April 12, 2013
Inevitably, Meryl Streep’s phone was among those ringing most often after Margaret Thatcher’s death: Streep won an Oscar for her performance in The Iron Lady, her Thatcher confused, hallucinating and alone. It overshadowed a more unusual Thatcher from Andrea Riseborough in the 2008 BBC Four drama The Long Walk to Finchley that evoked, as knockabout farce, Thatcher’s route to power, ruthlessly dispatching fusty Tory males.
“We made it in two minutes for £2.50. I was so proud of it,” Riseborough says, sitting in a New York hotel before Baroness Thatcher’s death. “It was about what made her the monster she was. You felt for her, as boggled as she was about why those old school ties weren’t letting her through the door.”
Growing up in Newcastle, Riseborough’s parents were working-class Thatcherites “who moved far to the left later”. Riseborough, 31, didn’t meet Thatcher: “I didn’t want that personal connection. I wanted to portray the light and dark,” she says in a lightly Geordie burr; she can go indecipherably Geordie in a blink. “Our Thatcher didn’t have to be likeable for us to be engaged. She had to be real. I saw Meryl Streep after The Iron Lady came out and said that watching her felt like watching the end of my own life.”
Riseborough’s own long walk, or intriguing amble, continues. The latest stop has been Hollywood, and Oblivion, one of those only Tom Cruise can save what’s left of the world” blockbusters. Riseborough plays Victoria, the partner of Cruise’s character, a sort of space patrolman, stuck inside their glamorous elevated home while he does the fun stuff in a zippy spacecraft. Cruise was filming Oblivion when his now ex-wife Katie Holmes filed for divorce last June; this week he told German television that he “did not expect that”. Riseborough predictably describes Cruise as “a professional” and says that he didn’t discuss his private life. “He had a job to do. He was also a producer of the movie. He’s a great team leader, always cheerful, very humble.”
Dressed in a vintage brown shirt, black trousers and dinky Prada boots, Riseborough is also wearing a sort of Hovis kid-style cap, a disguise presumably, as she becomes warier of being recognised. She “tried not have preconceptions” of Cruise, stung herself by journalists “who had made a decision about who I was before I had come into the room”. That may explain the guarded air sometimes ascribed to her. She seems far from guarded or po-faced (there is talk of partying at drama school and karaoke and nights out with her American partner Joe Appel) but, candid as she is, she speaks with discretion and economy.
Of filming Oblivion, her first Hollywood blockbuster, Riseborough says the sense of purpose is the same on a set “whether there are 35 people or 350”. Has growing stardom changed her life? “The past couple of years haven’t been my own privately because you have photographers following you and people recognise you. It is an odd feeling rather than an unwelcome one.” She hasn’t dwelt on the transition because she’s “been too immersed” in her work.
Turning 30 was marked by feeling “more of a sense of self and ease”. However, she admits that she does feel compelled to look good: “To be in the pool of actors I am is very high-pressure.” She says that red-carpet dressing “doesn’t come naturally, but it’s about selling the film”, especially with indie films. She is making another two movies and working on four more with her own production company.
Roles for women in film are not diverse enough, Riseborough says. “You can’t get caught up in the frustration of it or it will wear you down, almost disabling you.” Female characters “tend to not be whole people; they tend to be likeable or what is deemed likeable in women.” She is “very ambitious, always have been. It’s a blessing — because you realise the things you want to do artistically — and a curse because sometimes you don’t take care of yourself. Going to RADA was the turning point for me: it made clear what I could achieve.”
As a child Riseborough sat in restaurants and “stared at people” so much her father would admonish her as Mary Poppins would scold her little charge: “Michael, we are not a codfish”. But this proto-actress was “drinking” in people and their mannerisms. Her paternal grandmother was a cinema usherette (“Dad saw Easter Parade about 100 times from the projection room”) and at a young age she peered in vain at the edge of the TV screen, trying to see more people inside the image. She loved Star Wars, Bette Davis, Buster Keaton, Peter Sellers and Ronnie Barker. With her younger sister Laura she put on plays and puppet shows. “On one level” she wanted to be a star, “when you saw Britney Spears flicking her tongue around”.
Riseborough performed in classical theatre from 9 (“I was weird and lonely as a child; I was like, ‘Hey guys, anyone like Star Wars, Shakespeare and spiders?’ ”), then surprised her parents by leaving school, although she was on course for Oxbridge. She felt she was getting more of an understanding of literature from theatre than writing essays. She knew she was ready for RADA after four years of “ridiculous, random jobs” and a “huge breakdown” with her parents. “Everyone goes through one. It was a matter of all of us finding our own way”. They are very close now.
It’s been a shock, while building her career, “realising the connection between Chekhov and Measure for Measure” and now Hollywood blockbuster territory. Her performances and films, such as Made in Dagenham, have been mostly praised though she played Wallis Simpson in Madonna’s much-derided W.E. Riseborough feels the reaction was down to “what people felt about Madonna” (who wrote and directed and was “wonderful”) rather than the film. “I’m incredibly proud of it,” she says.
Now she is filming Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman, where her character “is totally sex-crazed and intuitive; I suppose there must be parts of me in that!” and a thriller called Hidden, with Alexander Skarsgård. She’d like to work with directors such as Ridley Scott, David Fincher and Lynne Ramsay.
Riseborough escapes acting’s hamster wheel by going home to Idaho, in northwest America, where she lives “in the mountains, surrounded by trees” with Appel, a street artist and her partner of four years. They met at the premiere of Woody Allen’s Whatever Works: “We ended up standing together”. As an artist “he’s very portable”, so they often travel together for her work. Marriage and children “are something in the future; it would be wonderful, but I still feel very young.”
Does she love Appel? Riseborough laughs. “I certainly wouldn’t have been with him this long if I didn’t. He’s so incredible and inspiring, smart and gentle, full of fire and passion.”
There must be some bits of being a Hollywood film star that are fun? Again, the discretion face is applied. “People making you feel special is obviously something that is wonderful, but it’s always good to keep in mind where that is coming from.” So Riseborough’s British antennae are wired for Hollywood bullshit? “Hmm. Maybe people just aren’t licking my arse enough,” she smiles.