She’s already played some famous women — Margaret Thatcher and Wallis Simpson among them, the latter in Madonna’s “W.E.” — but British-born actress Andrea Riseborough has remained, Stateside at least, something of an unknown. After stealing scenes from Tom Cruise in this spring’s “Oblivion,” however, that will remain difficult.
Her latest film is director James Marsh’s “Shadow Dancer,” based upon Tom Bradby’s novel. In it, Riseborough plays Collette McVeigh, a single mother in 1990s Belfast who, after getting nabbed in an aborted IRA bomb plot, is given a choice by a steely MI5 officer (Clive Owen): lose everything and go to prison for 25 years, or spy and provide information on her hardliner brothers and other IRA members.
Recently, Riseborough spoke one-on-one with Yahoo! Movies about "Shadow Dancer," her curious past in avant-garde music, what she enjoys about life in “terrifyingly Republican” Idaho, and what’s next professionally.
Brent Simon: In the United States, people of a certain generation might not have a lot of knowledge about “the troubles,” or learned about it mainly through U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” What was it like growing up under that pervasive threat?
Andrea Riseborough: There were things that I was scared of growing up — one was the war that we were in against Iraq, the first time round. And the other one was the IRA. Those were the two things that really entered my consciousness as being dangerous on a basic level — things that might conscript my father, or blow up a tube station.
Delving a little deeper into researching it, and as my research progressed, I realized that my relationship was really peripheral. Political journalists at the time just weren’t really allowed to report on informers, nor were they allowed to report on a huge amount of what was going on in Northern Ireland. Our government at the time, as you know, under Margaret Thatcher, had quite freely given many unjust orders. So it affected so much of my life as a child, but with so little real information. The threat was ever-present but the facts were unclear.
BS: You could take the logline for this movie and think it was something much more action-oriented. There’s a remove from traditional spy elements, and a stillness to your character. Was that part and parcel to the novel?
AR: The stillness came from me. Tom had written a script where Collette talked quite a lot. When you write a script you’re writing it for so many other reasons than what might end up on the screen — you’re writing it to get financed, to get a director attached, to convey a story in the best possible way.
From my perspective, when James sent me the script, he was giving me the script to entice me into playing the part. And the first thing that enticed me was James, because I think he’s an extraordinary filmmaker, and then secondly the situation — but really, Collette’s plight was a plight as of yet [with] no inner life. And that’s for many reasons — all of which I discovered after we stopped her from speaking so much.
I went to Belfast and every time I came back I asked James if we could pare down the dialogue, just chip away at it. … Tom was utterly on board too. It was a different beast than the book, and the film you see on screen was a different beast than the screenplay, which is always the case. I felt that I was kind of a carrier pigeon — going back and forth to Belfast (from where) we were filming in Dublin, I could bring back pieces of authenticity that I felt would be valuable.
BS: You’ve played historical characters, and although here you’re playing a fictional character, the film is set against decidedly real-life circumstances. Does your process change much depending upon the material?
AR: It’s different every time. I really think it has to feel right; it has to be instinctive and appropriate. Mike Leigh taught me this. There’s no point in taking months making a scrapbook of all the pictures of your past and stuff without just owning those memories, you know? You don’t need to invest your time in anything other than knowing the practical things. If you’re going to play a 13-year-old girl in Russia in 1830, she’s not going to know everything about Russian politics. Intellectually it may be interesting, but there’s no point in learning it to forget it.
BS: You mentioned Mike Leigh — did the collaborative manner in which he works spoil you as an actor, or was it special and unto itself?
AR: It’s totally unto itself, and every experience is different with each filmmaker. And something I so enjoy is working in many different ways with different filmmakers. It’s challenging and informative and soulful, and good for you in so many ways. It’s great to keep you open and give you strength as well.
BS: “Oblivion,” with its big budget and co-starring opposite Tom Cruise, comes with its own set of expectations. Did it feel like a big step up, professionally?
AR: It did feel like a big step up. I knew the moment I walked into the room with Tom and Joe (Kosinski) that it was going to be a wonderful working environment and artistically fulfilling. I read that script on a turbulent flight from Idaho to Los Angeles very quickly, and arrived at Tom’s house and it was all very natural and felt like it was supposed to happen. On a very human level you have to sit down with people and know whether that’s going to be the case. And as things have progressed it has felt like a step up, because after all the work I’ve done in Europe I’m now having the same kind of presence here in the U.S.
BS: And you’ve moved here, right?
AR: Yes, I live in Idaho. It’s no new news, though I guess it’s kind of unusual that I live there, but my partner’s family moved there. He’s not from there. It’s terrifyingly Republican — we’re in a very blue pocket in a very red state. But there’s wonderful counterculture there, and wonderful ecologically-minded people, progressive thinkers, and a fantastic music scene and idyllic country that is so beautiful. I live in the middle of a forest, with elk and coyote.
BS: You also recorded music when you were younger?
AR: Oh gosh, a million years ago. I once went into a pub in Newcastle and there was this tune of mine playing — not because it was ever released on anything. The things that we would do were very odd and experimental. It was me talking about having a tiny crocodile in the palm of my hand. I was in a collective of 17 people with a Portuguese emcee, a drummer, someone who was really good on the bongos, some guitarists. It was fascinating, I’m not saying it was good but we sang madrigals at (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) over and over, so I’m very good at an eight-part harmony.
BS: And you also just finished Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman.” What sort of character do you play?
AR: She has no filter, she’s a lowbrow Angelean actress. She’s in New York and has an older boyfriend, played by Michael Keaton, and says whatever comes into her mind. She is vivacious and prepared to sleep with anything that walks — she’s highly sexed. She’s really wonderful to play, and we had such great fun making that movie. It was almost like filming a play.
See Andrea Riseborough in the "Shadow Dancer" theatrical trailer...