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Andrea Riseborough on studio sexism in Oblivion and being at home in Birdman

From left: Andrea Riseborough on Black Mirror (Photo: Arnaldur Halidorsson/Netflix), at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival (Photo: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images), and in Mandy (Photo: RLJ Entertainment)
From left: Andrea Riseborough on Black Mirror (Photo: Arnaldur Halidorsson/Netflix), at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival (Photo: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images), and in Mandy (Photo: RLJ Entertainment)
Graphic: Jimmy Hasse
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: It’s been almost exactly 15 years since Andrea Riseborough first appeared onscreen in a pair of British made-for-TV movies; but the actor wasted very little time before attaining international acclaim as a performer of rare depth and chameleonic shading. Her BAFTA nomination for Best Actress in the title role of Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk To Finchley soon led to roles in everything from Birdman (Or, The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) to Black Mirror. She’s moved smoothly between film and television the entire time, always bringing soulful nuance to even the smallest of roles.

When The A.V. Club chatted with her via Zoom on a recent weekend, Riseborough was promoting her new film Luxor, in which she plays a British aid worker returning to meet her ex-lover in the titular Egyptian city, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. The film production was given unprecedented access to historic locations that had never been documented onscreen, lending a breathtaking air of rarefied settings to the story. So while Riseborough was happy to hold court on everything from her complicated feelings about the Waco miniseries to starring alongside Tom Cruise in Oblivion, we wanted to kick things off by asking what it was like to film Luxor in such privileged locations.

Luxor (2020)—“Hana”

Andrea Riseborough: It was just extraordinary—and also such a fluke, in a sense, because the whole thing came together so quickly. Zeina Durra, the writer/director, had been working on a different film. She’d been hoping it would get together, and then she had some really bad news that it wasn’t going to come through in the time that she wanted it to. And then she went to sleep and had a dream about Luxor, and about this woman walking through Luxor. And we were shooting it, I think, less than two months later.

I was in Senegal. We were finishing Zero Zero Zero, and I read Zeina’s script maybe two months before that project ended. I only had four weeks off before I was going to do Possessor in Toronto. But her script was so beautiful, I felt very sure that I was going to do it as soon as I read it. So I went from Senegal to Luxor. You know, there’s been so much conflict in Egypt, and continues to be. Yet Luxor absolutely moves to the beat of its own drum. It has a sort of timelessness, and it houses so many relics of how ancient civilization expressed virtuality, that it just seems timeless. I think—also in our industry, you know, sadly, we’ve been very responsible for quite a few plastic-y looking sets, which are supposed to be Egypt. [Laughs.] Under the sort of western world gaze without any real understanding of what that is. And so it’s so strange to watch a film that’s set in Egypt, in Luxor, being shot in Luxor.

And a lot of what was happening was very quiet and underground in tombs that that tourists hadn’t yet seen, but archeologists might have, and certainly cameras hadn’t been inside of. We had to be incredibly careful. Those moments were very precious. It was a deeply moving experience. And it was a real balancing act. It was about trying to maintain the solace and peace that was already there inside of those locations, and preserve them. And move very quickly. And work with no light source, or work with our light sources, which because we were underground in a tomb, were often failing us. It felt like guerrilla filmmaking. You know?

Whatever Love Means (2005)—“Anna Wallace”
A Very Social Secretary (2005)—“Amanda”

AVC: Was your very first onscreen role A Very Social Secretary from 2005?

AR: You’re very close. I think it was Whatever Love Means was my first television appearance.

AVC: It seemed like that one of those TV movies might have been filmed first, but Secretary aired first. 

AR: Oh, did it? Right. I remember I was still in with my third year at RADA [Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art], which is where I trained. So I flew to Ireland, and they slipped something under my door the night before we were going to shoot, which now I realize was a call sheet. I had absolutely no idea what the fuck it was or what it meant. And, you know, especially in drama school, so much attention is given to the preservation of that precious time when you develop the character and all the ways that, even though you’ve got to film it non-sequentially, you’re going to get around it. You’re going to have an experience as if you were always working with Mike Leigh. And you really go out there bolstered with this ideal. I think I must have spent 45 minutes just figuring out the call sheet, and then went to sleep. And at the end of it, I had realized that I have to be there tomorrow at a certain time. And I had no idea which of the scenes we were filming. I mean, it’s pathetic. Really pathetic. It’s not a very hard thing to work out. I think I was very nervous. [Laughs.]

It felt strangely familiar, the first time that I was being paid to be on-camera. I had done film before that, but it was never professional. It was student films and stuff like that in Newcastle. But it felt very strange and special and also kind of off-the-cuff. I was halfway through, and the director asked me not to be Scottish, but to be English.

So I did. So that was interesting. And I enjoyed it very much. It all seemed very showy compared to theatre. Funny, I know that sounds ridiculous and ironic.

Venus (2006)—“Period Film Lover”

AVC: Venus is your first feature film; you were credited as “Period Film Lover.” 

AR: [Laughs.] Does that mean I’m a lover of period film? Or I’m a lover in a period film. [Laughs.] What it means is I’m a lover in a period film. A film-within-a-film. I was still at RADA, and I remember having half of a morning off to go and do this audition. And so, went in, sat down with Roger [Michell, director], played the scene which basically is my character bursting into tears. He said, “Well, that was great.” And then I left. That really was the entirety of my role. And he was so sweet when I got there on set. He gave me so much space and so much time, and I thought, “Oh my goodness, this is just like working in the theatre almost, working with Roger,” who obviously is a fantastic theatre director as well. And I remember thinking Peter O’Toole was surprisingly flirtatious, given his age. It was almost like a sort of 28-year-old cad trapped in an older man’s body. [Laughs.] To everyone. Nobody came out unscathed. And it wasn’t in a creepy way. It was in a Peter O’Toole way.

Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk To Finchley (2008)—“Margaret Thatcher”

AR: From the moment that I walked in to read for the part, it felt significant. Because I was walking in to read with, you know, Mike Leigh actors. I was thinking, “This is never going to happen.” I was also ten years younger than everybody else. Which was right for the character, because it was a very young Margaret Thatcher.

The preparation for that was really extraordinary. I went up to Grantham a lot, which was her hometown. I sat in her bedroom, which is ironically—I mean, in my opinion—was then a massage parlor. And stood in the shop that Alf, the father, had. Looked out at the Catholic girls school across the road where everybody had better clothes and more lipstick and went out on dates with boys after school. So that statue of Newton—Newton’s the apple, right?

AVC: Yep, he’s the apple guy.

AR: Great. [Laughs.] You can tell I’m a science major. But, you know, that’s what Margaret was. She studied and worked in chemistry. And she’s having all sorts of bonkers jobs like fluffing ice cream—you know, trying to figure out a better recipe for soft serve. That was partly what she did for a while. But I was almost thrown out of the school because—I should have asked, obviously. It was this all-girls school, and I just kind of walked in, because there was a parents day. And walked around the halls and did a lot of work. It was really fantastic. But then, on the way out, was pretty much chased out by somebody who realized that I was just wandering around in there, and I wasn’t a parent. Because I didn’t check any of the age boxes; I was neither child nor parent. And I was presumably dressed like a really irritating actress, and was clearly from London, not from Grantham.

Also, it was really interesting to play somebody politically so far away from anything that I’d ever personally aspired to. Very early on… and I’m sorry to specify the demographic here, but I figured out that it was a really bad idea to bring up the reality that I was playing Margaret Thatcher to drunk white men in sort of dinner conversation or—not that I ever really had dinner conversation. That wasn’t my life. But if I was at something for work, if I was at a sort of awards thing or—let’s just say peoples’ opinions of Thatcher are not normally malleable.

And in order to play her, putting aside my own judgement—and I had so much of it, I could never forgive her for what she did in Northern Ireland, you know, there are so many atrocities—and then trying to play this young woman attempting to find her footing in the world. I realized very early on I was going to have to shut that noise out. What was very helpful was talking to people who worked with her. Because not only did they have the same sort of completely inflexible opinions [Laughs.], but they really experienced her. So then it was easier to sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of who she really was underneath. And, you know, and I read many doorstops of fiction about her, which are so far from fact. [Laughs.] It was an entirely immersive experience.

Mandy (2018)— “Mandy Bloom”

AR: It was a very unusual experience. Panos Cosmatos, the writer/director who everybody knows now, which is fantastic, had made his first film, Beyond The Black Rainbow. There is some sort of folklore tale that only Cronenberg sat through it at the Tribeca Film Festival, or wherever it was—that there were only a few people who could quite take where he was trying to go. And I watched images from that first film, and was so struck by his vision. And also his lack of care for anything that had gone before. I don’t mean that in a blasé way; I think he’s looking to do what those innovators before him had done when they had thrown away the rule book.

So the script was… unusual. When it first came to us, it sort of read—not to me, but to the people who represent me—a little like horror or something like that. You know, “This doesn’t seem like it’s going to be for you,” was the sort of message coming from many angles. I watched his first film, and I was just so excited to know what this was going to be like. This film is about him coping with the grief of losing his parents. And only speaking to him, could you perhaps be let in on that. He’s so gentle and kind, and the film is extremely violent. And it really is an expression of what he was feeling inside, the helplessness and hopelessness he was feeling inside. And the vengefulness, as well.

And it’s funny, because I haven’t seen Mandy. This is not a secret. I told Panos that—because I hadn’t seen his first film in its entirety, because it was so terrifying. I said to him when I met him, “I really love your work, and I couldn’t watch it all in one go.” And he said, “That’s a huge compliment.” [Laughs.] I said, “And if we do this together, there’s a very good chance I may not be able to watch this, because I’ll be too scared.” I’m not a sort of viewer who is able to… it’s not very easy for me to detach, you know? I think if I were to watch Mandy, I would then be inside of it for the next three weeks and not able to sort of mentally get out of it. Of course, I have seen many bits of it; I saw the monitor, and I have a very clear idea of what we created.

AVC: Whenever we’ve done a Random Roles with somebody who has done a film with Nicolas Cage, there’s almost always an unexpected story, because he’s such an idiosyncratic guy. Did you have any memorable moments with him while you guys were filming?

AR: An idiosyncratic moment? God, probably all of the moments. I think it’s very odd to be in the presence of that kind of trailblazer, really. He’s a sort of trailblazer as an actor, isn’t he? He does what other actors don’t dare to do. There’s sort of no limits. He just imagines it and does it. So I think the entire experience was one of idiosyncrasy. [Laughs.] Yeah. He’s so wonderful and so very quiet. I’m very quiet when I work. Because you go through so much, creating a character and staying inside of it and popping in and out of it all the time is so hard. And so we would often just sit next to each other in our foldout chairs in complete silence. You know, which worked for both of us very well, I think. [Laughs.] And then go on and do it.

But I loved creating Mandy, because… really, she was too good for this world, whatever that means. The other thing is, when I met Panos’ wife, who is called Andrea and has long, black hair. Strangely. And is just wonderful and brilliant. Has a brilliant mind and is very beautiful. I also realized, in part, I was playing her. But it’s—you know—hugely controversial, this idea that a woman has to be dead to be beatified. Or dead to have peace. It’s dark. It’s something that I felt was worth looking at. I could talk about it for a very long time, but I liked playing Mandy a lot.

Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) (2014) —“Laura”

AR: Laura was probably one of the characters that was furthest away from me. She was one of those characters that almost I had to begin on the outside. I don’t mean aesthetically, I mean physically: begin on the outside in order to get inside. I think she represented, especially at that time, this real pivotal moment we were in, where craft and having an apprenticeship—learning very deeply how to do something with excellence, whatever that was, whether it was singing, science, food. We were at a time when suddenly all of the people who became noteworthy in most arenas were ones who were almost all reality television stars. At the same time, people started to enter our industry. And there were some fantastic actors and singers who come in that way, but… I think Laura represented that strange intersection. You know, this actress who really was pretty fame hungry, and would have much preferred, I think, to have Angelina Jolie’s life than to be in a play based on Raymond Carver’s works at the Kings Theatre. Which, to many, many actors, would be the pinnacle of their career.

And when I met Alejandro [Iñárritu]—I put something on tape for him, and then he wanted to meet me. And so I met him on a corner, and he came up on his moped or his bike, some sort of two-wheeled vehicle in Santa Monica. And we had this cup of coffee on a corner, and he said, very nicely, “I need somebody like you to play this role for it to make sense.” Which, as complimentary as it was, was also probably the worst way anyone has ever sold me a role. [Laughs.] But I also said to him that I would walk over hot coals to—I would have come on and said a line in one of his films. I couldn’t have loved him more as a filmmaker. So it was really fun playing Laura. And also quite sad. I mean, I know it’s funny on the outside, but on the inside, for Laura, it was quite sad. [Laughs.] She spent quite a lot of time melancholy.

AVC: Most good comedies have quite a bit of tragedy underneath them.

AR: Certainly. And if you want to have a terrible evening, go to dinner with a bunch of comedians. [Laughs.] You’ll find real pain.

AVC: In a film like that where there’s so many moving parts and these long takes, did it ironically end up feeling more like a stage play in some ways, or some sort of odd hybrid?

AR: There’s so many familiar yet unfamiliar things that were going on when we were filming Birdman, apart from the fact that we all walked into Chivo [cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s nickname] maybe 20 times each, because the shots that we were setting up were so complex and so long. And our entire call sheet for the day would be one one shot. We’d have eight scenes in the one shot. Apart from the technicalities of it all, it felt so familiar being in a theater. We were shooting on-location for some of it and on a soundstage in New Jersey for another part of it. But I felt very much at home, because I was in a theater. And I was playing one of the only characters who wasn’t really familiar with or invested in the theatre. Yet I was surrounded by a cast of people who had never been in the theatre. Other than, of course, Ed [Norton]. And then… Emma [Stone] went on to do something onstage when she wasn’t playing an actor in Birdman.

Battle Of The Sexes (2017)— “Marilyn Barnett”

AVC: That seems like a good place to jump Battle Of The Sexes, where you play Marilyn Barnett opposite Emma Stone. 

AR: Yes, which was such a lovely experience. There was this piece of Philip Glass music that Jon [Dayton] and Val [Faris], the directors, very early on had played me. And in this quite long piece of music, there’s this one sound, which is a flute. And they explained to me that Marilyn, in our interpretation of Billie Jean’s life, Marilyn was that flute. She brought the sort of freedom and lightness to the piece. The possibility of sexual freedom. She represented sexual liberation. She very much represented the time that the film is set in. The positive parts of it. The sad part is that the real Marilyn actually did end up committing suicide. Which brings me slightly back to the idea that she was perhaps a little too bright for this world. If there’s any kind of through line, as free-spirited as she was, there wasn’t somewhere she could really fit in.

It’s the scintillating moments of first falling in love. So it was such a fantastic thing to shoot, because obviously Emma and I are friends—you just want something natural and easy. And it was such a strange thing, as well: To have love scenes with another woman who is a friend was almost a revolutionary experience for me, in terms of my experience with love scenes on camera before or onstage. I wasn’t faced with a stranger. It felt like there was a trust and a complicity. You know, it’s not like every time you’re faced with a stranger, but often, in a storyline, if you think about it in films, there may be one scene where the character one night sleeps with someone. And that person you haven’t actually met until the day that the scene is then filmed.

So filming that love story felt really intimate and gentle and exciting and beautiful. Making that film was one of the experiences I really treasure. And it was wonderful to play the joy. It was wonderful to be the custodian of joy in that film, the custodian of joy and freedom.

Black Mirror, “Crocodile” (2017)—“Mia Nolan”

AR: Originally, Mia was a man. That’s happened with a lot of characters I’ve played. I’ve been drawn often to those characters, not quite realized why, and then realized later they’d been renamed as a woman to just sort of bump up the woman-quota in the script. That had happened a lot. But the difference here was, I read this script, and I was originally offered Kiran [Sonia Sawar]’s part. And she’s a fine, fine actor. I loved working with her so much. But I really responded to Mia—I mean, to the male role. So I spoke to John [Hillcoat, director] and asked if he thought Charlie and Annabel [Brooker and Jones, executive producers] might even consider not only her being her, but a woman then facing off with another woman. That felt like a really interesting dynamic that is much less often seen. And they supported it. And so, slightly tweaked it and rewrote it, but for the most part, it was very similar. I think what I identified with in that character was wanting to preserve one’s family dignity, maintain an appearance of really buoyancy and success at all costs, and how far that could take a person, the preservation of that.

There were lots of conversations about that in the beginning. Would people sympathize with a woman who does what Mia does? To which my response was, “Well, if we don’t see a woman do that often, then that’s why we should do it.” 
Because women kill all the time. And are life-givers, and preservers, and takers. So wouldn’t that be fascinating to explore the psychology of that?

So I felt like it was kismet, in a sense. Everything really came together on that project in a way that I think nobody had expected, because that’s not what they’ve written. [Laughs.] I asked to play a different part. And then, of course, Kiran ended up playing the part that I was offered [Shazia], which she was so much better at than I could have been. She was so perfect for that part. And it was really a hard role for her to go through; we were in Iceland in a deserted shack, and she’s really being tortured, essentially. And it was very taxing, and I felt very protective of her, actually—over how many times she could do that, and how many times we could go through it. But she’s a wonderful actor.

Oblivion (2013)“Victoria”

AVC: Talk about jumping into the world of big budget movie making.

 AR: It was very familiar in some ways and strange in others. The sort of massive scale of it was actually quite familiar, strangely. Because in the U.K., the way that the industry works—especially in television—is that there’s a huge amount of money. They put a huge amount of money into television. So I was very used to 200 extras and chaos, you know. I think the difference with Oblivion, and what Claudio [Miranda, cinematographer] did so brilliantly visually, was that my character and Tom [Cruise]’s character’s house was surrounded by this huge 360 screen in the studio, which was a sort of technological feat in and of itself. And that screen projected sunsets and sunrises and different points of light in the day that they’ve already shot in Iceland. So it was a disconcerting experience, in the sense that you’d sometimes be doing a breakfast scene at 7 p.m., and your body was really responding to what was happening on the screen, because it was so accurate.

Sometimes the screen would falter, and you’d get a computer screen. [Laughs.] Like all around the studio, you know? Saying, like, “EXIT” or “HOLD” or tabs would come up. It was the weirdest thing. That was something that was just completely extraordinary. The amount of money that was spent on it, sometimes the wastefulness of it was mind-boggling. In terms of what the art department do, they’re so incredible. And they’re making things from scratch. And then you see them maybe once, fleetingly. You could almost make a hundred movies out of the work that was done on that one movie, artistically. They would all be different things. And I really, really enjoyed working with Tom. That was such a brilliant experience. So much fun. We laughed so much—which was good, because Vika and Jack’s relationship was rocky. [Laughs.]

But I think the thing I didn’t enjoy about it… was more on the studio side, the pressure to look a certain way. And I was never sure where it was coming from, but that was very important to people, how the women looked. That the women sort of looked attractive at all times. Because that was still then an unashamed selling point. And I don’t think—I mean, I’m a reasonably symmetrical person, but I don’t think I am that actor. For me, the take that is always best is the one that where I don’t know what’s happening. Certainly not that I’m standing in the right way so that my ass looks good at this angle. Like, “Oh, that was a really good ass take.” I don’t really have the capacity to hold all of those things at once. Not in a way that I really like to work. And so I find that just detracted from… it just took up a lot of space and time.

Waco (2018)—“Judy Schneider”

AVC: This seems like the kind of location shoot that forces you into almost a sort of makeshift family for the duration of the project.

 AR: Yes. It certainly did. I loved working with the women on that project. I always love working with Michael Shannon, who I’ve done a few things with, but we’ve never actually met onscreen, frustratingly. And Taylor [Kitsch] was great. He was such a fantastic [David] Koresh. That was a tricky project for me, because [they] had reached out to say, “Judy Schneider is the beating heart of this. Please, you must play her, nobody else could”—read an email like that always with a pinch of salt, you know, pretty sure some other people could play it—but that’s very nice. And I was really interested in that story, because the majority of people who are in that compound, in that family, the one that you’re talking about, were women, and mainly not white.

I certainly felt this at the time, but I also feel comfortable saying this looking back on it—I just perhaps wish we hadn’t explored that story through the perspective of two white men when there were so many other people really involved in that story. Because these people had come from all over the world, and from different backgrounds. Some were recovering drug addicts; some had flown halfway around the world to be there. Single moms. Like, there was so much meat in it. And, when you commit to a project like this—I committed to it knowing only the first episode, really—the rest of it hadn’t quite been written. And I was playing a woman who was older than myself. I very much wanted to honor playing who she was and playing it the way that she was. I just… I was a little disappointed walking away from that experience. I felt like I did a lot of free childcare. You know, I was completely aware that the project wasn’t called Judy Schneider. [Laughs.] I had no sort of crazy expectations in that way. But there were so many fantastic women in it, and there were so many different characters in there that I feel like we could have heard a bit more from.

I remember when we were doing a press conference for that one, and they asked Michael a question. Then, they asked Taylor a question. And then there was sort of me, Melissa [Benoist], and Julia [Garner] sitting together as sort of—holding the female camp together. Not that it should have been that way at all, but that’s how it kind of felt. And then they said, “And for the women: how do you feel being involved in this?” Look, that was their perspective on the story. And that’s completely understandable; that’s the way they wanted to tell it. And it’s really interesting to get inside the mind of characters like David Koresh. I think I just perhaps hoped it would delve a little deeper. Because I feel like we’ve explored Koresh and many like him a lot. And that’s where I fell down, is in hoping that something might evolve into something that it didn’t ever promise to be.

Nancy (2018)—“Nancy Freeman”

AVC: Is there a role that you wish people would ask about, or a project that hasn’t gotten the love that you wish it would? 

AR: Well, I suppose Nancy. But that’s because—you know, I mean, it’s for many, many reasons. I think [writer-director] Christina Choe is extraordinary, but it’s also because my company produced that film. We developed it for five years, and it was very dear to me.

I notice I often talk about it more with women than men. And I’m not sure how that happened. [Laughs.] I’m not sure how Samuel Goldwyn and all of us only got to these people. But I would love for more of the world to see Nancy. It had a good reception. We had a really great time with it. It was a huge privilege and pleasure to produce that with Barbara Broccoli, who has been somebody in my life I consider a mentor in many ways, because she’s extended such a kind arm to so many young women in the industry, and continues to do so. And it’s really something; more people should know just how much she does.