This ain’t your mother’s costume drama as Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz preside over a royal spectacle of cunning ladies and dandied-up men with a lot to say about Trump-era power struggles: “We’re disgusting and gorgeous and powerful and weak and filthy and brilliant.”
Rachel Weisz has a few choice words about the c-word. She’s just slid into a chair at an Italian restaurant in New York’s East Village — not far from where she lives with husband Daniel Craig and their new baby girl — and she couldn’t seem more like a picture-perfect new mum. Casually yet fashionably attired in a slouchy gray sweater, leggings and sneakers, she’s elegant and down-to-earth at the same time. But then she starts dropping C-bombs.
“In England, we say it all the time,” admits Weisz, 48, nonchalantly. “If I’m with another Brit, we’ll say, ‘So and so is being such a c—t,’ and laugh. It’s an old English word. Shakespeare used it. Or maybe Chaucer.” The London-born Oscar winner (for supporting actress in 2005’s The Constant Gardener) forks into a plate of kale salad, pausing when she notices my expression. “Why, does that word bother you?”
Of course, in America that word is no laughing matter. On this side of the Atlantic, it may be the second-most-offensive slur in the book (just ask feckless Samantha Bee). But in The Favourite, Fox Searchlight’s $15 million period piece rolling into theaters like a post-feminist grenade Nov. 23 (and going wide to about 600 theaters nationwide in December), just about everybody — including co-stars Emma Stone and Olivia Colman — is slinging the obscenity, as well as a slew of other eyebrow-raising idioms. And that’s hardly the only thing about the movie that’s upending the corset genre.
Perfectly timed for the mixed-up zeitgeist of the #MeToo era — with women making historic gains in the midterms as the U.S. president regularly flings sexist insults like “horse face” — this female-fronted absurdist period piece about a power struggle in 18th century England already is being buzzed about as an awards race, um, favorite. Colman, who has experience playing British royals (she’s now filming the role of Elizabeth II on The Crown, replacing Claire Foy), stars as Queen Anne, arguably the most powerful woman on Earth in the early 1700s. Weisz plays her No. 1 adviser, Sarah Jennings Churchill (Winston’s great-great-grandmother), while Stone is Abigail Masham, Sarah’s scheming cousin who arrives at the court and begins a sexually charged rivalry for the queen’s affections that turns the palace into a snake pit as deceitful as the Trump White House. Rape jokes. Female-on-female violence. Orange-throwing at overweight naked men (more on that later). The film is packed with enough incendiaries that it could blow up gender politics for a generation.
As timely as it may seem, the original screenplay for The Favourite — then titled Balance of Power — was written 20 years ago. British screenwriter Deborah Davis pieced together the partly true, partly made-up story by studying volumes and volumes of letters among Queen Anne, Sarah and Abigail. Somehow an early draft found its way to the desk of British producer Ceci Dempsey, who couldn’t put it down. “It really haunted me,” remembers Dempsey. “Just the passion, the survival instincts of these women, the manipulations and what they did to survive.” Back in 1998, though, it wasn’t so easy to find financing for a historical love triangle with three female leads and virtually no parts of significance for men. Dempsey got a few nibbles but no bites. “[Studios] were like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, this is [lesbian] activity going on here,‘” she recalls of those first pitch meetings. “People were kind of, ‘What’s the demographics of that kind of thing? I don’t think we could really sell that.‘”
It wasn’t until a decade later, when Element Pictures co-founder Ed Guiney (Room) got hold of the script, that The Favourite finally got some traction. “We didn’t want to make just another British costume drama,” he tells THR. “[We wanted] a story that felt contemporary and relevant and vibrant — not something out of a museum.” At the time, Guiney had become familiar with director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose third movie, 2009’s Dogtooth, had just been nominated for a foreign-language Oscar. He brought The Favourite to the quirky Greek filmmaker, who saw cinematic possibilities in Queen Anne and her two backstabbing BFFs, and the director began working closely with Australian TV scribe Tony McNamara on freshening up the script. “These three women possessed power that affected the lives of millions — but it was an intimate story as well,” says Lanthimos, 45. By 2013, financiers were lining up: Film4, Waypoint Entertainment and Fox Searchlight. Meanwhile, Lanthimos went on to make 2015’s The Lobster, his absurdist dystopian comedy starring, among others, Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman. It ended up winning the Cannes Jury Prize and getting nominated for best original screenplay at the Oscars.
There were more delays before Lanthimos finally turned his cameras on the project — like shooting his psychological thriller The Killing of a Sacred Deer — but he started thinking about casting The Favourite as early as 2014, when he sent the script to Colman. She was his first and only choice to play Queen Anne, although the famously difficult-to-pin-down director can’t say exactly why. “For me, casting is very instinctive,” he says. “It’s one of those things when you feel you’re right and you need to insist no matter what.” Colman said yes immediately to her third turn as queen: Before she was cast in The Crown in 2017, she’d played Elizabeth the Queen Mother in the 2012 Bill Murray-as-FDR drama Hyde Park on the Hudson. “The main difference,” says Colman of The Favourite, is that “the other queens didn’t get to fall in love with two hot women.”
Lanthimos’ instincts about Stone, however — who hadn’t yet won her best actress Oscar for La La Land — were less certain. All the director knew of her work was her comedic turn as Steve Carell’s daughter in Crazy, Stupid, Love. And for her part, the 30-year-old actress wasn’t so sure she wanted to be in the movie, either — at least not after reading the first 30 pages.
“I was like, ‘Oh, Abigail’s just going to be this sweet kind of girl, the victim, a servant to these people,‘” Stone says of her initial reluctance. It’s a few days after my interview with Weisz, and we’re talking over salads at L.A’.s Sunset Tower Hotel. “But as [I read more], it unfolded, it became All About Eve.” By the time she finished the script, she was “begging” for the part. Lanthimos told her she could audition but only after she had worked with an accent coach for at least a month. “I don’t think he had thought of an American actor in the film at all,” she says. “Or at least for that character.”
Weisz wasn’t his first choice, either. To play Sarah, he’d originally gone to Kate Winslet. When that didn’t pan out (“It was obvious it wouldn’t have worked,” he says vaguely), he moved on to Cate Blanchett. When that fell apart (“Timing problems“), he finally looped back to his other Lobster star, who understood the director’s quirks. “Yorgos never talks about motivation,” says Weisz. “He’d laugh if you asked about Sarah’s motivation.”
Rehearsals, if you can call them that, were classic Lanthimos. They mostly involved crazy-sounding games, like having the actresses fast-walk backward toward one another to see if they crashed. “He wanted to see how much we could sense each other without seeing each other,” explains Stone. Weisz recalls another exercise that involved castmembers linking arms to “build a human pretzel.” Lanthimos, though, insists there is a method to his madness. “It enabled them to not take themselves too seriously, learn the text in a physical way by doing completely irrelevant things to what the scene is about, just be comfortable about making a fool of themselves,” he says.
By the time shooting began in March 2017, Stone certainly was feeling comfortable. During one scene, when Sarah discovers Abigail in bed with Queen Anne, she decided to improvise in a way that shocked even Lanthimos, to say nothing of Colman. “I had the sheet up around me,” recalls Stone of the moment she decided to bare her breasts for the camera for the first time in her career. “And as we were shooting it and we did a few takes, I said, ‘Can I please just be [naked]?’ I think it’s going to give Sarah something to look at when she sees that I’m not just under the sheet covered up. Olivia was like, ‘No, don’t do it!’ Yorgos was like, ‘Are you sure that’s what you want to do?’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely.’ I chose to do it. I was like, this makes sense to me. It’s an absolute [Stone flips the bird] to Sarah.”
Olivia Colman is on the phone from London. She’s not alone. The 44-year-old British actress has agreed to be interviewed only if both Weisz and Stone also are on the line. It’s not entirely clear why, and the logistics of lining up a simultaneous call with three busy stars in three different cities in three different time zones is more than a little tricky, but never mind. After two weeks of scheduling, the phone finally rings.
“A setback for women?” Colman ponders when asked whether a film about females being awful to one another might be considered provocative in the tinderbox of today’s gender politics. “How can it set women back to prove that women fart and vomit and hate and love and do all the things men do? All human beings are the same. We’re all multifaceted, many-layered, disgusting and gorgeous and powerful and weak and filthy and brilliant. That’s what’s nice [about The Favourite]. It doesn’t make women an old-fashioned thing of delicacy.”
She pauses for a beat, trans-Atlantic static crackling on the line. “Blimey,” she says. “I had a proper little rant there.”
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