Twin it to win it
Head writer and executive producer Alice Birch joins star and fellow exec producer Rachel Weisz to explain how they reworked David Cronenberg film Dead Ringers as a six-part Prime Video series about identical twin gynaecologists – both of whom are played by Weisz.
From Armie Hammer’s turn as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network to Tom Hardy’s portrayal of London gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray in Legend, there can be few roles that present an actor with a tougher challenge – or a higher likelihood of critical acclaim – than playing a pair of twins.
Now, Rachel Weisz (The Mummy, The Favourite) has become the latest to take on that daunting task in new Prime Video miniseries Dead Ringers, which is based on David Cronenberg’s 1988 film of the same name.
The six-part adaptation, which comes from Amazon Studios in association with Annapurna Television and debuts on April 21, swaps the identical male twins Jeremy Irons played in the movie for a pair of sisters.
Like the film, the series is a psychological thriller that centres on twins who both work as gynaecologists, with the original Dead Ringers being loosely based on real-life gynaecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus, who practiced together in New York City. And despite the gender swap, the characters even keep their helpfully gender-neutral names, Beverly and Elliot Mantle.
The story focuses on the co-dependent relationship between Beverly and Elliot who, despite their intense bond, are very different people. Across the six episodes, viewers will follow this pair of gifted but troubled doctors as they push the boundaries of medicine and technology while navigating their complex personal lives.
Steered by an overwhelmingly female creative team, the series comes from head writer and executive producer Alice Birch – the screenwriter behind Sally Rooney adaptations Normal People and Conversations With Friends. Lauren Wolkstein, Karyn Kusama and Sean Durkin share directing duties, while Michael Chernus, Poppy Liu and Britne Olford feature in a cast that is led by Weisz, who is also among the exec producers.
Here, Weisz and Birch discuss adapting Cronenberg’s film for a modern audience, the complexities of shooting one actor as a pair of twins and the impact of that female creative team.
How would you describe Dead Ringers?
Birch: It’s a reworking of David Cronenberg’s iconic film. It’s a twisted, darkly comedic thriller about these two dangerously co-dependent twins who are obsessed with each other, have never spent a night apart in their whole lives and have always lived in the same city.
Weisz: They’re both obstetricians and gynaecologists, and they’re very brilliant in their field. They’re professionally at the top of their game.
What made you want to adapt the film and what inspired you to have two female characters?
Birch: Lots of things. It felt like it would just be really interesting to tell this story with two women at the centre of it. But I don’t know if Rachel and I ever had conversations where we said, ‘OK, well, now that they’re women, how does that change it?’
Of course, it changes everything, but it also changes nothing. We wanted it to be as fun and as wild as the film but to let the series go in its own direction. And then setting it against a medical background that particularly focused on obstetrics and gynaecology – that felt really right for the storytelling.
Tell us about the nearly all-female creative team.
Birch: We had an all-female writers room, but honestly we just approached the best writers and the writers who we felt would really connect with the material and be challenged and also excited by this story.
Everyone brings their own personal experiences to a writers room, but this was hugely imaginative as well. People were researching and reading and watching and contributing and feeding off each other, as well as bringing their own experiences.
What kind of ride can viewers expect across the six episodes?
Birch: A ride is a really nice way to describe it. I hope it’s that. We wanted each episode to be quite different, and we wanted the show to begin in a very grounded place where we really recognise it’s two doctors walking in and out of a hospital in Manhattan. We want it to feel like today and that they’re meeting real women with these real issues. But by the end, we’re in a more heightened, more operatic place. So that was a journey to manage.
Weisz: I hope it’s a pretty wild ride at times. There’s a lot of mischief. It’s quite deliciously mischievous at times. Emotional, moving. And there is some humour; some dark, dark humour.
How did you film scenes featuring both twins?
Birch: It was something we learned. We learned a lot of things very quickly, and it really was an incredible team effort. Everybody sort of became this machine – hair and makeup, camera operators… all the crew knew what to do.
When there was a twin shot, with the twins together in the same frame, we would shoot an ‘A side,’ which was usually Elliot, as she usually dictated the rhythm of the scene. Then Rachel would change her costume and we would shoot the ‘B side.’ So it was very technical, but also had to involve as much space as possible for Rachel’s process. She was amazing at switching so quickly.
Rachel, what was it like for you switching between characters?
Weisz: There wasn’t time to take time between characters, but I was very lucky because Alice’s writing is so psychologically layered and profound that each character was completely distinct. They were two totally separate people on the page before I even got into hair, makeup, costume and other ways in which they might look different. So I had Alice’s words to embody, and it’s extraordinary writing.
How are Beverly and Elliot different?
Weisz: Beverly is altruistic, thoughtful, careful, kind, has a complicated relationship with pleasure and really wants to change the way all women give birth, irrespective of their economic background, their wealth.
Elliot’s very, very different. She loves Beverly, so she’ll go along with her dream to change the way women give birth, but she’s not altruistic. She’s into science and she wants to really change the world through scientific research and discovery, and she’s pushing the boundaries of what’s ethical and what isn’t.
How challenging was it to play them?
Weisz: This was without a doubt the biggest challenge of my acting life, but it was also the most joyous in many ways. It was hard work but, as Alice mentioned, the whole crew was moving as one organism. It wasn’t just me, it was the effects, motion control, hair, makeup, the set dressing, props. I mean, everybody was shifting from one character to the next.
I didn’t shoot Beverly for one day and then Elliot for another day; it was within one scene. We would shoot one half and then shoot the other half. It was thrilling – as exciting as maybe learning to walk a tightrope, which I definitely can’t do, but we all learned together.
What do you like most about Beverly and Elliot?
Birch: I think Elliot is the most efficient pleasure-seeker. She wants something, she gets it. It hits the spot, and then she wants something else, so she goes and gets it. I think that’s extraordinary and I’m envious of that for sure.
Beverly is incredibly empathetic and really, genuinely cares. And that’s in a context [as a gynaecologist] where I think that’s quite hard and probably takes a lot of energy.
Weisz: Elliot’s appetite for pleasure and her mischievous humour was definitely fun to embody. She has a kind of sexual appetite, a career appetite, and just a good old appetite for food. She likes to eat a lot, so I enjoyed that! And then Beverly, as Alice said, is just full of empathy and puts herself in the shoes of others. She feels very deeply. They were both so beautifully written and so complicated. It’s hard to sum them up, but those would be the broad brushstrokes.
How would you describe the working dynamic between the two of you?
Birch: It’s been the total joy of my career. It’s been wonderful. I was such a huge fan of Rachel’s, obviously, before I heard about the project. Then when we met, it felt really quickly like there was a shorthand, and it just works. We felt really excited, surprised and challenged by it, but there was also an ‘Oh, yes.’ Everything made sense in terms of her ideas. And being able to write two characters for an actor like Rachel is such a gift. Rachel was in the writers room, she was in the edit. She’s just been a brilliant collaborator the whole way through.
Weisz: It’s been a great joy for me to collaborate with Alice. And as she said, I think we very quickly felt creatively aligned, so we could just keep cross-pollinating our ideas. Our tastes around the show were very similar. It was always challenging and always joyful – and sometimes, the more challenging it got, the more fun it became, strangely. I think that’s what happens when you have really great writing.