This time last year, few audiences knew of British star Andrea Riseborough by name. Prior to appearing at Sundance in January, 2012 in support of her staggering performance in James Marsh’s IRA thriller “Shadow Dancer,” the 31-year-old Royal Academy of Dramatic Art graduate had appeared as a scene-stealing supporting player in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Never Let Me Go,” “Made in Dagenham” and “Brighton Rock,” as well as Wallis Simpson (aka the Duchess of Windsor) in Madonna’s “W.E.” But it wasn’t until this spring’s Tom Cruise-starring sci-fi blockbuster “Oblivion” that many moviegoers finally got their Riseborough fix. Her revelatory performance as Cruise’s mysterious romantic and work partner was more transfixing than the bulk of CGI wonders on display.
In “Shadow Dancer” (out this Friday) Riseborough is afforded one of her most challenging roles to date as Collette McVeigh, an active member in the IRA longing to get out. She gets the chance to do just that when she comes in contact with MI5 officer Mac (Clive Owen), who wants her to work as an informant — or else she goes to prison and never sees her son again.
Below is an interview conducted with Riseborough the day following the Sundance premiere of “Shadow Dancer.”
So my first and most pressing question: how tired are you?
On a scale of ‘not’ to ‘tired,’ I’d say I’m about an 8.
I think I’ve got two left in me (laughs).
This past year’s been a total whirlwind for you. You’ve been promoting Madonna’s film all over the States and the UK for the Weinstein PR machine, all while shooting what seems like an endless stream of projects. And now you’re here! What’s this whole ride been like for you?
It’s something that’s familiar to me in the sense that I’ve done it in Europe for a long time. And certainly it’s much newer for me here. So I’m used to it in one sense, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to be completely used to it. It’s an extraordinary situation, in the sense that you sit and talk to people like yourself who you only have a connection with for a moment, and then life goes on and you never see them again. You talk about something that you’re incredibly passionate about and you do that perhaps, you know, 50 times in a day.
I think the other thing is, when you talk about something that you’re very passionate about, after the fact, you so enjoy letting go of it and analyzing it. And you want to discuss something new every time you have a conversation about it because it’s very close to your heart. So I never wanted to cut off and be remote about it, if you know what I mean.
Was Wallis Simpson close to your heart?
Of course, of course.
More so than other roles?
I wouldn’t say more so. I think every character is. They have to be or really you shouldn’t be playing them (laughs).
Both Wallis in “W.E.” and Collette McVeigh in “Shadow Dancer” are incredibly strong-willed women. But whereas Wallace is fiercely outspoken, Colette seems to internalize everything.
They’re in two very different situations, really. I think that’s the reason that they express themselves in the way that they do.
Now you didn’t go from shooting “W.E.” to “Shadow Dancer,” did you?
No, I didn’t. After “W.E.,” I filmed “Resistance.” Then I filmed something else in Los Angeles and then I filmed “Shadow Dancer,” and then after that I filmed “Welcome to the Punch” and then “Disconnect,” and now I’m doing the Tom Cruise film.
It’s funny because they often don’t come out sequentially. And then you’re revisiting something that you filmed two years ago and then you’re revisiting something that you just finished. So that is odd. There was no marked transition from one to the other.
What about “Shadow Dancer” appealed to you?
The situation is the first thing that appealed to me because the role, the way that we developed the character, was something that James [Marsh] and I collaborated on. And James is totally wonderful to work with. He has a very brilliant mind and he’s incredibly supportive and he’s just full of empathy. It was really, really wonderful. We had a great time.
It was hard and harrowing, of course. The subject matter’s not breezy. There are no moments of frivolity, but there’s a lot of love and a lot of hope. So it was the situation that the character was in and the situation that she’s in. She’s really trapped by the thing she’s trying to protect, which is her family. And her political beliefs have led her quite far away from her very young son. She’s a very young mother and she’s really fighting for her own and for her son’s life. I think that’s really as much as I can say without ruining anything.
Given that you lived through the bit of history this film depicts, how close is the project to you?
Before I came to the project it was certainly part of my life because I’m British and it’s a formative part of my upbringing. Did I understand it or have an emotional connection with it more than I do now? Certainly not. As you know, because you’re the expert on this, when you research into anything, it takes a pretty short time before you realize that you’ve either been fed many lies or there’s a public perception of demonization — manufactured truths. It was a really, really fascinating and valuable experience working on this film. Truly fascinating.And when you speak of your collaborative experience with James, what kind of work did you two do prior to shooting this film?
The blueprint was there, so he was very ego-less about wanting to make it work. And it’s not something that felt like we had to fix because it was so wonderful in the beginning. Our process was really a separate preparation and then shooting.
There are so many private things in that world that are wrought with paranoia. Everything is so private that really we were all allowed our own relationship with the story. James is very protective of that and supportive in that way.
That paranoia you’re speaking of is expressed so vividly in the film. For the first few scenes, you’re never really sure where the film’s going, who your character is, why Clive Owen’s character is interrogating you. Hardly any context is given.
Yeah, that was one of the things that kind of interested me most. I just think that we have such a vivid-minded, brilliant, bright film going audience internationally. And we should never really forget that. I thought it was wonderful to see it unravel and not be able to place it immediately. We shouldn’t have the security of knowing exactly which fraught political situation we are in without allowing the characters to enter into our hearts first. And so I thought that was the most brilliant way to explore it.
It’s that mysterious quality of your performance that made you so fascinating to watch. Collette hardly utters a word in the film; everything’s conveyed in her eyes. What was it like playing a character who doesn’t express herself vocally?
I think very familiar in lots of ways. It was desperately fighting through the anxiety, the terror of jeopardizing her son’s life and her own and an inability to escape — this paranoia stemming from the discovery of betrayal that forced her into a state of verbal paralysis and almost calm. I think that really that’s the key.
It must be so, so very difficult to get through life with that kind of anxiety. I mean, it must be horrendous.
I kept expecting Collette to have her breakdown scene, but that never happens.
Because the stakes are too high. There are certainly moments where a little air is let out of the balloon. There are little moments of release, little moments like that — a euphoric misery because of the desperation of the situation. But there are also so many moments of happiness, in the sense that her son gives her total joy. She loves and has always been surrounded by a very loyal family. So that’s the thing that’s most trapping for her.
Given that you had to bottle her rage in, did you take this character home with you? As you’re talking to me now, I can sense you’re still deeply connected to her.
I think it’s just impossible not to take them home. But I’m sure you can imagine it’s just that thing of totally immersing yourself in it. Not only in them, but also in their world. You kind of have a dualism with which you approach the world because for a time I’ll see things through your eyes and then having another kind of perception of the world. Whatever you see, you have sort of two opinions about it and you don’t really put that down until you’ve finished the project. Until, of course, you play something else. Then that’s a completely different perspective.
I think that’s one of the most wonderful things about acting. That’s one of the reasons I’m most excited about what I do because I feel that it might even afford us the chance to have many great, very different perspectives on the world. And that’s a great thing. The fortunate thing, of course, is that I can pick it up, put it down and walk away from it. I’m not trapped in that situation.
Was last night the first time you saw the film?
Where did you see it first?
I saw it with one of my representatives and it was just us watching it. And I think last night when I watched it, I watched it far more with my heart at the front of my mouth. Because it really felt like the whole room was going through it together. I could hear people breathe. And it was very exciting.
What’s it like watching yourself on screen? You’re almost in every frame of this film.
I think it’s something you get kind of used to. You can almost sit there and watch it objectively as if they’re a different person and then have those emotions again, but have them as an onlooker. It’s terribly embarrassing when you make yourself laugh or cry. Like to somebody sitting next to you, “I’m sorry, sorry! It’s the mood it’s the tone, it wasn’t me.”