Andrea Riseborough is living proof that you should never presume to know what you’re going to get when you meet an actor. It’s common knowledge that this 31-year-old Brit nabbed American viewers’ attention in W.E., Madonna’s divisive drama that cast Riseborough as the glamorous (and infamous) Wallis Simpson. What’s not as well known is that the actress has been a star in her native U.K. for some time now, with roughly a decade’s worth of theater credits behind her, as well as a smattering of major roles in English TV series. What may be lesser known still is that Riseborough is wickedly intelligent, and startlingly adept at articulating her understanding of her characters and the world around her. As consumers, we’re trained to link our entertainers to their on-screen personas, and sometimes the tether between truth and fiction does prove short, for better or worse. With Riseborough, the link is imperceptible, and even after chatting with her, it’s hard to tell if that’s because she’s cunning, cagey, or just that good of an actress.
As we talk, Riseborough seems to avoid a lot of discussion of W.E., perhaps because she’d rather not be defined by a role that was labeled a breakout, but came after years of work that was equally meaningful. She also has a tendency to grab the reins of the conversation, which is jarring until she starts spouting interview gold. This season, Riseborough has four drastically different films in release: Disconnect, which sees her playing a New York reporter investigating Internet chat sites; Oblivion, in which she acts opposite Tom Cruise as a post-apocalypse corporate drone; Welcome to the Punch, which casts her as the partner of a vengeful detective; and Shadow Dancer, the latest from James Marsh, opening today. In the latter film, Riseborough plays Colette, a conflicted IRA member in 1990s Belfast, whose tricky connection to an MI5 agent (Clive Owen) makes her situation that much more precarious. An unnerving and layered feat of largely wordless emotion, Riseborough’s turn may just be 2013’s best female performance thus far, and a testament to the wisdom and mystery of a talent who seems adamantly unclassifiable. But don’t let me keep telling you what makes the work tick—leave that to the actress herself.
I was watching a documentary this morning about the making of W.E., and in it, Madonna points out that you have a face that can express a wide range of emotions, even ages. Growing up, can you remember watching any actresses you felt had a similar quality? Or perhaps just actresses you wanted to emulate?
I admire a great many actresses. I’ve never specifically thought to myself about ones that have this particular quality, and that’s why I admire them. There are so many fantastic actresses to admire. It’s hard; it’s such a vast answer. Because it’s really such a formative thing; it goes back to being three years old and watching black-and-white movies on the television. It’s so much a part of all of our subconscious now. Especially in the age that we grew up. You know, having a television in your house constantly, having actors constantly around you, watching more actors than real people.
In that same documentary, in regard to your rehearsal process, you described it as one in which you “learn it, and then forget it,” so you can be more naturally pushed to certain dramatic ends. Is that a philosophy that’s stuck with you?
Well, if you’re playing a character who existed, like Wallis Simpson, you sort of receive them—what there is of them to receive—and then just let them live in you. And just trust that through sheer osmosis, they’re in there. And then forget about that. That’s a very, very small part of what is a huge process.
And what about in your portrayals of fictional characters?
Well, with each different character you play, I think, instinctively, you know the appropriate way to approach them. When I say “appropriate,” it sounds awfully clinical, but I mean emotionally appropriate. And artistically appropriate too. You instinctively know what you need to discover, what you don’t need to know, the things that might have affected the character physically in [her] world, the emotional events that give them the perspective that they have, and how those perspectives even shape them again physically. There are so many different layers. It’s very difficult until you’re sitting outside of yourself, actually. Like, I’m looking at you now, and I see a whole character. And I know that you’re looking at me and you see a whole character—the furrow in my brow, and things like that.
The furrow in the brow is something we share, actually.
[laughs] Right. So there are so many things that are innately me, or innately you, and some of them are nature and some of them are nurture. But I suppose that’s my job: to make connections between those things I see before me now, with you, for example, or with any character, and where they’ve come from in their life.
So often, we viewers who watch a lot of films will see a great actor, and no matter how much work that actor may have under his or her belt, we’ll hope that a director will come along and give the actor a role that will really expose his or her talents to the world. Can you recall having that kind of experience?
I’ve felt so fortunate to be involved with every project that I have. Shortly after I left RADA [The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] I worked with Peter Hall, very quickly. And Peter, at the time, and even from being a small child, represented the holy grail of all theater work for me. I was performing at the Royal Shakespeare Company—it was a huge thing. And it has been like that every step of the way in my life. I’m so grateful that I’ve gotten to work with Mike Leigh, and Roger Michell, and Alejandro Innáritu [on his upcoming film Birdman]. Just incredible directors. But in answer to your question, the first time that happened, and when I felt that, in a public way, was when I played Margaret Thatcher [in BBC Four’s 2008 drama The Long Walk to Finchley].