‘Agora’ Star Rachel Weisz Talks CGI And ‘Edgy Sex Scenes’

'I don't believe there was any green screen,' actress says of the Roman epic.

In the midst of a summer movie season predictably filled with 3-D explosions and CG creations comes “Agora,” part art-house indie, part sweeping epic. Directed and co-written by Alejandro Amenábar, “Agora” stars [movieperson id="183270"]Rachel Weisz[/movieperson] in a film based on the story of Hypatia, an astronomer/philosopher in the time of Rome’s fourth-century collapse whose task is to save the wisdom of the ancient world. That’s the art-house part of the equation, you might say.

Amenábar has also delivered a swords-and-sandals epic, complete with the panoramic landscapes and large-scale battle scenes that remind us of old-school blockbusters like “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur.” As part of MTV News’ Summer Movie Preview Week, Weisz gave us a call to talk about filming on huge sets, being terrible at math and the film’s “perverted and edgy sexy scenes.”

MTV: So “Agora” goes up against “Sex and the City 2″ and “Iron Man 2″ …

Rachel Weisz: [Laughs.] I didn’t know that. What a great trio! There’s something for everyone there. When is “Prince of Persia” set? Is it historical?

MTV: It’s as historical as a video game adaptation can be.

Weisz: Oh, it’s a video game! Well, different things for different people.

MTV: What appealed to you first and foremost? Alejandro as a director?

Weisz: I guess it was him first and foremost and what he was asking me to do with this real woman. I had never heard of her, but it was such an interesting role. Plus the thing that really struck me when I read it was, when I put it down, I thought, “This is really a contemporary film. This is a film about today.” Really nothing much has changed in terms of human beings and killing each other and “My God is better than your God.” There’s this resurgence of fundamentalism on the planet, so it’s kind of like, “Wow, we still haven’t figured this out?” I just thought, “Wow, this is a fourth-century contemporary film.”

MTV: Still, it functions as a piece of entertainment first.

Weisz: Totally, and that’s first and foremost what it should be.

MTV: In this age of CGI and green screens, it’s kind of shocking how many practical sets were built.

Weisz: All of it. I don’t believe there was any green screen. [The city of] Alexandra was all built. We didn’t have to imagine anything. It was right there.

MTV: Is part of the appeal to be in the kind of film that Cecil B. DeMille would have made?

Weisz: Completely. You just don’t see things like that anymore. I think Alejandro wanted a level of believability that these people were really living and breathing. He wanted it to feel very real and alive and naturalistic. He knew the film he wanted to make. He has a very singular vision. The scary thing for me when I read it is, I thought, “I don’t want her to just be a brain.” That’s so boring. But I thought, “If I can make her passionate and real … .” It was a really interesting acting challenge. I didn’t know anything about science! I mean nothing. And I’m terrible at math. It took me a long time to grasp the basics of what I was talking about.

MTV: Could you now pass Astronomy 101 having done the film?

Weisz: No, I don’t think so. I’m pretty crap. I’m terrible. [Laughs.]

MTV: It also must be refreshing to play a woman not defined by her relationships with a man.

Weisz: Yeah, it’s so unusual, I was shocked by it! I really couldn’t believe he wasn’t going to have any romance in it. Alejandro was sure that was the way he wanted to go. We’re just so not used to that. But he felt she was in love with her work. I guess the interesting thing is if it were a film about a male scientist, we might not ask the same thing. It was a really bold, interesting choice.

MTV: Was the final scene [where Hypatia is strangled to death and then stoned] particularly difficult to shoot?

Weisz: It was very intense. In actuality, after they stoned her, they scraped off her flesh with oyster shells. That’s been chronicled in the history books. That was too far to go for us. You actually got the G-rated version. It was extremely intense. I was naked. [Laughs.] It was pretty emotional. In a funny way, it was the sealing of a love story between Hypatia and her slave. It’s very tragic. Someone said there’s no sex between her and the slave, but then there are these very perverted and edgy sexy scenes where she’s tending to his wounds. I think there are some erotic moments in it.

Make way for Tony Stark! Look out for Carrie Bradshaw! Here come Edward and Bella! The 2010 summer movie season has begun, and with it the return of familiar faces and the emergence of new ones. All week long during Summer Movie Preview Week, MTV News will be bringing you exclusive interviews, clips and photos for the most anticipated films of the coming months. Get ready to gorge on inside looks at “Eclipse,” “Iron Man 2,” “Predators,” “The Other Guys,” “Beastly,” “Robin Hood” and more.

For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.