Rachel Weisz knows how to grab an audience. So it shouldn't have been a surprise to Stephen Sommers, who directed the 30-year-old Brit's turn as an Egyptologist in 1999's hit The Mummy, that she had a strong opinion on her character's development-for The Mummy Returns. "Out of the blue Rachel calls me up and says, 'I really think my character should be sexier,' " he says. "Rachel is very competitive. And I know she was in the audience watching The Mummy, and she comes out as an uptight librarian and [costar] Patricia Velasquez comes out dressed in paint, and every 15-year-old is whistling at Patricia. Rachel's thinking, 'I want those whistles.' I laughed and said, 'Okay.' "

Judging by the results—the action sequel grossed $68.1 million its first weekend out—that was one of many good calls Sommers made. It may also serve to transform Weisz. Reprising her role as Evelyn in The Mummy Returns, Weisz plays much more than the staid wife of hero Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) and mother of their 8-year-old child. Adding to her repertoire a scantily clad smarty-pants who helps battle the bad guys, Weisz may find herself becoming a real-life Hollywood babe. The question now is whether the dramatic actress who loves the London stage is truly comfortable with that prospect. "I'm sure there are many days when she would love to be the Movie Superstar," says Sommers. "But most days she's grounded enough to say, 'No, no, what I want is to be a great actress.' "

A goal that for Weisz has meant many things, from playing Catherine in a West End production of Tennessee Williams's Suddenly, Last Summer in 1999 to her turn as a Russian soldier in this year's World War II drama Enemy at the Gates. Neither prepared her for three months spent training for a martial arts combat scene with Velasquez that left both of them bruised. "We kept saying, 'I'm sorry, no, I'm sorry,' " says Velasquez. Adds producer James Jacks: "At first, she didn't quite see [the fighting] as fun. Then, as she got better, she got excited about it."

Weisz has had practice getting used to tough situations. The older child of European Jews who fled the fascism of their homelands for Britain in the '30s, Weisz and her younger sister Minnie grew up in London in what she has called "quite a weird family." Her mother, Ruth, a Viennese-born psychotherapist, insisted that her kids remain silent while she treated patients at home. Having always wanted to act herself, she also encouraged Rachel to try theater-though her father, George, a Hungarian-born inventor, was far less enthusiastic. When at age 13 Weisz was offered a part as Richard Gere's daughter in 1985's King David, he threatened to leave home if she accepted (she didn't). Two years later, he moved out anyway, without revealing his whereabouts. When he came to take the girls for Sunday walks, Weisz told Britain's The Independent, her mother would hide in the bushes to eavesdrop in case he mentioned where he was staying.

Her parents survived their turmoil intact—George remarried and Ruth lives happily alone in Cambridge—but their split took a toll on Rachel. She smoked, cut classes, ran away from home and in general turned into, she told the Daily Telegraph, "a very, very naughty girl." Also a talented one. Studying English at Cambridge University, Weisz formed the Talking Tongues theater company and at 1991's Edinburgh Festival won a student drama award for a play she wrote and acted in. Soon after graduating in 1991 she was cast alongside Ewan McGregor in the BBC miniseries Scarlet & Black—and the roles kept coming. Still, according to Chris Weitz, who is codirecting her in the upcoming Hugh Grant comedy About a Boy, success has not spoiled her: "To use that shopworn phrase, she is very down-to-earth."

Except when she's wearing her Jimmy Choo stilettos. Today, Weisz lives in a $450,000 London apartment, drives a Jaguar and shops at Prada. The only thing she is denying herself: a beau. After a string of failed romances—including one with American Beauty director Sam Mendes—she has opted to give up guys for yoga. But worry not, gents. If the Mummy can return, so can Weisz.

Karen S. Schneider
Pete Norman and York Membry in London and Julie Jordan and Cecilia de la Paz in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Pete Norman,
  • York Membry,
  • Julie Jordan,
  • Cecilia de la Paz.