This month’s Alliance of Women Film Journalists SPOTLIGHT is on quadruple talent Andrea Riseborough, who in addition to writing, acting, and producing, has recently added directing to her arsenal of skills and cache of passions. If her name only barely rings a bell, don’t worry. As a performer, Riseborough is a chameleon who prefers to slip herself completely into each acting role. She never looks the same way twice. In fact, even if fans have been following her career since her first appearance, they are still unlikely to know her real hair color. They may not even be able to recognize her on the street. In speaking to Riseborough about her career and latest role as producer and star of the indie release Nancy, she makes it clear she couldn’t care less about celebrity recognition.
Riseborough is the sort of powerhouse performer and filmmaker who wants to be known for her substance, her talent, and the messages she conveys with the work she does. That is as it should be, but, as Andrea will tell you, is far from the way it is. Says the actress, “I think many women would have carved out careers like that, had they the opportunity. Men can do it because there are more intricately penned roles, and we lack that as women. I think it’s more that certainly because of the men in power, there weren’t those roles written or available. Also every female actor feels the pressure to take roles where they use female sexuality as currency, rather than being able to branch out, and play lots of different characters. Over time, that can be really difficult and make women bitter to be in that position.”
CHOOSING ROLES WITH SUBSTANCE
Certainly Riseborough knows a thing or two about navigating the world of film as a woman of substance. She has been acting ever since the 90s, when she was a teenager living in Whitley Bay, on the north coast of England. She attended the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and very quickly started getting work. She chose her roles very carefully, focusing on complicated characters, or when necessary, adding substance and depth to what was written on the page. Every character has been made compelling in her hands, and casting agents have increasingly recognized her value. She has a fascinating and diverse CV, especially, or perhaps in spite of, being a woman.
In her latest film, Nancy, releasing this month, Riseborough bravely plays a woman bereft, one without options and quietly desperate to find an identity and a place in life where she connects, where she matters. Makeup-less and with an almost blank expression, Riseborough reveals her character’s troubled soul, delivering a performance that carries the film. The authenticity of her pathos and mystery are undeniable. Riseboorough again pushes her own envelope, as she has done from the beginning.
FROM THE BEGINNING
Only a few years out of RADA, in 2008, she had a featured role in Mike Leigh’s sublime Happy-Go-Lucky. Also that year, she played Margaret Thatcher in the TV movie The Long Walk to Finchley, which garnered her a BAFTA Best Actress nomination. In 2010, she was nominated for Best Actress and Most Promising Newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards for Brighton Rock, in which she worked with Helen Mirren. The BIFAs knew a rising star when they saw one, awarding her Best Actress for her work in 2012’s Shadow Dancer, in which she starred with Clive Owen. Through her career, she has been one of the most sought-after actresses in the indie world, but Riseborough rose to prominence and the A-list in both Hollywood and the British film industry in 2014 as part of the award-winning ensemble cast of Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
She has always found the experience of performing in television and film as challenging, but she is quick to say she is aware of her good fortune in working with some of the best directors. “’I’ve been so privileged to be a part of projects that have pushed the world of film forward, working with directors like Mike Leigh and Alejandro Inarritu. There’s never been a ‘before’ or ‘after’ time in my career. I’ve had an unusual career in that sense. I am a reasonably attractive woman, but I don’t like to play characters that look like me in real life, because they are so limited in scope and so one-dimensional. It can get really distressing. I’ve really loved every character I’ve played as an opportunity to explore somebody else’s rhythm, and life and perspective on the world. That’s what really interests me.”
BUILDING WHAT SHE WANTS
There have been a number of times when a role has been written for a man, but Riseborough convinced those in charge into changing the gender, or they changed it because they needed to add more female roles. She has always favored the plays of Shakespeare. Performing in them as part of her training and as a professional has been rewarding in part because of the compelling, well written female characters. Of these altered roles in her career, she says, “There have been cases where I haven’t known until later. Sometimes the character is changed because there weren’t enough women in the script. The part that I play in Disconnect with Jason Bateman and Alexander Skarsgard, my character was originally a guy. I think writing in a gender or non-gender specific way is an interesting conversation we have to carry on having, in terms of how it can change film to authentically and responsibly reflect the world’s demographics.”
SHAKESPEARE AND GENDER
I feel like my great love of Shakespeare comes partly from the fact that he was essentially writing for one sex. He wrote Juliet, and so many others, knowing they would be played by his favorite young male actors. Those roles transcend gender. Some of the female characters in Shakespeare are so strong and complex, and he was writing them for young boys playing women. If women were playing those roles, I don’t know if he would have been able to do that. When I read a lot of Shakespearean characters, I feel a kinship to them, because they are so human. It’s not about their strength, how they would react as women, or what their roles should be, as we so often see now. I think cinema has gotten into a really bad rut, and it’s become really stereotypical and not very representative. The whole LGBTQ community is so rarely seen in any real way. It all gets really boring.”
She was particularly grateful to have been able to flip the gender in the Crocodile episode of Black Mirror. “People were very worried that no one was going to have sympathy for a woman who committed that crime. My response was, that that was all the more reason that we should do it. If you think there is going to be a different response if it’s a man or a woman, or the character is transgender, if there’s a gendered response, if the response is going to be different depending on what gender occupies that space, we should definitely use a woman. Why would people judge a woman in a different way for that crime than they would a man? It’s great that we managed to do it. It was a bumpy road but we got there. The director, John Hillcoat, was wonderful, and from the beginning when I mentioned it to him and made my case, he really wanted Mia to be a woman.”
ADDING TO HER HYPHENATES
This year has been one in which Riseborough has really hit her stride, in terms of creating work that has been not only well-received, but also a portent of great things to come. More American audiences have been exposed to her talent on the miniseries Waco, for which she got universal acclaim. Coming into 2018, she was part of the ensemble cast of the hilarious critical darling The Death of Stalin, and appeared at Sundance promoting with no less than three films. In Burden, she stars opposite Garrett Hedlund in a film about a Klu Klux Klansman who falls in love with a single mom. She influences him to change his life for the better. In Mandy, she plays the title role opposite Nicholas Cage.
The project that is most representative of her future plans, however, is Nancy, which is co-produced by her new production company, Mother Sucker. It is written and directed by female filmmaker Christina Choe. The lead character, as written by Choe and performed by Riseborough, has the sort of multi-dimensionality she craves and desperately wants to see more frequently reflected onscreen. It was a first for Mothersuckers, and she is now in the planning stages of future projects, in which she will be able to exercise her writing and directing skills.
Says Riseborough, “I’m excited about the opportunity to create something in which I see myself. I’ve never seen that before, and I think that women feel like all over the world. Not just someone who looks like me, but women of color, members of the LGBTQ community, they can barely walk down the street, and ever see themselves reflected back. The representation is incredibly limited. I want to really create a space where not just me, but other women can see themselves, and see what it is to be this ferocious beast that is being female, and that included all women, including trans women. It’s something I’ve wanted to do with my company from the beginning, is stop the misrepresentation of women. It’s such an easy way to control us, to be walking down the street and look up at a billboard, and invariably feel ‘less than’. In the world of women, there is more than just that super thin, sexualized, barely twenty-year-old white girl. That makes women feel like they’re doing it wrong. Joan Didion said it was like standing at the post waiting for a letter, and thinking one day it was going to make sense. You feel like you’re improvising, and everyone else is getting it right. That feeling’s been created and spread across the world, what we’re supposed to be doing and feeling. Don’t be opinionated. There’s a difference between being opinionated, and having opinions. I constantly have people saying to me, in the kindest way, ‘It’s great you’re an opinionated woman’. I think if you look it up in the dictionary, I’m not sure that’s the term we should be using. If a man speaks up, or has ideas, he is considered engaged in the world. If you’re a woman with ideas, you’re opinionated.”
WHY WE CHOSE HER
To be sure, Andrea Riseborough has found a way to not just exist, but to thrive. The film industry is one that, even in the age of the #ItsTime and #MeToo movements, tries to put women both in front of and behind the camera in a box. She is, from firsthand experience, aware of just how far we all still have to go to find equality in the film world, and in expressing ourselves fully as women of all shapes, sizes, and perspectives onscreen. She is an inspiration to anyone who doesn’t want to believe there’s only one way to success. She is showing everyone it’s about speaking up, demanding change, and creating a new space that supports and celebrates diversity. Those of us who want to see ourselves reflected in film must commit to supporting Mother Sucker. Championing women like the multi-talented, passionate Andrea Riseborough, and supporting her in all of her future endeavors, is exactly why we at Alliance of Women Film Journalists do what we do.