Talulah Riley Is Exploring the Past on Screen and the Future on the Page

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Talulah Riley spends a lot of time with literary characters. As a novelist, she’s created several elaborate worlds; as an actress, her first major onscreen role was portraying Mary Bennet in “Pride & Prejudice.” Her latest project, Danny Boyle’s musical series “Pistol,” has her straddling the worlds of fiction and reality.

The British actress portrays Vivienne Westwood in the new series, which is based on the memoir “Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol” by the band’s guitarist Steve Jones.

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“I’ve never played a real person before,” says Riley. “So there was a whole weight of responsibility that comes with that. It’s a bit intimidating, because it’s somebody’s life. And what we’re making is a piece of art — it’s not really somebody’s life, and the Vivienne that I’ve portrayed in the series isn’t really Vivienne, but it will be down [in the public record] as a version of her. People invest so much in television, it might be a version that people absolutely believe in,” she adds. “And so you want to try and get that right.”

Riley’s casting was 10 years in the making; she first auditioned for Boyle 10 years ago in Los Angeles, for a different project. Before she even stepped into the room, the director let her know that she was too young for the part being cast.

“I left the room thinking, gosh, I’m sad that I can’t get that part. I’d love to work with Danny Boyle. And then 10 years later, [casting] was like, ‘do you want to get on Zoom to audition for Danny Boyle?’” says Riley, who currently lives in the countryside outside of Cambridge. “So finally my wish was fulfilled a decade later.”

Sydney Chandler as Chrissie Hynde, Talulah Riley as Vivienne Westwood in a still from “Pistol.” - Credit: Miya Mizuno/FX
Sydney Chandler as Chrissie Hynde, Talulah Riley as Vivienne Westwood in a still from “Pistol.” - Credit: Miya Mizuno/FX

Miya Mizuno/FX

Westwood agreed to meet with Riley before they began filming, which helped the actress get a better sense of the designer’s physicality and presence. The actress recalls being struck by the designer’s calm demeanor. “I thought her energy was going to be quite frenetic, but actually she was quite still,” says Riley, countering her own tendency to gesticulate with the designer’s poise. “She was very calm and powerful in her movements.”

Riley describes the series as “unlike anything that’s on TV at the moment” — and a “Danny Boyle classic.”

“The color and the movement are so unique to his way of seeing things,” she says. The series also lent her a new appreciation for punk music and she walked away with a sense of nostalgia for the period of time shortly before she was born.

“It seems very close, but when we were filming it felt like we were doing a period drama, with all the vintage clothes and the cars,” she says, bringing the conversation around to the idea of time and how quickly anything can change. “The ’70s was not that long ago, and yet the world was quite different.”

Riley explores the idea of rapid societal change and time passing in her second novel “The Quickening,” which is being released this summer. The premise of the book is a dystopia in which women have seized political power, set in the near future; the idea for the plot was planted during Hillary Clinton’s run for presidency.

“I assumed that she would win, and that we would have Hillary and Theresa May and Angela Merkel [in power]. And I was like, wow, this is going to be like a lot of the world’s superpowers run by women. And what if that had been a conspiracy of timing; what if it had been like a great feminist plot?” says Riley. “But then obviously things changed. And I started looking at matriarchy in general.”

Her thesis for the novel is that any extremist ideology is bad; any group wanting to maintain total control will have a dark side. The book begins in real time and then jumps ahead to an alternative possible future.

“One of the things I wanted to think about in the book was how quickly things can change in some ways. If you’re someone who is quite idealistic and wishes things could change for the better quickly, I think it’s easy to say, oh, nothing ever changes,” says Riley. (The actress notably has close proximity to a major agent of technological change in society; she was twice married to Elon Musk and lists her former partner in the book’s acknowledgements section at the end.) “But actually change happens incredibly fast. And if you look at technology, the smartphone didn’t exist properly in 2007, and now it’s ubiquitous and completely runs all our lives.”

While her work as an actress and writer are distinct, both offer the opportunity to drive conversation.

“Fiction is a really good tool for understanding, and especially in today’s political and media climate as everything’s becoming much more soundbite-y,” says Riley. “It’s becoming harder to have nuanced discussions about things, and that’s why the novel is still a really great way of addressing issues,” she adds. “You think about things in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily otherwise. And that’s where its value is for me, because you don’t have to reach any conclusions.”

Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Malcolm McLaren, Talulah Riley as Vivienne Westwood in a still from “Pistol.” - Credit: Miya Mizuno/FX
Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Malcolm McLaren, Talulah Riley as Vivienne Westwood in a still from “Pistol.” - Credit: Miya Mizuno/FX

Miya Mizuno/FX

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