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'Dead Ringers' shows pregnancy's beauty, horrors as Rachel Weisz plays Mantle twins

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In the new Prime Video miniseries "Dead Ringers," billed as a psychosexual thriller, Rachel Weisz plays identical twins, the Mantle sisters, Beverly and Elliot. They're celebrity OB-GYNs in New York. Beverly, the quieter, gentler sister, wants to create a holistic birthing center to transform what she calls a diabolical system that punishes pregnant women.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEAD RINGERS")

RACHEL WEISZ: (As Beverly Mantle) It's a system that bullies and scares and terrorizes and humiliates and rushes and ruins women and their bodies. And then somehow - somehow we have been part of making this system seem normal and necessary and just a byproduct of what happens should a woman be in a position where a baby needs to exit her body.

BLOCK: But Beverly's fierce and fiery twin, Elliot - well, she has other ideas.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEAD RINGERS")

WEISZ: (As Elliot Mantle) You want to stop the menopause? You want men to lactate? You want female sperm? You want me to grow you a baby out of nothing?

BLOCK: I can do all of that, Elliot boasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEAD RINGERS")

WEISZ: (As Elliot Mantle) Bring it on. Let's do the research. Let's make anything [expletive] happen.

(As Beverly Mantle) That's not what we do, Elliot.

(As Elliot Mantle) Oh, that's not what you do, but I will be doing some of that as long as that's what people choose.

(As Beverly Mantle) You're talking about...

BLOCK: That's Rachel Weisz playing both twins, Beverly and Elliot, in the new miniseries "Dead Ringers." It's a gender-switched reimagining of David Cronenberg's 1988 film of the same name that starred Jeremy Irons. This series is bloody. It is dark. And, at moments, it is darkly funny.

Rachel Weisz joins me now, along with "Dead Ringers" creator and writer, Alice Birch. Welcome to you both.

ALICE BIRCH: Thank you.

WEISZ: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: And Alice, let me start with you. When you're switching the lens of the protagonist here from male to female, how does that transform this story? What does it do?

BIRCH: I mean, I think it changes everything and nothing, probably, which feels like a bit of a non-answer. But I suppose the Cronenberg film is so iconic, and that central performance by Jeremy Irons is incredible. And - but, of course, because they're women and, you know, the spaces that they go into and the patients that they interact with, there's a different shared understanding.

BLOCK: This series raises all sorts of questions of medical ethics. Elliot talks very confidently about being able to use her research lab to indefinitely delay menopause or to grow an embryo from scratch to term, as we heard in those clips earlier. And that leads to this little back-and-forth between the twins. It starts with Beverly, who is horrified. Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEAD RINGERS")

WEISZ: (As Beverly Mantle) That - that is not what we want to be doing, though.

(As Elliot Mantle) But it might be.

(As Beverly Mantle) But it's not.

(As Elliot Mantle) But it could be.

(As Beverly Mantle) But it's not.

BLOCK: (Laughter) I love hearing you flip between those two characters in that little moment, Rachel Weisz. Talk about the different visions that these two sisters have for the work that they want to do.

WEISZ: Well, Beverly is a believer of all things natural, so she wants to build a birthing center where women won't be rushed when they're delivering a baby, and it will be bespoke. She wants to completely reimagine how women give birth.

Elliot's sort of not really interested in - I mean, she's a really good obstetrician, and I think she delivers babies very well. But she - yeah, she's interested in science. She wants to push the boundaries of science. She wants private funding so she doesn't have any FDA regulations holding her back, and she wants to do things which are the opposite of natural. She wants genetically modified babies. If that's what a woman wants, then Elliot believes that's what they should get.

BLOCK: And, Rachel, it's up to you to seamlessly shift between these two very different sisters. Beverly, on the timid side - she's ethical; she's tender. And then you get to turn into Elliot, who is voracious. I mean, we see her in just about every scene gobbling food. She devours sexual partners. As an actor, how do you make that switch, both mentally and physically, going from one to another?

WEISZ: With the writing - with these words, I just had two just radically different characters who - you know, they are co-dependent, intertwined. Their lives have depended on each other. They haven't separated since the womb. But they are just night and - they're just radically different human beings. And it's because of the complexity of the writing and the psychological nuance in the writing that I was given as an actor - you know, the gift of two different characters. So by the time we got to shooting, in a day I could just - you know, just, like, open a door, and there's one; and open another door, and there's another. It's like an advent calendar at Christmas, but with just two doors.

BLOCK: You know, I have to confess that, when the film "Dead Ringers" came out in 1988, I decided not to go watch it because I knew what it was about. And I thought, if I watched it, I might never go to a gynecologist again. And I'm not sure that I would advise anyone who is pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant to watch the series. There are a lot of things that go wrong. This is not sanitized childbirth in any way. How did you weigh how far to go - how explicit, how bloody? Alice, do you want to start?

BIRCH: Yeah, I totally understand why you feel that way and your question. And I think, you know, we're just - we don't - we're not used to seeing birth or, like, women's bodies and how they work and what happens on screen very often. You know, we see death and violence a lot in many different ways, with many different kind of cinematic languages. Death and violence can be funny and moving and shocking and horrifying and surprising and dramatic and tragic and beautiful. I think we sort of - I think we're kind of up for that. We understand that. I don't know that we've seen birth, like, on screen. And birth can be all of those things. We wanted it to feel primal and beautiful and moving and hopeful as well - that was a really important part of the series because it's interesting and because it - I mean, it's the most - like, essentially, with its drama, and it's the most dramatic thing of all. It's the higher stakes.

BLOCK: Rachel, do you want to add to that?

WEISZ: I agree with what Alice just said. We're just - we're not used to seeing birth. There isn't a cinematic vocabulary for watching life come into the world, seeing humans be born - how every single person on the planet got here. They're just - we don't have visual references for it in drama and fiction and entertainment. I think there's been a coyness, certainly. And it's pretty unexplored terrain in drama, which is kind of what makes it interesting.

BIRCH: I do think that, if we sort of just see sanitized versions of it, the thing that I feel is that there's something shameful about the other million versions that are more truthful.

(SOUNDBITE OF IDIL BIRET'S "NOCTURNE IN B MAJOR, OP. 9 NO. 3")

BLOCK: I've been speaking with Alice Birch, the creator of the new miniseries "Dead Ringers," in which Rachel Weisz stars as identical twins. Thank you so much.

BIRCH: Thank you.

WEISZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF IDIL BIRET'S "NOCTURNE IN B MAJOR, OP. 9 NO. 3") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brianna Scott
Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.