Andrea Riseborough isn’t afraid to raise hell, from a murderous architect on the run in “Black Mirror” to a serial identity thief in “Nancy” and, most recently, a body-snatching assassin in “Possessor.” In Brandon Cronenberg’s gory, slick techno-thriller, Riseborough’s screen time is limited as Tasya Vos, as she spends most of the movie hijacking Christopher Abbott’s character. But her specter hovers over the entire movie as the puppeteer of madness, hired by a shadowy operation to take over Abbott’s body, and kill his future father-in-law, the head of a major data-mining company.
Why the affinity for destruction in Riseborough’s work? “There’s something about the subconscious bubbling up to the surface that feels very honest,” she said. “I don’t know whether that’s just me. But I feel certainly, now more than ever, that there is an underlying frustration, violence, turmoil in all of us. That’s probably why I’m drawn to work like that, because it reflects, perhaps unconsciously, what’s going on in society.”
When she’s not inhabiting other people’s bodies and forcing them to do murder, Tasya struggles to move like a normal person through the world. She has a husband and son, but when she comes home from work, she’s a husk of a human, unable to even muster a cheeky grin for her kid. But there is some part of her tethered to the real world by a thread, as described by Tasya’s cold-blooded boss played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, leading back to her old life.
“As a trained assassin who occupies people’s bodies and minds, she sort of has a link that is very tenuous between her former life or whatever life she was trying to hold down as a human being outside of her work,” Riseborough said. “She’s become so desensitized that she can only really feel through annihilation. She can only feel through destruction. The feeling has to be so extreme. She vicariously lives through somebody else to feel this thing. And then when she comes out of this possession, basically, there’s really nothing left for her.”
From starring in the cult classic “Mandy” as the victim of a ritualistic murder that sends Nicolas Cage on a rampage to Netflix’s dysfunctional family Greek tragedy “Bloodline” and even playing the Iron Lady in “Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley,” theatrically trained Riseborough has taken many jarring twists and turns throughout her career. But surely one of her freakiest moments yet is a standout scene from “Possessor” where Abbott’s character, possessed by Riseborough’s, is having some pretty rough sex with his fiancée (Tuppence Middleton) and — this is hard to describe in non-visual terms — the three bodies suddenly merge into a kind of orgiastic chimera. And it’s there that Tasya emerges with a fully erect penis meant to be Colin’s (Abbott) as her mind and his body struggle to wrest control.
“I think it might have been my suggestion,” Riseborough said of the prosthetic penis. “That in this morphing, we would see that our bodies would become one as well. That psychologically, there’s such a battle going on, and the two psychologies are so closely knit, because my character Vos is possessing Chris’ character Colin’s body essentially to assassinate people, that it might manifest externally in almost a psychedelic way, and there is a sex scene which verges on psychedelia.”
Riseborough said the experience was insightful in ways she hadn’t anticipated. “It felt very vulnerable, wearing that prosthetic, to have this sort of exposed thing out in the world. I felt very under threat.” She also said actually wearing the appendage was “wildly uncomfortable. I was in the prosthetic for hours, and there’s nowhere you can go. I couldn’t stand up, I couldn’t sit down.”
But the in-camera effects — infusing the film throughout with neon color and tripped-out montages of melting, screaming faces — drove her performance in that moment, she said. That’s thanks to the singular approach of director Cronenberg, whose first film “Antiviral” caught Riseborough’s eye years ago.
“The way that Brandon works, which is so unique, is that pretty much everything is there in front of you. You’re not in a situation where you’re a character able to be manipulated in front of a green screen, and that is a very different environment for an actor,” she said. “For an example, in that sex scene, we were in the room that was entirely, deeply bathed in this blue light, so blue that I’d never been in a light as blue before — and I’m from the theater. It was a surreal experience. It felt like when you walked onto set that it was hallucinogenic. That gives the performances in the film such rawness because we’re really experiencing what we’re touching or seeing.”
You could read Tasya’s ability to slip into others’ skin, and then come out the other side hollow, as a metaphor for the psychic burdens of acting, and Riseborough is inclined to agree. “I talked to Brandon early on about that and I said, ‘I’m so hoping that I find a different profession that relates to this more than acting.’ He said, ‘I wouldn’t fight that.'”
Next up, Riseborough has a few more thrillers under her sleeve, including the supernatural “Geechee” and the Irish mystery “Here Before.” But despite her grim proclivities (and “Possessor” is no exception), she said it’s easy to shake off the darkness and sink back into her own skin at night. The one role that still haunts her though? “Certainly Margaret Thatcher. I still have some of the wrinkles in my forehead.”
“Possessor” opens in theaters from Neon on October 2.
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