This is a reprint of our interview from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
It’s impossible to see “Shadow Dancer,” James Marsh‘s adaptation of the thriller by Tim Bradby without being immediately drawn to Andrea Riseborough and her infamous red raincoat. As Colette McVeigh, she’s engrossed within her family’s own dealings with the IRA during the peace process and becomes an unwitting mole for the MI-5 in order to be with her son. It’s a crackling slow burn thriller (our review here) that not only finds the director once again in new territory, but also showcases the rising actress as the real deal.
The Playlist joined press to speak with Marsh and Riseborough the day after “Shadow Dancer” won over crowds at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. The duo discussed the nature of Colette, dealing with multiple shoots and how she slips in and out of her roles.
Had you intended to make a film about The Troubles?
James Marsh: It was a bit more complex than that. When I got the script there was an initial reluctance to even read it because The Troubles are an exhausting conflict that blighted many lives in Northern Island, but people in the U.K. as well for better or for worse. When I got beyond that initial reluctance to open the script turn the first page, I was captivated by the premise of the story. It’s not about politics, but about human nature. The bargain offered to Colette is one understandably to be an impossible one. That’s what drew me to the story, not the politics or obsession with Northern Island, but the human conflict within the family.
Looking at the family in the story, how much of that is structured to be the focal point of the film over the actual Troubles?
Andrea Riseborough: We were talking about it earlier and to explore [the film] from somebody [else’s] perspective, you would have no outside knowledge of what’s going on outside of the upper echelons of political structure. It would be more interesting to see it from the perspective of the mother who is on the ground. She represents one of the people involved in this great story, and if we had to try and make it all it would never finish.
It seems like you’re bouncing all over the place with the variety of movies you’re doing — “W.E.,” “Weclome To The Punch,” “Shadow Dancer.” Is it difficult to get a handle on all these very separate and different films?
AR: You make me sound awfully clever. I’m in no way multi-tasking to that extent. Each project has not a day overlapped with the other, [though] the preparation may have. In terms of filming, each character had its time and there was a time before we started filming in Ireland that we were all gearing up. There were those precious pockets of time just before and just after, where we could say hello and goodbye.
JM: Most good actors bring an incredible focus to when they begin shooting. I’ve noticed that across the board that they’re so in the moment that I had no other idea you were doing anything than being utterly, utterly focused from morning till night.
AR: It’s impossible to pick up and put down as well. People say you take it home with you. It’s an interesting and valid question certainly, but once you start doing it and if you’ve ever acted or directed, you know there’s…
JM: No door you can close.
AR: You live in that world for a time, leaving bags at James’ house so you can run off to the next role and come back.
Is it difficult to get rid of a character then?
AR: It’s almost not a decision, there is no choice. [You do it] with abandon, as much courage as you can muster and just jump in. It makes it easier if projects are antithetical to one another. While we were shooting “Shadow Dancer,” James was dealing with publicity for “Project Nim” and I was doing a whole wealth of work as Wallis Simpson [in “W.E.”] which is as different as you can get from Colette.
Did it make the accents difficult for you?
AR: I’ve never had my own accent in a film. It’s something I schedule into my preparation. That’s one of my favorite things, hearing all the voices. And it was one of the tough things about being in Dublin and not Belfast.
How was James on set? Could he be tough?
AR: When he would bring chimps along.
AR: This is awful when you ask questions about this and now I’m going to say nice things about him. The thing about James, is that not only is he innovative and dynamic in the way he can tell a story, but he’s a great empathist and gets each moment and how everybody is. On top of that, he gave us the support and freedom to allow each of us to have our own relationship and our own motivation and character. I think that gave us a haunting, thrilling ambiguity throughout that any given moment we’re not sure what decision Colette’s going to make or what [Clive Owen‘s character] Brendan is going to do. James was tireless about capturing our every breath and thought.
JM: I choose my casting and want to work with people whose work I expect and admire. That’s half my job: casting people I want to work with. There’s an act of trust in that, I guess that goes both ways. My mode is to allow the actors to kind of offer to choose something. Why would I want to manipulate them or give them those bad ideas? It sounds like I’m being lazy, but it feels like a way of respecting the person you’ve chosen to work with. The last thing I do is impose loads of ideas on them. I want to see what they’d have to offer. So far, it’s worked out really well. That’s true of everyone I cast, but especially of Andrea because she ‘s in every shot of the film…We had a really harmonious, collective effort. At least that’s what I’d try to do.
Working together that way was something you also agreed on?
AR: I trusted James implicitly though, and we were talking earlier about not watching the monitor. I had this thing where I’d bring James everything I had in me. But I knew he’d have the best judge of tone about where we should be going. Because he’d have this overview and be in this different place.
JM: We would change things and how things would play. That was always a collaboration with the actors. Often their ideas shaped what we were doing. We made some big changes at the end of the film as we were shooting; and the first people I would go to were Clive and Andrea. I went, “Look. I’m having these ideas and I want to make sure they sit well with you, feel that they’re truthful, so we can pull these off.” That was really helpful to have that input as the way of presenting the ideas to the producers and everyone else who was not quite so happy changing the schedule.
AR: Everyone on the film had such a murky relationship with the film. We’d be having this conversation in our lunch hour, shoveling fork fulls of whatever we were having, and it felt like every moment we were on the set we were truly grabbing hold of the project and it was exciting. It was just the best it could be. Everybody did that.
“Shadow Dancer” is out this week via Magnolia Pictures.