Disobedience is a film based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, a book I optioned just over three years ago and had the great joy of bringing to the screen under the expert direction of Sebastián Lelio. I play Ronit, a woman who was banished as a girl from her North London Orthodox Jewish community by her father, the rabbi, when he discovers that his daughter and her childhood best friend, Esti (played by Rachel McAdams), are lovers. The film begins some years later in New York City, where the now-very-secular Ronit is enjoying her freedom. She is told of her father’s death and returns to North London for the funeral to find that Esti has married her father’s favorite pupil and heir apparent, Dovid (played by Alessandro Nivola). The film — the first English-language movie directed by Lelio, who is Chilean — takes place over the seven days of mourning that lead to the memorial for her father. In this time, Esti and Ronit time travel back to their adolescence and rekindle their love. Trouble ensues, Dovid and Esti’s marriage is left reeling, and their community is, too.
Esti is a gay woman trying to reconcile her deep religious faith with her sexual identity. This is the story of a love that is forbidden by certain societies, a story of being a misfit, and a journey toward self-realization. Lelio’s past two films, Gloria and A Fantastic Woman (which just won the Oscar for best foreign film), place characters who are mostly in the margins of storytelling front and center. In Gloria, he explores the sexual desires and escapades of a 58-year-old female divorcée. In Fantastic Woman, the film follows a trans woman who struggles to be allowed to love the man of her choice. And in Disobedience, two gay women try to find a way to love each other freely.
Rachel McAdams was the first actress to read the script, and we were extremely lucky, as she immediately felt she wanted to play Esti and understood her. We had met and worked briefly for a day when I played a role in a Terrence Malick film she was starring in, but we didn’t get to chat in any depth. I was an admirer of her work, her range and subtlety, her terrific honesty and truthfulness, and of course the radiance she emanates on screen. It turned out that we work in a similar way. We both do our preparation privately in advance of shooting, eschewing on-set analysis and debate for just running on our instincts and getting lost in the story between action and cut. Chemistry isn’t a thing you can fabricate — it’s either there or it isn’t. With Rachel, I found an immediate sense of trust, an openness, and a vulnerability. She has great inner strength and conviction and a moral tenacity. I loved collaborating with her and hope we get to do it again. She was very easy to fall in love with, and I think her Esti is a marvel.
Here is a chat we had on the phone the other day.
Rachel Weisz: When we first spoke, you had such a powerful reaction to the film. It just spoke to you. Sometimes maybe that’s not explainable, why a story hits a person so hard. But when I met you, you were Esti. It wasn’t like you had prosthetics: I mean, your face was scrubbed, and you had what you thought was a bad wig. I thought you looked hot. You just transformed; you changed your DNA. What was it in Esti that you knew who she was?