Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone play love rivals in The Favourite, a period romance set in the court of Queen Anne. That’s underselling it: this ain’t your usual corset soap. The script is swearier, the stakes higher. Whoever wins the heart of the bedraggled monarch (Olivia Colman) earns not just a place in her four-poster, but safety, unlimited cake, a palace or two, plus free rein running the country at a time of peasant dissent and war with the French.
Off screen, Weisz and Stone are also rivals: both so brilliant in the film – the former as Lady Sarah, a sexy strategist in the Malcolm Tucker mould; the latter as Abigail, a bracingly aspirational maid with an immaculate accent – they’re up for the same awards. But that, they nod as one, is the limit of it.
“I find it very strange,” says Stone. “The narrative attached to women that they are in competition. I’ve felt more competitive energy from men – at least in work experiences.” Why, she ponders: “It’s almost like sibling rivalry. Or perhaps there’s something threatening about a woman asserting herself in that dynamic.”
She smiles at Weisz, who deadpans back: “Yeah, lots of my best friends are women,” and continues: “The idea of the competitive, bitchy woman is a traditional trope from Hollywood stories. The bitch, the vamp … the list goes on. It’s creating a fiction. Everything permeates into cliche. It’s a safe place.”
“And it’s a cliche,” chips in Stone, having a bit of an epiphany, “because they’re written by men. Mostly, women in films are fighting over a man …”
“… which is, if you’re a man, the way it should be, right?” says Weisz. “Sexy! Watch those bitches fight over me! It’s a wish-fulfilment fantasy of being hot and desirable and wanted by women so much that they’re ready to kill each other. You can understand it, from that point of view.”
They laugh, perched on a sofa with the friendly restraint of colleagues 18 years apart who haven’t seen each other in ages but are keen to sing from the same hymn sheet. Stone is a self-confessed “people pleaser”, happy to share thoughts on why frankness is key in relationships and, later, to discuss whether mortality is a luxury with nods to the Bible, the Torah and the Qur’an. Weisz – then six weeks on from giving birth – is game, but guarded. She swears she knows me, but she doesn’t. Maybe it’s just being back in London. Despite a decade in Manhattan, she seems deeply British. Although this is quite a swanky hotel, she swigs PG Tips from a flask.
Still, they’re both eager to bridge any cultural divide. So when Weisz calls the current climate in the US “like civil war” and Stone politely demurs (“that was about slavery”), and Weisz says, sorry, she wasn’t taught much American history, to which Stone says, well, she’s right “in terms of the emotionality”, and Weisz nods and says, “and there’s so much racism that comes with it” and Stone says, “of course”, they are united again in eagerness to agree.
The Favourite is Weisz’s second collaboration with the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (after 2015’s , which also featured Colman). It is fantastic: a nutty slice of punk fruitcake with an enormous wallop of melancholy. It’s also – with three female leads running the country as the men ponce about in big wigs – a prime example of what movies might look like post .
Except it isn’t. “It’s been in production for many years,” says Weisz, dry as gin, “so unless Yorgos is a soothsayer ...” Adds Stone: “It has nothing to do with the very important and very necessary movement talking about people who have abused people and done it because of their position of power.”
Invoking #MeToo in publicity risks diminishing its import, thinks Weisz: “When you say something a lot, you forget what it means. Actually, those two little words are very moving. Women standing up, being strong in numbers and saying, this happened to me, too.” Adds Stone: “It’s tragic that so many people can use that phrase.”
Still, they will allow that the film is topical for its portrait of an erratic head of state, singularly ill-equipped for the job: “The queen is an incredibly capricious leader,” says Weisz, “who is whimsical and changes her mind with the wind, and there are world leaders I can think of at the moment who might also be such a thing. Or are doing something just for their own ego.”
Like whom? She goes for the homegrown example: “David Cameron promising a vote for Brexit. He wanted to get the votes from the eurosceptics so he would get voted in again [in 2015]. Turns out he didn’t need it – he won by a landslide. I’m not sure he did that for the good of England or because he wanted to be elected. It was just for him, right? People just do things for the good of themselves. Don’t you think?” She and Stone look back at me, bonded in quizzicality.
A couple of months later, I’m granted an audience with her majesty: Olivia Colman, fresh from the set of The Crown season three, in which she plays the current monarch. Maybe channelling that queen’s reticence, or perhaps because of a genuine bashfulness, she declares early on she doesn’t think about anything much and is a terrible spokesperson for the film, for feminism, for everything except, possibly, tea: “It’s like a cuddle,” she says. “It’s history.”
But actually, steer Colman towards something like Brexit and she comes out fighting just like Weisz: “I’ve always tried to not show what I am [politically], because it’s just a fucking can of worms. But when that vote came through it felt like a sense of mourning – for the people who didn’t want to go, anyway.”
She can’t raise the issue with older people who voted to leave, she says, gentle as ever, “because I’m not sure I could do it in a rational way. I feel very, very angry.” At whom? “Everybody, really. People that voted [for Brexit], people that withheld information, fake news – saying there was all this money that could be thrown back into our coffers. That’s just nonsense. And it was good, believable nonsense. You can see why people voted for it, but I didn’t know you were allowed to lie. I don’t understand about that.”
She noticed something similar when filming in Ohio earlier this year: “I was really surprised at the poverty in the most powerful nation. The guy in charge is never going to help the people who voted for him. It was all really puzzling. I’m not very eloquent about politics but I know what I feel about him. America sort of seems like a sadder place. I don’t mean to offend any Americans, but it felt nationalistic rather than patriotic.”
Playing all these queens, though – she was also a young Queen Mum in 2012’s Hyde Park on Hudson – has made her reassess her republicanism: “I don’t think I was ever a royalist,” she says, before adding her traditional apology (“… it feels awful to say”).
“But I do think [Elizabeth II] is a remarkable human being. So I feel differently about it all now. I’m a weirdly left socialist monarchist. She’s like a rock, and I sort of look to her. Her mouth is sewn together, but there’s the odd little gesture. Those brooches she wore [to meet Trump] that were given to her by Obama; her European hat to open parliament.”
Colman watched this year’s royal wedding from her sofa, crying for joy: “They really love each other! They’re lovely people. I felt this is all going to go in a really good direction.” She wells up just thinking about it.
What makes Colman inspired casting for both Anne and Elizabeth is that emotional accessibility is key to her appeal. She’s one of us – spurning the hotel’s Badoit to fetch herself a glass of tap from the bathroom. I make a worried noise. “This isn’t Calcutta,” she scoffs kindly. Ask if she thinks the film’s swearing (half a dozen cunts, multiple fucks, Weisz telling Nicholas Hoult he smells like “a 96-year-old French whore’s vajuju”) might jeopardise its awards chances in the US and she cackles back: “Who gives a fuck?”
“Though [cunt] really is a big no-no. It’s sort of equal to the n-word in America. Here the n-word is way up there and cunt is sort of all right. But the people who vote are all in the industry and less puritanical and shocked by stuff.”
Anyway, she says, “the awards chat makes me want to be sick in my mouth. I’ve done some jobs before but this is a different beast. It’s sort of a machine you have to do.” She feels for her publicist, what with her client forever declining gladhandings. “I like being at home with my husband.”
That’s the other thing about The Favourite. While Weisz and Stone already have Academy Awards, the film is fast-tracking Colman to the A-list. She is the frontrunner for next year’s best actress Oscar, edging ahead of Glenn Close and Lady Gaga after a string of wins. And she’s dressing, if not talking, accordingly. As Anne, Colman is fat and dilapidated, hobbled by gout and grief. Today, she is red carpet ready in a slim black trouser-suit with ribbony bits.
Yet the politics of campaigning sit ill with a woman who makes a rule of watching the British Bafta contenders first, then turning her attention to the rest. And who, this year, as she won’t have time to see all the nominees, is writing to the voting panel to ask permission to abstain.
Blimey. Most people just vote anyway.
“But that feels so naughty. I think maybe I’m just really square.” In 2011, she starred as an abused wife in Paddy Considine’s brilliant Tyrannosaur, which Bafta ignored in its best film nominations: “Very few people watched it and it broke my heart a bit.” With The Favourite “I feel that if people like it they should vote for it and it should be very honest. That should be all it is.”
She glugs her glass and smiles, vaguely pained. Colman is, just for clarity, every bit as lovely as you’d expect: “If I’m really honest, I’ve always dreamed of holding an Oscar. But I’m really trying to sort of keep everything in check, keep calm. This is silly. What are the chances? I don’t want to get excited. I don’t want to face that disappointment. I just want to be on an even keel. I’m a mum, a wife, I’m a mate. I’m other things. You can see how people get sort of swept into it and I want to stay sane.
“I really value being able to do what I want and that’s changing. That has been slowly changing for years and I’ve had my problems with it. I find it very upsetting when I think about it too much. But if I had a big red button to stop it I wouldn’t press it, because I love my job so much. I’m getting better and better roles, roles I dream of. But more people are seeing them.”
Colman’s approachability – plus the fact her national treasure status came from small screen work (Peep Show, Rev, Broadchurch, The Night Manager, Fleabag) – mean people might assume a familiarity that’s actually one-sided. Add an Oscar to the mix and things could get sticky.
“Me and husband [Ed Sinclair] have been together 25 years,” she says, slightly suddenly – though she does frequently mention in interviews how nice and handsome he is. “So if anyone’s going to get a fucking grip, it’s him.” In , Sarah shows her fidelity to Anne by warning her she looks like a badger before she leaves wearing new makeup. Would Ed do the same? “No, he’s lovely. He’d say: ‘You look gorgeous’ even if I’ve clearly got salad in my teeth. But he understands I’d rather have people at our house than go out.”
No, she says, she never had a bad experience with strangers, though “it’s just weird” when people take photos without asking when her children are there: “And it’s odd that they know me and I don’t know them. It’s unbalanced. So I just move like a shark. Don’t stop. Sort of safer. Walk quickly.”
Playing royalty, then, has upped her empathy with them. The courtier system in Hollywood is, she nods, “unnerving”. Ditto the protectors and the retinue, the shrinking pool of people to trust, the barrier built between you and the audience.
“I like humans,” she says unnecessarily, if not completely unregally. “I believe in the goodness of people. So it is quite sad because it was one of the joys in life, talking to people.”