Exclusive! Oscar Nominee Andrea Riseborough on 'To Leslie,' Pandemic Productions and Meeting Madonna

Before her controversial Oscar nod, Andrea Riseborough talked to Parade about her star turn in the addiction-themed drama and more.

Since its premiere at SXSW earlier this year, director Michael Morris and screenwriter Ryan Binaco's To Leslie garnered widespread praise from critics, most notably for a spellbinding central performance from Andrea Riseborough. The Oscar-nominated, SAG Award-winning actor plays a hard-partying West Texas single mother who wins a $190,000 lottery, only to squander it just as quickly—and it may be her career-best work (so far).

To Leslie is small-scale, credibly gritty indie cinema that doesn't shy away from the peaks and valleys of emotions that come with the subject matter. It's a study of an alcoholic and the lives she touches that's often harrowing and ultimately quite touching. Riseborough's riveting turn is the spinal column of a frank, personal picture the writer based on his own mother. Supporting turns from Allison Janney, Marc Maron and Owen Teague shine.

To Leslie is far from the only project the English actress filmed during the pandemic. Among many others, and also released (exclusively in theaters) on Friday, is David O. Russell's period murder mystery Amsterdam, co-starring Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and John David Washington.

Parade.com spoke exclusively with Riseborough about To Leslie, and the trials and triumphs of filming through a pandemic.

Related: 30 of the Best Movies About Addiction and Alcoholism 

You had a working relationship with Michael Morris prior to this film from collaborating on Bloodline. What else about To Leslie stood out, and made it clear this was your next project? 

Certainly, firstly, Michael, because he was the beacon of stability in an episodic world of confusion for me on Bloodline, in the sense that, I'm very used to having one director in film, the whole way through the process. There are so many directors in episodic work. Michael was holding the heart of the piece at all times. He was the person I most bonded with, in terms of knowing where we needed to go emotionally in the landscape of the show. We had a great relationship.

And Ryan, our screenwriter, is a brilliant writer who'd written a screenplay about something very personal to him, about his own mother. That felt very special. Michael had wanted to do it with me and imagined me playing the part. We talked about it for two or three years before we made it, at the height of the pandemic at the end of 2020.

How was the process of filming at the height of the pandemic?

The barrenness of it felt strangely fitting because it made Leslie feel so constantly abandoned and detached.

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In his review of Clean and Sober, Roger Ebert once theorized Hollywood avoids stories like these because surrender and recovery are "too depressing." That seems to be a long-standing perception, but because addiction is so widespread, is it perhaps fair to assume audiences may actually want more of this, especially if it's done well?

It's interesting because I think the more you're candid and transparent about the reality of the vast number of people who are in a relationship with alcoholism in some way in their lives, the more you unearth how that feels, the better you feel—because we feel less alone. So in a sense, the subject is deeply sad, but it's also deeply true. One does think, is the value in, after the fact having watched a piece like this, feeling less alone? Even though it may be difficult to watch.

Alcoholism is so internal that it's rather infamously tough to represent on-screen, though it has been done. To Leslie really captures a soul who's suffering from it with grace and fidelity. 

I think so often human beings are misrepresented in cinema. I say that a lot, but I really believe it; our industry is such an influential one. The more we kind of dumb ourselves down, use generic phrases and stop exploring language, the harder it is to look at the realities of life; there's peace in being candid about how difficult things are, but also being able to enjoy the gallows humor of it, and I think there's plenty of that where Leslie is concerned.

Did you have any apprehension about playing a character who experiences this level of demoralization and despair in the disease?

Only really where I'd have to go internally. And I knew there was no other way; I wanted to do it, and I was going to do it. I knew there was going to be some catharsis about it. In a sense, this character in my life, I'm playing the person I've been in a relationship with, if you know what I mean. To immerse myself in that experience that many, many of us have in the world because around one alcoholic is hundreds of people they touch. Especially beforehand, it's riddled with deep anxiety and difficult to get through. I weighed about 85 pounds! It certainly got to the point where my exterior matched what was going on inside.

Andrea Riseborough in "To Leslie"<p>Momentum Pictures</p>
Andrea Riseborough in "To Leslie"

Momentum Pictures

Did playing Leslie leave any imprint on you?

Honestly, just huge gratitude. I think after you finish a kind of exorcism [laughs], along with the catharsis comes a huge sense of safety and relief, because you then return to your own psychology; it's like having swam for 20 miles and having reached a rock, just having a moment to pant and be wet! Yeah, I think mostly gratitude, because... what's the phrase? "There but for the grace of God go I."

Also a sense of—I don't really want to say pride, because it doesn't feel like that— perhaps even disbelief that somebody would let you play their mother. What a mantle; what a great deal of trust that must demand.

Though it was shot in California, To Leslie and its performances really capture the South beautifully. Authentic, not condescending. What kind of work went into that? 

I mapped out [Leslie]'s life, and all the places she stayed. Leslie was on the road quite a lot; she didn't have the money to travel far, but she was Greyhound to Greyhound in different places at different times in her life. I find it very useful to be specific about that: where she grew up, and things that affected her. I've spent a great deal of time all over the South, and a great deal of time in Texas. There are some really extraordinary images when you get into the recorded history of Texas. Still photography is such a wonderful way into a tone; it's almost like being a detective when you see a still image of something. You see something that you might miss when it's moving.

Although we shot it in Los Angeles I feel the designers in every way respected the feeling, tone and texture of the landscape there. It was an even more difficult feat because it was during the pandemic.

Related: The Best Movies Ever Made About Mental Health

What else can you tell us about COVID production in general? 

It was soulless, in many ways. It was a faceless experience, in so many ways frustrating. We had a brilliant COVID medical team, and there was a great sense of triumph in so many people working on a the film at a time when so many people were struggling for work. It felt like a great thing.

It was very intense. Surrounded by people, but deeply lonely. If we still consider ourselves now at the tail end of what we call the pandemic I've been a part of, I think, 12 pieces of work in that time.

The best scene in To Leslie—one of the best scenes in any movie this year—is a long-tracking shot of Leslie, who's once again wasted at last call in the town's bar, while Willie Nelson's "Are You Sure" plays over the bar's speakers. It is so powerfully acted; we can see her struggle, even through a glazed-over look, and a body that perhaps hasn't caught up to her mind. Was this shot written in the script just as it is?

It was in many ways. I mean, the shot is not written. Ryan is the kind of respectful screenwriter who's very willing to trust a cinematographer [laughs]. There are some cinematographers who aren't as much, and I always find that a little arduous myself because it doesn't lend itself to a lot of freedom. We had an extraordinary DP on this [Larkin Seiple, who also shot Everything, Everywhere All At Once].

He and Michael had created this slow-tracking shot. The song just happens to come on at that moment, and that just happens to be the moment Leslie is ready to surrender, to shed a layer of the cocoon. She sort of comes to acceptance in that moment I think, about where she is.

Related: Willie Nelson's Net Worth Means a Lot of Green

Of course, we have to ask what it's like working with Allison Janney.

Oh my goodness. To be around Allison is to be around greatness; there aren't many ways of saying that. She is a hugely kind and generous performer, an actor among actors in every sense and a team player. Just a joy, very lighthearted and wise. As difficult as the scenes are for Leslie in relationship to Allison's character, there was an adrenal surge attached to those scenes that were not only about what Leslie was feeling but also about being met with the type of performer that Allison is.

She's able to channel pure love and hate, judgment—anything she wants to channel she's able to channel. As a performer, it's one of those things you often have to manufacture for yourself, and rarely get to, but when you're someone extraordinary like Allison, there's a sense of ease and total abandon. The most inspiring playfellow on and offscreen.

Let's talk about Mandy and its legacy. That's one of the best genre movies of the 21st century, and it came out of left field for audiences and reminded us all why we adore Nicolas Cage. Could you tell you were working on something so incredibly special?

Yes, I could. There was, I'd say, a peppering of confusion among the people who represent me in relation to why I was so willing to go to a forest in Belgium to do this with Nic Cage. I explained that, more than anything, the reason to go to this place was Panos [Cosmatos]. I sent everybody his first film. I said to them, "Chainsaw fight aside, a man trying to escape existential black glob aside in his first film, Panos has relayed to me that this piece is about the loss of his parents, and dealing with that loss."

There's no genre for that film for me. It's innovative, extraordinary filmmaking, and it transcends any bracket. That's what's special about it, in the way you wouldn't call Kubrick a "horror director." Panos' vision is limitless, and he's very very quick. Very sure about what he wants, to an arresting degree, and a very kind and gentle person.

Andrea Riseborough in "To Leslie"<p>Momentum Pictures</p>
Andrea Riseborough in "To Leslie"

Momentum Pictures

Related: Mandy Is Nicolas Cage At His Very Best

A lot of the time, directors who make very good, very scary or disturbing horror films are strikingly kind and empathetic in person.

Perhaps that's how they deal with the darkness. I don't know; I tend not to watch horror myself. I had another brief foray into horror when I made The Grudge. I had so many hopes for that, because the director was an independent filmmaker whose work I really loved. I feel in a way it just became a little too commercial, a little too much of a hybrid, and really was ultimately less exciting than I was hoping.

I'm not very comfortable in that space: horror, genre. Where I started was Shakespeare; theater and literature is very much what I'm driven by. I have a huge appreciation for any director in any area who's willing to do something that is so authentic and timeless. [Mandy] is timeless in a really unusual way. Because it's true fantasy in so many ways. And I loved playing Mandy, because she was so...freed. And her life with Red, until her untimely end was this glorious expression of freedom.

Many fans and even critics cite Mandy as their favorite Nicolas Cage performance. What is he like behind the scenes?

He's just astoundingly ... committed is the best word, astoundingly committed to whichever story he's telling. I think that's hugely admirable. And I really enjoyed working with him, because we're both very, very quiet. We often sat together in total silence just next to each other for long periods of time, just waiting for setups. He seems to have a very full internal life. I quite enjoy exploring my own at work, in those moments of reflection between scenes. It felt familiar to me.

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It's been four years, and at this point it's safe to call that film iconic.

It was sort of confusing, the Halloween before the pandemic, I left my house, and people were... Mandy. It was a strange experience.

You also star in Amsterdam, opening the same day as To Leslie. What can you tell us about your experience working with David O. Russell?

It was such a pleasure. It's so unusual to be so challenged creatively. Having trained as an actor, there's nothing more satiating than being met with a director who steps into the ring demanding as much as you want to give, if you're that kind of performer. Watching the film in its final incarnation for the first time last night, because I've seen different incarnations along the way at different moments, was really moving. I don't think without him those elevated performances would be remotely possible.

In 2012, you collaborated with Madonna on W.E., and she was remarkably outspoken about her admiration of your talent, and how much she enjoyed working with you. Do you still keep in touch with Madonna?

Of course, she's still a dear friend. Yes, I sang her "Happy Birthday" a few weeks ago. She lives admirably in so many ways, because she's ever-evolving. I think that's obvious to those of us who've had the chance to know her more intimately, or to those of us who look on from afar.

Actually, that's quite intoxicating to be around, and inspiring. That sounds like a banal thing to say, doesn't it? "Oh, it's inspiring to be around Madonna!" But I mean truly, genuinely, having had the great fortune to meet lots of people who are very much in the public eye, through my work—she is a constant source of inspiration and strength.

Related: Madonna's 100 Best Songs Yet

She is incredible, and she absolutely continues to inspire people all over the world.

When you say incredible, she's actually incredible. It's amazing that she has the capacity to be so prolific.

From Momentum Pictures, To Leslie is now in theaters and on digital platforms. 

Next, check out the 100 best movies of all time.