life where I struggled to reconcile my faith and my sexuality is not something I want to romanticize or dwell on.

    I just wish there were more movies/books about diverse queer folks who hold many identities within them, including being queer, without having the main plot be about everyone else’s disapproval of them. I mean, I used to watch ANY movie with any hint of a queer person in it . . . as a result, I’ve seen a lot of really depressing movies. I’m not saying that films like Disobedience aren’t important too, but I guess I’m saying that I wish queer folks had more options in terms of movies about us that make you happy and hopeful, too.

    • This movie was perfect and beautiful, and yet, everything you just said was exactly my reaction walking out of it! Like, I would change nothing about this film, it was so rich and I think did this story and these characters justice….

      But I also just want more, more, more stories with queer characters. And I want some of them to be about characters who *do* have queer community, *do* have language to describe who they are, and *do* have conflicts and interesting things in their lives beyond the adversity they face for being queer.

  9. Thank you so much for this interview Heather. The questions were great and she seemed very comfortable answering them.

    I’m loving to see how proud and she is of this movie and how openly she talks about everything in it, especially the sex scene. She really seems very proud to be involved in a project that does a positive service to the community and that is very refreshing!

    And I loved that she asked your opinion about the sex scene, like “oh, let’s hear a legit queer woman’s opinion, cause she can tell us if we screwed up, since no one involved in it were really queer”(cause the scene was created and acted by straight people).

    I can’t hardly wait to watch this film!

  10. Had to re read this article because I was totally distracted by the fact that I own THAT VERY SAME BAG so next time I go food shopping I’m just going to hear Rachel Weiss saying “It’s extremely erotic”…

  11. I finally got to see this movie last night, after waiting for what felt like years, but was actually months to see it. I was not disappointed, though I did think to myself once or twice that there were really a lot of shots of Rachel Weisz walking. And why is she always in 10 layers of clothing? But honestly, I’m not complaining. I knew I’d love Ms. Weisz, but Rachel McAdams was a revelation, and really for me, the heart of the film.

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