It's a little after noon, and Rachel Weisz is determined to get a hard-boiled egg. Having lost a gastronomical battle with some ''evil squid'' two days prior, she is hoping to persuade a waiter at a SoHo café to pity her tummy and overlook the 12 p.m. cutoff for the boiled goods. Flagging down a second server, she smiles impishly when he returns from the kitchen with good news. ''I feel so cheeky,'' whispers the London native. ''Honestly, though, I come here every day, so I don't feel that bad.''
Persistence is a trait that has helped Weisz, who is fulfilling several years' worth of Next Big Thing predictions with her passionate portrayal of murdered activist Tessa Quayle in the political thriller The Constant Gardener. Long recognized for her beauty and intelligence, the 34-year-old has churned out more than 20 films in 10 years but in spite of commercial and critical hits like The Mummy and About a Boy, the actress has yet to become a household name. A highly regarded turn in Gardener, however, which earned a strong $11 million its opening weekend, may be the catalyst in attracting the attention the tenacious Weisz has long had coming.
''I've never had such a strong reaction to a script or to a character,'' says the actress, nibbling on some melba toast. Instantly drawn to Jeffrey Caine's adaptation of John le Carré's 2001 novel about an ineffectual diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) investigating his wife's murder, she flew from L.A. (where she was filming Constantine with Keanu Reeves) to London, where she met with director Fernando Meirelles.
Her determination paid off. ''To travel so far, so quickly, to see a guy who barely speaks English I immediately thought that this is something Tessa would have done,'' says the Brazilian-born City of God director. ''One of my biggest fears was convincing the audience that Justin and Tessa would work as a believable couple, that he would really marry this crazy girl. With Rachel, that passionate, inspirational quality came through.'' Weisz took her headstrong role to heart, and would constantly pester her director for more takes and even reshoots. Unsatisfied with the tone of one particular scene, in which Tessa tries to seduce her husband's colleague (Danny Huston) so he will show her a confidential letter, Weisz insisted on redoing the scene so many times, ''Fernando actually said to me, 'I think I'm getting bored.''' She laughs. ''It's hard for me to let go.''
''Rachel's very thorough about getting [each scene] as good as it can be,'' concurs Fiennes. ''Not that she's overly serious; in fact, she has quite a mischievous sense of humor. Sometimes she would laugh and I wouldn't know what she was laughing about. But she thinks deeply about what things mean and is intellectually precocious.''
Raised by a psychotherapist mother and an inventor father, Weisz dabbled in modeling and acting as a teen (''In the school play, when we did Alice in Wonderland, I was not Alice; I was the Dodo, which had a nonspeaking part''). But while performing with Talking Tongues, a student theater troupe she founded while studying at Cambridge University, she discovered her acting ambitions. ''My dream was to go touring around the world and be a little traveling circus,'' says Weisz. ''Running around with fliers trying to get people to come see our shows those were the best, best times of my life.''