When Rachel Weisz took on her latest role in Denial, she knew it would be a moving project — but never imagined just how personal it would become.
In the film, Weisz plays professor Deborah Lipstadt, the woman who won a historic 2000 court case defeating prominent Holocaust denier David Irving.
“I had heard about the trial, but I didn’t know about it in any great detail,” the actress tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “About a month before we began filming, Deborah and I sat in my kitchen for a couple of days and talked. The deniers called it the Holohoax.”
The topic of Holocaust deniers immediately hit home for Weisz, who is the daughter of two Jewish refugees.
“Both of my parents were [Jewish] refugees from Eastern Europe. My mom, she got out of Austria, the first country to fall to Hitler, in 1939. Anti-Semitic laws had been passed already, so it was a very anti-Semitic climate,” she says. “My mom’s dad had a friend in England named Rev. James Parkes who was a scholar on anti-Semitism. He got my mom and her family out — he saved their lives.”
During one of their long conversations, Weisz, 46, says she explained her family history to Lipstadt, including her family’s connection to Rev. Parkes.
For more from Rachel Weisz on her new film Denial, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
“When I told Deborah this story, she said, ‘I teach him in my class. He’s one of the most important writers on British anti-Semitism.’ ”
Rev. Parkes helped rescue a number of Jewish refugees during the 1930s and founded the Council of Christians and Jews during World War II. He worked throughout his career to promote religious tolerance.
And when the Oscar winner arrived on set for the first day of filming, she found a special present from Lipstadt waiting for her.
“She sent one of his books to the set,” she says, adding that it was placed on Lipstadt’s mock desk during one of the scenes in the film.
“It was quite moving for me,” she says. “The man who saved my mother is connected to Deborah.”
Denial is in theaters now.