Alice & Jack, starring Andrea Riseborough and Domhnall Gleeson. Image: Channel 4
New drama Alice & Jack offers a different angle on the question that has intrigued philosophers from Plato to bell hooks to Haddaway: What is love? Where do we find it? Writers from Shakespeare to Jane Austen, Dolly Parton to The Beatles, Kendrick Lamar to Taylor Swift have wrestled with these big questions.
The eight-part series, which stars Andrea Riseborough and Domhnall Gleeson, opens with a voiceover from Gleeson in which his character Jack considers the most powerful emotional connection available to humanity.
“Love is the best thing we have. Maybe after we strip away all the bullshit, it’s the only thing we have,” he says. Is he correct?
“I subscribe to that in every way,” says Riseborough, who is on a flying visit to London – Big Issue interview, appearance on The One Show, screening at Bafta, back to LA. It’s a big question.
“It is. And that’s my answer. It feels like meaning is born from love and misery is born from fear.”
The series charts a complex love story across 16 years, which is almost as long as Riseborough and Gleeson have known each other, since filming Never Let Me Go in 2009.
The story begins, like so many these days, with a date set up via an app. If there is an immediate spark, Alice makes clear she has no plan for a second date. Yet they are drawn to each other. Months or years may pass. Other people are caught in the emotional crossfire. But the power of the connection keeps drawing them into each other’s orbit.
Jack is shy and sensitive, Alice more spiky. Andrea Riseborough is clearly besotted, both with the new series – on which she is also a producer – and her latest alter-ego.
“All of us deserve love,” she says. “It’s difficult to see past Alice’s very honest armour at first.
“But as time goes on, the audience comes to understand exactly why her armour has become so impenetrable. She’s a very funny, odd, brutally honest, detached, loving human. Until she meets Jack, love is not something that she would have entertained as being a possibility.”
For Riseborough, the series serves as a rebuke or corrective to her industry for its failure to depict a wider range of love stories.
“Love belongs to all of us,” she continues. “It’s such a narrow idea, perpetuated often by my industry, that there are only a couple of archetypes of heroes worthy of being at the centre of a story about love. Love has so many different facets. And it manifests in so many different ways. And it’s for all of us. The idea that it shouldn’t be is really damaging.
Riseborough’s career is an object lesson in maintaining artistic integrity. Her breakthrough roles in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky and BBC2’s gone-too-soon political drama Party Animals caught the eye. Startling performances as Margaret Thatcher in The Long Walk To Finchley and heading a cast including Michael Fassbender, John Simm and Dominic West in Channel 4’s The Devil’s Whore won wide acclaim. And key roles in Birdman, Battle Of The Sexes and The Death of Stalin have established Riseborough on a more global stage, while TV projects were well chosen – National Treasure with Julie Walters and Robbie Coltrane, a stunning turn in Agatha Christie’s The Witness For The Prosecution, Black Mirror.
It was not for nothing that The Big Issue once declared her Britain’s most interesting actor. The interest continues. Riseborough was a deserving, but not uncontroversial Best Actress nominee at last year’s Oscars for her searing depiction of addiction in indie film To Leslie.
She has long fought for outsiders – including staunch support for this publication. She has fought for space within her industry for a broader range of stories and storytellers. Or, in her words, “You can only listen to yourself moan for so long before you have to actually pull your finger out of your arse and help give voice to those wonderful stories you see getting left by the wayside.”
To be thrust into the spotlight for the independent, outsider Oscar campaign (albeit one that enlisted some huge names) for To Leslie could have been bruising.
A year on, Riseborough says – simply, quietly, perhaps shrinking into her chair a little – that she is “so grateful that such a vast number of people were able to see that film. Mostly because of the incredible conversations I’ve had with people who have gone through alcoholism or been in close relationship with an addict. To hear how the film had given voice to their experience in a way they felt was really meaningful – I will always be grateful for that.”
Riseborough remains as busy as ever. Two projects with Kate Winslet – political satire The Regime, about the last days of a crumbling, authoritarian dictatorship, and Lee (a biopic of renowned US photojournalist Lee Miller) will be released soon. But has the increased profile of an Oscar nomination helped create and finance the projects she wants to put out into the world more easily?
“The projects I was developing before last year are still the projects that I am currently developing,” she says, leaning forward again, grin returning to her face.
“Things that are really extraordinary, are very, very few and far between. Many voices are not being supported.
“So it takes a lot of work to consistently find new perspectives. But that’s one of the things that really drives me. A lot of these projects are so unique, it won’t be easy to find homes for any of them. But when they do find their homes… the glory will be in that perspective coming to light.”
Difficult stories need telling. And that brings us back to Alice & Jack.
“A lot of this series is centred around the fact that her childhood has not been fun,” Riseborough concludes.
“I’m really thankful to be talking with The Big Issue about Alice & Jack, because I think a lot of people will identify with having had a difficult childhood. It feels important to celebrate characters who may seem a little spicy but may have had things going on that we don’t know about. It makes Alice, I think, as worthy as anybody else of having her great love story told.”
Alice & Jack is on Channel 4 from 14 February
This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!