Chameleon
embraces chaos

A love of Shakespeare, cinema and people fuelled Andrea Riseborough’s acting career and it's taken her from Newcastle to Montana and many places in between, but she’s far from thinking she’s made it  

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Andrea Riseborough is calling from Montana where it’s 4.30am. She sounds surprisingly sprightly given the unearthly hour, but nocturnal living is her temporary new norm as she’s doing three weeks of night shoots for the film Please Baby Please.

“It’s okay, you get used to it. It’s actually quite good this time. Sometimes it turns you right around, sometimes it’s more bearable – there’s no rhyme or reason. Although I just finished a week of exterior night shoots and it was minus 10. That was trying.”

She’s not sure how much she can share about the project. “It’s written by Amanda Kramer, the writer-director. I can tell you that much,” offers the Northumberland native.

Riseborough’s due to fly to Los Angeles, her adopted home, the moment the film wraps to start work on her next film the following day, which will also be her 39th birthday.

“It’s going to be an intense transition but two fantastic projects I’m really enthusiastic about,” says the actor, who came to prominence in 2007’s TV series Party Animals, about young researchers and lobbyists working in Westminster.

This was followed by an acclaimed performance as a young Margaret Thatcher in The Long Walk to Finchley, which earned her a Bafta nomination.

Many actors possess a chameleon-like quality but Riseborough is so effective she acknowledges it’s why she’s not as recognisable as she could be, given her high-profile credits. Aside from many theatre and TV roles, she’s starred in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, Madonna’s Wallis Simpson biopic WE, and Alejandro Iñárritu’s award-winning Birdman.

And then there was Oblivion, the Tom Cruise vehicle, which she described as “an isolated experience”, with very few women on set. But it’s not blockbusters or fame that drive her.

She’s picky and has no interest in covering well-worn ground. Instead, she prefers to take risks with like-minded creatives, even if there’s a chance it might all end in disaster.

“I’m drawn to projects that are perhaps innovative or unusual. I’m a big cinephile. I love film and I’m really interested in innovation, whether that’s in terms of narrative or it being completely non-linear or in terms of the aesthetic or technical innovation – really, anything that is looking to experiment and perhaps create something new,” notes Riseborough who carefully considers each question before responding, her answers often punctuated with lingering pauses.

“I think we had decades where we really got stuck in the rut of remaking and remaking work.  I suppose there’s integrity to pieces that have something new, that haven’t already earned their financial stripes, so to speak. If people are really interested in making that thing, it separates the wheat from the chaff in terms of whether people are involving themselves in the film because they want to profit from it, or because they want to create something which is really worthwhile.”

Her work ethic might be ferocious, but she insists she does make time to relax. “This is an interesting job and always full of surprises, but relaxation is absolutely necessary. I like to watch a lot of Bake Off.”

Not that there’s been much time to put her feet up, even during lockdown. “I was actually working. Not the whole thing but working in March in the Dominican Republic and then Covid hit and we went back home, and then went back out and then got shut down again. I was yo-yoing back and forth,” says Riseborough of the production of supernatural thriller Geechee on the Caribbean island.

Before that, she filmed numerous projects back to back, including the TV series ZeroZeroZero, which tackles the cocaine trade, Luxor and sci-fi horror Possessor.

Luxor, a delicate, contemplative film shot amongst the eponymous city’s glorious ruins, was unexpected.

“It came together extraordinarily quickly. I was in Senegal finishing ZeroZeroZero and had three weeks before I was going off to shoot Possessor, so managed to squeeze it in. It was strange synchronicity, the way it all came together, and because it happened so quickly, we had this great momentum. I’ve never seen people lay track quicker in my life. It was amazing.

“There was chaos, but that in itself was fuelling us and getting us through these incredibly long days. It felt almost guerrilla, like there was a lot of freedom in the way it was shot, and there were lots of moments of tranquility. Luxor’s steeped in such spirituality, it lends itself to moments of reflection, so in between scenes there was a lot of peace as well.”

It’s written and directed by British filmmaker Zeina Durra. Riseborough was sent the script along with a copy of Durra’s first film The Imperialists Are Still Alive! She was impressed by the director’s debut, “a wonderful, smart and dynamic film”, and equally captivated by Luxor’s storyline.

“It’s rooted in love and recovering oneself. I just found that really compelling and cathartic,” remarks Riseborough, who plays Hana, a doctor who returns to the city she once resided in after working and witnessing atrocities on the Jordanian-Syrian border.

“What was so interesting to me was that everything she’s been through and witnessed, she carries it internally. We see her try to reintegrate into the world, to piece herself back together in order to be able to move forward carrying the weight of what she’s seen.”

Early on, Hana bumps into her former lover, Sultan, an archaeologist, played by French actor Karim Saleh.

“What’s being rekindled is their love and her sense of self she’d attached to that relationship. Perhaps they never left one another. It was fantastic to make a love story that had the elements of a grand scale Hollywood movie but in Luxor surrounded by these ancient jewels.”

Short as the shoot was, the experience left an indelible mark, and not only because she’s now in a real-life relationship with Saleh.

“To have the opportunity to be somewhere like Luxor is a formative experience, an experience that when you look back on, you can’t imagine being the person you were before. It was sort of unbelievable and unique. I haven’t had it before and who knows if I’ll ever have it again. There’s such a simplicity, a peacefulness and restorative quality to the place despite its history of conflict and political tension. I hope when people watch it that they are transported.”

The film also examines how the decisions we make in life have lasting ripples. But Riseborough says there was no plan with regard to her own trajectory.

She grew up in Whitley Bay with her parents and sister, Laura, who’s also an actor. “I started in theatre as a kid and did a lot of classical theatre and really loved literature. My mum was doing an MA and studying a lot of Shakespeare and Jacobean text. It’s not something we really talked about an awful lot, but we did share it in a sense.”

She describes herself “as quite private really, and a bit shy” and her love for acting and dance wasn’t something “I really had a dialogue with friends about”.

“It was just something I really enjoyed. I found it so immersive and exciting. And I had so much support from my family. I think they were just interested to look on at the relationship I formed with the thing.”

It was a teacher who recommended the nine-year-old Riseborough audition for the People’s Theatre in Newcastle. She later joined the National Youth Theatre and, by the time she headed to RADA, was an old hand on stage.

“You can do so much preparation and training but, like any career, you learn on the job,” is how she puts it.

Riseborough transitioned into film with 2006’s Venus, starring Jodie Whittaker and the late Peter O’Toole, not long after graduating. “That was a whole different learning curve but the cinema was really something that fuelled me as a child, so I ended up in a place that I was most inspired by, in a sense.

“It was one lesson after another and I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to learn and to keep learning. That’s endless in my line of work. I feel it would take more than one lifetime to even feel like you’d achieved a very small amount because you see the endless possibilities in terms of how hard you can work and how well you can do.”

It wasn’t only cinema or Shakespeare that inspired the young Riseborough – it was people and their idiosyncrasies she always found endlessly fascinating.

“One of the great joys of being able to do what I do is to observe and listen. At this time, it’s really difficult because you can’t see behind somebody’s mask, literally. And it’s a disconnected time at the moment.”

She has lived in the US since she was 27 but typically works in the UK every year.

“That’s been fantastic, to see my family and keep close connections with my sister and all the friends I grew up with. Obviously this last year has been really difficult. I miss my parents. It’s tough.”

There is solace, as well as fulfilment, to be found in work, and there are plenty of projects coming up, including Alpha Gang, a sci-fi comedy with Jon Hamm, as well as the release of Louis Wain, the historical biopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

But you’ll never find Riseborough sitting back contentedly thinking she’s made it.

“No, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, as a person I mean,” she says, laughing. “It’s not how the brain works. It’s a bit of a slippery slope to imagine one day a decision has been made and suddenly you’re doing good work or doing work of worth. Life’s far more exciting than that. I think it’s important that whatever your vocation is, and however you choose to move forward in life, that you can really draw something substantial from what you’re doing first and foremost, and if it’s going well, great.”

Luxor is available on demand on all major streaming platforms including Amazon, Apple and Sky Store. Full info at modernfilms.com


Possessing a new type of role

Andrea Riseborough stars in Possessor, Brandon Cronenberg’s blood-soaked sci-fi horror, as Vos, an agent who inhabits other people’s bodies via a brain implant to carry out assassinations. The initial idea was for a male to inhabit the character of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), until Cronenberg realised it would be far more interesting for it to be a woman.

“What I found fascinating about the script was that the meeting of two psyches should manifest into something external,” says Riseborough. “I wanted to experience what that felt like and it’s what’s interesting about doing this film now. Society is talking a lot about gender and non-gender, what it means to us and what labels society pastes on us. It was such a fascinating project, and the first time I’ve been in a negotiation with another person about the same character. It was lovely.”

Possessor is on digital platforms now

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