Andrea Riseborough: ‘I needed to shake off the studio system. You feel like a cog in a vast machine’

The chameleonic star excelled in everything from sci-fi to comedy, but felt her creative spark waning. She talks about finding it again – and coming to terms with the oddness of acting for a living

“Genes and geography” is how Andrea Riseborough explains the work ethic that has made her one of the most prolific actors around. Over the past decade and a half, she has made two or three films a year, and that’s not including her many detours into TV. “I’m from the north-east of England and we are not a workshy people,” she says.

That’s the geography – but what about the genes? “They come from my maternal grandmother,” Riseborough says, her geordie accent still detectable after a decade living in Los Angeles. “Nana, who pretty much raised me and my sister, got up at 5am and went to bed at 11pm. She started work at 13 years old pushing a bread cart up a really steep hill and worked as a cleaner until late into her 80s. I cannot remember her sitting down – to the point where we were once having Christmas dinner and she was ironing. If she could hear me now, she’d say: ‘Well, it needed to be done.’”

Riseborough, 40, is huddled in a hotel bathroom where she is talking via a laptop balanced on the sink. She explains that her room is so cold that she has dragged a chair into the en suite, which at least has a working radiator. She is on a flying visit to London to talk about her latest slew of films – she has three out between now and the end of the year, and a fourth coming in early 2023 – before getting the red-eye back to Los Angeles, where she is due on set for her next movie. She can’t reveal the details, though she says: “My heart and mind are very much in that place on set.”

It seems faintly absurd to note that Riseborough has a way of melting into her roles – it is, after all, a requirement of the job. Yet she has a rare chameleonic quality, to the extent where you might find yourself mesmerised by her in a film without realising who it is you’re watching. You may or may not recall her as the beehived Brenda in Made in Dagenham; or the hapless Rose in the 2010 Brighton Rock remake; or as Marilyn Barnett, one-time lover and thorn in the side of Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes. She earned a Bafta nomination early on in her career for playing the young Margaret Thatcher in BBC drama The Long Walk to Finchley, though it was her role as Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, in WE, directed by Madonna, that propelled her into the big league, despite its critical mauling. Mark Kermode said Riseborough provided “one of the best performances in one of the worst films I have ever seen”.

Out of the current crop of films, her most remarkable performance is in To Leslie, about an alcoholic single mother from Texas who wins the lottery, drinks her winnings and ends up on the streets. It is loosely based on the life of its screenwriter Ryan Binaco’s late mother, and we see Leslie (Riseborough) try to start over in her old home town, where Marc Maron’s motel manager offers her a lifeline in the form of a cleaning job. Appearing hollowed out, bruised and often badly in need of a wash, Riseborough is once again barely recognisable – a far cry from the luminous-skinned, bright-eyed woman on the screen in front of me. The shoot, which took place in the middle of the pandemic, was tough but rewarding.

“One of the wonderful things about playing Leslie was that feeling of reckless abandon,” Riseborough says. “You know, real anarchy. But it was a deeply heavy psychological space to live in. The hardest thing for the addict is that those with whom they should have the most intimacy often try to keep them at arm’s length. It was such a lonely feeling, made worse by the fact that we were all masked up and kept separate until the last moment on set. Playing her felt like an ache.”

Riseborough is a guarded interviewee, often greeting questions with disarmingly lengthy pauses. I sense an internal tussle going on between the plain-spoken northerner and the Hollywood star straining not to say anything that could be construed as controversial. Another of her new films is Amsterdam, by director David O Russell, a chaotic yet entertaining ensemble piece about a real-life plot to topple the US government in the 1930s that also stars Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington and Robert De Niro. In the past, Russell has been accused of abusive behaviour on his film sets: working with the director on 1999’s Three Kings, George Clooney called it “truly, without exception, the worst experience of my life”, while Amy Adams has talked of crying every day on the set of American Hustle. Riseborough twice ducks my question about Russell’s reported irascibility, instead hailing his “remarkable creativity” as a storyteller.

In the film, she plays Beatrice, the estranged, socially insecure wife of Bale’s wounded war veteran. Prior to filming, Russell spent many months separately in discussions with her, and the rest of the cast, about how they thought their roles should play out. “He creates characters with individuals on a one-to-one basis, and then lets them loose on each other in the same space, so it’s like you’re meeting these people in real life,” Riseborough says. “It’s not run-of-the-mill. But there’s a lot of flexibility and I found it massively inspiring. I left feeling more pushed than I have done in many years.”

Riseborough got her first acting job at the age of nine at the People’s Theatre, home to the RSC in Newcastle upon Tyne. At school, her teachers had clocked her interest in literature along with her aptitude for reading Shakespeare out loud. Meanwhile, her father, who worked as a car dealer, helped foster an interest in film. “My dad’s mum sold tickets in the cinema and so, when he was little, he used to go from school straight to the cinema and watch all the films three or four times a week,” Riseborough says. “Now he’s a huge authority on black-and-white films. He can name every last supporting actor.”

Riseborough as Margaret Thatcher in The Long Walk to Finchley.
Iron lady … Riseborough as Margaret Thatcher in The Long Walk to Finchley. Photograph: BBC/Allstar

In a rare act of rebellion, Riseborough left school at 17, having decided she would be better off working. After three years spent first as a waitress and later selling greetings cards, she applied to Rada and won a place. She loved it, despite being cast as a lot of virgins in her first year – “a result of my pale, symmetrical features. We were doing a lot of Jacobean drama at the time,” she says, sardonically. She fought hard against the stereotyping and, by the end of her course, was playing “a wealth of bonkers characters, from 17-year-old boys to women in their 80s”.

The variety she found at Rada was something she resolved to continue in her professional life, taking on roles that are the polar opposite of whatever she has done before. That said, she now avoids action films and big franchises as “they don’t really speak to me. I was in a movie called Oblivion where I played Tom Cruise’s wife and …” She pulls a face to indicate it didn’t go well. She has only once dabbled in horror, playing a detective in 2020’s The Grudge. “It’s not something I’d do again,” she says, looking mildly pained.

If her remarkable productivity suggests a career that has gone without a hitch, Riseborough reveals that’s not quite the whole picture. For a period, after working on 2014’s Birdman, a film designed to look like it was made in one long take, she “just stopped”, having decided the job wasn’t for her any more. The issue wasn’t Birdman, even though, she says, “the technical thing that we were trying to achieve was so impossible”. When I ask what was making her unhappy, she stops, searching for the right words. “I needed to shake off the studio system at that time. It hadn’t felt satiating, for myriad reasons. It’s very different now, thankfully, and I have allowed myself to fall in love again with the purpose of what I am doing, which had very much been lost.” In what way? Another pause. “You think that you’re going to be talking about Chekhov, and you find yourself talking about things you’re not interested in, in an effort to sell a product. You feel like a cog in a vast machine.”

From this, I glean that she is talking, in part, about the pressures of publicity, though she is too polite to put it so bluntly. She seems to have had a wobble about her powers as an actor, too. She draws a contrast between the “solitary time” involved in the early stages of a project, where it’s just you getting to know your character and “where you don’t see anyone for ages and ages. And then you’re suddenly spat out into the world and surrounded by 250 people. And you bring this thing that you’ve been preparing only in your head into a living, breathing sea of humans. Which feels more than slightly odd.”

Riseborough has since come around to the view that self-doubt is healthy. “It doesn’t always feel good but that’s life, isn’t it? People have such extraordinarily hard lives in so many ways, to move through the self-doubt of one’s own creative abilities is quite minor in comparison. Yes, of course it’s difficult sometimes. You think: ‘God, I’m fucking crap.’ But, you know, it’s also not like working down a mine.”

Our conversation is littered with moments where Riseborough goes deep into the creative process, before suddenly pulling herself up at the ridiculousness of it all. Midway through discussing her role in To Leslie, she uses the word “gruelling” just as her publicist comes in to hand her a cup of tea. “See?” she says, lifting her cup to the camera and enacting an exaggerated flick of the hair. “Utterly gruelling.”

It’s perhaps down to a desire not to come across as a spoilt luvvie that she downplays her campaign to achieve equal pay in the film industry. When I mention how vocal she has been on the subject, she looks surprised. How about the time she appeared on the US chatshow Jimmy Kimmel Live! wearing a sweatshirt on which she had scrawled the words “Equal Pay”? “That was more a message of solidarity – and a nod to hope,” she replies. She adds that after the show, someone came up to her and said they loved the sweatshirt and asked where they could get that brand. “I told them: ‘I painted it on myself.’ I mean, it was a very innocent compliment, but still …”

Seemingly ahead of the curve, in 2012 Riseborough founded Mother Sucker, a production company devoted to creating jobs and telling the stories of women. While she concedes that Hollywood has gone some way in cleaning up its act in the wake of #MeToo, “there is a long, long way to go in terms of who holds the purse-strings, which in any industry has an effect on the decisions that are made. Lots of the people [at the top] haven’t changed. They are the same people but with different company names.”

She adds that the question of representation is far larger than gender. “There are lots of different perspectives to take into account. The racial inequality in this industry is shameful. Everyone needs to feel heard and comfortable. That’s a basic requirement in any workplace.”

I ask her about the culture shock that comes with living as a Briton in Los Angeles. Riseborough originally moved there to be with a former boyfriend, the artist Joe Appel, and stayed on after they split up (she is now in a relationship with the actor Karim Saleh). There’s a moment in Amsterdam where her character, Beatrice, a committed social climber, is talking to her husband at a gala about the future of their marriage when she suddenly spots someone more important, and drifts away. That seems very LA, I say. “Yes, inside of the industry, that’s a very familiar sort of desperation,” Riseborough agrees.

Yet she has worked hard to maintain a life outside her job. “None of my mates are in the industry so we’re all able to be present with one another, at the very least. And, you know, there’s so much to explore there – so much amazing music and food, and there’s fantastic theatre and improvised comedy, too. I go out on hikes a lot, which I love. But best of all,” she adds, with the fervour of a woman who has resorted to sitting next to a radiator in a hotel bathroom in order to defrost, “it’s actually warm.”

Amsterdam and To Leslie are in cinemas now.


Fiona Sturges

The GuardianTramp

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