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 700 articles for us.