When pushed, on a recent photoshoot, Andrea Riseborough came up with short description of herself: “A Geordie punk who started out in classical theatre.” Hearing it quoted back to her, she’s cringing. “So embarrassing,” she says. “The last thing you want to say if you even lean remotely towards punk is ‘I am a punk’. But it is the easiest shorthand to say: ‘Please don’t put me in a frock.’” She may cringe now, but there is merit in her label. Nothing is conventional.
Since breakout roles in 2007’s political drama Party Animals and with Michael Fassbender in C4 English Civil War epic The Devil’s Whore, Riseborough has danced through the mainstream while retaining her outsider edge.
From playing Margaret Thatcher in The Long Walk to Finchley to a striking Ford worker in Made in Dagenham and Wallis Simpson in W.E., directed by Madonna, she is scarcely recognisable as the same actor from one project to the next. But success left her listless. A change came after playing the supplicant sidekick to aging action hero Tom Cruise in Oblivion.
I felt like I had jumped into a melting pot where I had to fit in
“I felt I misrepresented myself so gravely over the years by thinking that, in order to work at that level, I needed to be from the same place as everyone else,” says Riseborough.
“I never really lost it, but having a working class sensibility was not encouraged as an artist, no matter what the fuck anyone says. I felt like I had jumped into a melting pot where I had to fit in. And I very much lost a sense of myself.”
So how did she re-find it?
A pause. A wry laugh. A revelation. “Well, I think not doing rubbish movies was a huge part of it. I made some studio pictures and that is what did it. That is what made me feel soulless.”
Many actors veer from indie films to blockbusters with ease, but those roles don’t sit well with Riseborough, who did her reading in libraries, quit school and worked in a Chinese restaurant before Rada, and who can reel off an impressive music playlist, from Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain to Weyes Blood.
Her response to feeling alienated within the mainstream was emphatic. She set up production company Mother Sucker, took a role in Birdman, then returned to British TV, nearly acting Robbie Coltrane and Julie Walters off the screen in C4’s National Treasure (above). The complexity she brought to Dee, who was struggling with addiction and mental health issues, should attract attention come awards season. “As dark as Dee was, there was some kind of sinister hilarity to everything she says,” recalls the 35-year-old.
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A mesmerising performance in The Witness for the Prosecution, as actress, singer, survivor and titular witness Romaine Heilger, who beguiled Toby Jones’ hapless lawyer, suggests Riseborough, in her roundabout way, is becoming one of Britain’s most watchable actors – with a range to rival Walters or Judi Dench.
“Telling the story against the backdrop of the First World War, you see how crippled the youth were by the trauma,” she says. “I thought a lot about my great grandad who died in the war. How young he was.”
Soon, she’ll join Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin and Steve Buscemi in Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin. She also plays Billie Jean King’s ex-lover Marilyn Barnett in Battle of the Sexes. “I don’t usually say yes this often,” she says. “But these projects came up, with characters I felt I could tickle off the page and explore. I have never done a job that wasn’t tough. That is the work I enjoy. When you are acting moments of real happiness, you feel so joyful. And the darker moments affect you physiologically, just like in life. It is firing off all sorts of synapses, triggering all sorts of physical things from old experience.
I have an entirely female-run company. I’m interested in diversity in every area in life
“In Battle of the Sexes I play the freedom and light and joy of the film, a carefree, liberated character, which makes a change. And working with a friend of mine, Emma Stone – for an intimate love story, that felt very comfortable.”
Mother Sucker go into production with Nancy, a thriller centred on that screen rarity, a female anti-hero, later this year. “I have an entirely female-run company. I’m interested in diversity in every area in life. That is one of my passions,” she says.
“Julie Walters and I talked about it. When she came out there was Michael Caine, herself, a really interesting wave of working class actors. We talked about how bored we are with seeing posh British people swanning around.
“The film industry represents such a small portion of the population, rather than a huge and diverse spectrum in terms of class and race. It is difficult to reach everybody when the work we make is only about a privileged few whose lives don’t relate to the majority.”
Our interview takes place hours after the US election result and politics looms large.
“Right now I am in McDonough, Georgia, where Burden [a film about a couple seeking to break free from the Ku Klux Klan] is being filmed. On every other lawn there is a Trump sign, so I have not felt it is a surprise,” she says.
“It’s funny. I moved to middle America for years. People would ask me why I lived in Idaho. What? Are we supposed to segregate or something? I don’t feel I have lived in the bubble. I was in London for a bit but travelled around filming as soon as I left Rada. People still ask if I miss London. Erm, I’m from Newcastle! I can’t stand anything more than conservative liberals who are terrified of thinking outside the box. I don’t believe that is being liberal. Being liberal, to me, means to retain an open mind.”
“I am really, really so pleased you wanted to speak to me because The Big Issue is my favourite publication in Britain,” says Riseborough. Keep talking. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
“It is the magazine I have looked at most in my life. I remember saying to my agent when I would do the glossy magazines: ‘Yeah, but what about The Big Issue?’ They were like: ‘Andrea, you are not famous enough to be in The Big Issue. They really want to sell copies of that one!’ I have seen it on the street every day, I have got to know people who sold it to me over the years, and find it diverse and interesting. I don’t buy magazines from shops. But I feel it represents a lot of people and groups, your magazine. It is not about just selling people shit. I have faith it is all happening for a good reason, and that makes me feel good about buying it.”
Andrea Riseborough – great talent, great taste in magazines…