Andrea Riseborough (Sunday Times Magazine, October 2017)
Andrea Riseborough chooses to meet in her local diner. It’s unpretentious and a little retro. They know her in there, they know automatically to give her the cup of hot water for her own tea bag (Twinings Darjeeling). I almost don’t recognise her. She’s such a chameleon. Today she’s wearing an oversized printed shirt and underneath a pale vest. A necklace that says Fuck Off and multiple quirky rings. Her blonde, feathery, punky hair peaks from an undersized black fedora. She’s wearing shiny skinny jeans, black and short cowboy boots. Of course she’s nothing like her screen characters which are often old school glamorous. She was ethereal in Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution and first carved a niche with a standout portrayal of Wallis Simpson in WE and Margaret Thatcher in The Long Walk to Finchley. She was riveting in Channel 4’s National Treasure where she played the somewhat broken daughter of a celebrity accused of abuse played by Robbie Coltrane.
She’s up next in The Battle of the Sexes – she plays Billie Jean King’s lover Marilyn Barnet. It’s set in the seventies where King played by Emma Stone was enraged by the difference in pay for male and female tennis grand slammers. Steve Carell plays the misogynistic tennis player Bobby Riggs.
She’s super charismatic and very small framed. Her shoulders are toned and move with the ease of a dancer. Like me she is Geordie born and bred, 36, left high school without university to run a Chinese restaurant and then it was RADA. Part intellectual, part rebel, part hard, part soft.
I tell her I love her necklace which says ‘fuck off’ in squirly gold writing. An ironic twist on those ones that were popular in the sex and the city era that said Carrie.
“But I quite like the word cunt. I think it’s liberating. I think that word needs to be re-empowered. There’s no need for it to be an evil thing.” Fuck off and cunt are not words for California living. Here everything’s more tempered, less extreme in a way. It’s an odd place for someone as audacious as Riseborough to have settled. “I know everything is incredibly offensive here in America. It’s puritanical but I specifically love the west coast because of the weather. It’s honestly changed my life because the sun makes everything better.”
Riseborough has SAD and therefore gets depressed if there’s too much greyness. But instead she orders a peanut butter shake, no whip with extra peanut butter. We order sweet potato fries to share. It arrives and it looks like blonde cement. “I eat everything. I eat anything I want. That’s the best plan.” She says this yet she’s tiny, like a ballerina, much tinier than she looks on the screen.
“That’s an interesting point of discussion. I’m from a family of small framed women but I was talking to a producer friend about the wide screen format. It made men look huge. It made Marlon Brando look huge and he wasn’t it made Bogart look buff and he was a tiny little guy. It even made Frank Sinatra large when he wasn’t but for women it stretched us out and rather than changing the format of film they wanted to change the size of women and make them even smaller. When you think about that objectively that’s really fucked right?
There was definitely a time where I would work more when I was slimmer.” It’s hard to imagine her slimmer. There’s literally nothing of her.
“I had a few male casting directors say you’d get the part if you were thinner or in better shape. Something like that. It’s totally ridiculous. You get to a certain age where you feel so angry about it. I just want to be part of good work so I don’t focus on it anymore. You can’t pin your self-worth on someone who’s met you for 25 minutes.
I was talking to my agent this morning about a scene some time ago where I was told to go home and I was confused because I thought there was to be a love scene. They said we need somebody with a different body type. So this girl came in with a beautiful body and a scar all the way across her face. Ironic isn’t it? Using the best bits and pieces of women to present to the world, only to make women feel worse about themselves. I’m very blessed to have my body. I don’t hate my body in any way but I thought what’s happening when they brought this girl in and filmed it from behind? I would never take shit like that now.”
It seems like you have to play the game to get to a certain point but if you keep playing it you’ll never get to where you want to be. She muses. “Have you seen the original edition of Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch? (She has a copy) It calls her ‘the saucy feminist that even men like’. Soul destroying right?” We nod, we laugh.
Does she think that the film industry is getting more misogynistic? “It’s getting worse. Why are some people being employed?” Her hot water arrives and she dips in her Darjeeling.
Recently I did a shoot where I’ve never seen so many angry men on a crew. That’s why I run an all-female film company and we do very well in terms of the amount of time it takes to shoot, the lack of ego and nobody stands with their legs 3 feet apart as if they’re guarding the Roman wall.”
Her film company is called Mother Sucker and they have just made their first film. It’s called Nancy (who Riseborough plays) – it’s the story of a woman who lives in a house with a cat called Paul and her deeply abusive mother and thousands of copies of National Geographic. “The basic premise of the company was to give more people opportunities.”
We circle back to the angry men set? I assumed it was some time ago? “No, it was recent with a very reputable production company that you wouldn’t think would be like that. That’s where the disconnect lies. Women can be DPs but it all starts with girls’ education. They’re never taught to rewire a plug, things like that.
You don’t want to compromise your work just to get it made but if it’s been made by 350 crotch scratching guys who couldn’t give a shit it’s difficult.
The other day I was doing this very horrible extraordinary scene. I was being raped and some guy was just trying to charge his phone in front of me. I was screaming and crying and about to have this big argument about polygamy. I am the female lead and eventually I had to say ‘you are annoying me’.
“If you are the lead woman you feel the responsibility to tell the story and there’s a guy trying to charge his phone in front of you because he spent the entire shoot playing Candy Crush, it’s hard.”
How perfect that Riseborough is starring in a film that deals directly with reinvigorating feminism – Battle of the Sexes. Emma Stone is already tipped for a second Oscar. “It is brilliant. I’ve seen it. I don’t normally watch things that I’m in. I didn’t used to read reviews in theatre, when you are in a play it’s ever evolving and I wanted my notes to be from the director otherwise you could get bombarded and take everyone’s notes and not know where you’re going. My other fear was that would be good reviews and I would sabotage it. Do you know what I mean? That all the life would be sucked out of it.
So when I started making film, which had not been a plan of mine, I still didn’t watch things. My expectations of myself have always been a little skewed. Maybe they’re too high. Maybe they’re too low.”
Maybe it’s a north eastern thing. It’s ingrained in Geordie DNA not to be too much of a narcissist. “We were the ones being raped and pillaged and the borders were always moving and we don’t know who we belong to so yes that’s in it and I think it’s a female thing to internalise rather than lash out – they’ll lash in and you think I could have done it better. Self-flagellation can be painful. So watching The Battle of the Sexes is one of the first things I’ve watched in a really long time. Steve (Carell) was incredible. You see a man who is pretending to be more of a misogynist than he actually is. He’s really broken. The point they’re making in the movie is still relevant.
Gal Godot who has just played Wonder Woman was paid nowhere near as high as Chris Pine. I saw in the press that she got paid $300,000 and he got paid $14,000,000. The argument is that he’s done Star Trek and he’s a big name who can get the film made. And he makes films about white straight men.”
“You can’t keep saying but he’s getting the film made. That might be entirely true and it might be the bond company’s business but we still need to have more equal pay. When will they start making films about black men and white women? Think Dunkirk.” (All white men). She’s very calm when she talks about this. It’s an issue that she feels sorely but has thought over a lot. She’s measured if it’s possible to be measured and angry about something at the same time. “I think it’s healthy to have a bit of anger and also a bit of acceptance otherwise it drives you mad.”
The Battle of the Sexes is still being played out. “In every way.” The movie is also a love story. “Basically when Billie Jean was on tour she met a woman who was a hair stylist so the story is slightly changed/modified. But the story is thrilling and also sweet. There are many elements of the lesbian love affair that came up. How difficult it was in the life of Billie Jean King being married and the whole thing being in secret. We made this incredibly dramatic love story. We had great chemistry and it was exciting.”
Stone and Riseborough were friends already. They met when they made Birdman which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015. There were a few sex scenes. “One main one and a couple of physically intimate moments.”
What’s the difference between doing a sex scene with a man and a woman? “Ah. Good question. I think the feeling is much more comfortable with a woman and it feels good to be kissing someone around your own age, not 30 years older than you. It helped that we knew each other but that would be the case if it were a man or a woman.”
There’s more toying of the sweet potato fries, although it’s me that’s eating most of them, as I imagine her concrete drink is quite filling. This is quite a moment in time for Riseborough. She’s got several big movies coming out – Battle of The Sexes, Nancy, The Death of Stalin, big TV series WACO,(based on true David Koresh’s religious compound and how it came under siege, with the Weinstein Company) andBlack Mirror and even more lined up.
The Death of Stalin is already receiving outstanding praise – directed by Armando Iannucci. “It’s difficult to describe in the way that Birdman was difficult to describe. It excites me because it’s brutal and also hysterical. I play Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter. When he died the world panicked. They found him on the floor after a seizure and they brought in doctors. They weren’t sure if he was dead or alive but they didn’t tell anyone. They put him in a bed. Drank, smoked, played chess for three days. Steve Buscemi plays Khrushchev. It’s such a dark performance.
I was so flattered when Armando asked me. She’s a really interesting character. She escaped to the American Embassy in Delhi and ended up dying on her own in an apartment in Wisconsin.”
Her voracious appetite for work is a complete contrast to a few years ago where she decided to take a long break which turned out to be two years. “I decided to write a book but I didn’t think it through. When I went back to acting it was such a relief. I hadn’t expected that I would find such a sense of purpose in it again, joy even. I think I’d gone a little off track.”
She puts the off track-ness down to “the studio system. I got a little upset with the studio system.” It was not only the body double incident but also when she received a text from a producer of a film that read “we hear that you’re not comfortable wearing breast pads.” “Let’s just say I felt disenchanted and I ended up wearing them. I think it’s questionable to put hundreds of millions of dollars into something that perpetuates misogyny. Will people throw their deepest desires and imaginative creations under the bus in order to get something made? Once you make an industry of art, you need money to make things. And there are all kinds of people who need to make a living but those people generally aren’t the artist. So there has been lots of compromises but that’s why I started Mother Sucker. A beautiful thing came out of something that was really painful. I have no explanation of why it feels good to work with other women but there’s something that feels right about it and I’ve just finished adapting Hamlet as an all-female cast. I’ve written it myself.”
What happened to the novel? “I don’t know. I ended up going back to work and I picked some things that I really like artistically and I’ve worked a lot since then. I can’t talk about the novel. I like to keep it very separate. I haven’t come to a conclusion about it. On the whole I have no plan. I tend to just go on instinct. I’m about to make a movie with Nicolas Cage. It’s called Beyond The Black Rainbow and the director is Panos Cosmatos. He has an incredible aesthetic. Kubric like.”
With Riseborough there’s never been a hint of typecasting. Her roles are always entirely different. Dark, comedic, love story, tragedy, polemic. Sometimes all at once.
Even though movie’s she’s been in have been nominated for BAFTA’s, SAGs, Oscars and she’s at the top of her game, she’s not instantly recognisable. She is a shape shifter on screen and a purposeful chameleon. No one knows the colour of her real hair. At the moment it’s a platinum, punkish pixie crop. “I’m about to play someone with long, straight black hair and it does deeply affect your mood. I wear a lot of wigs and to be able to take the character off at the end of the day is just wonderful. I’m very interested in transforming. I’m interested in how people move and speak, getting somebody’s rhythm. If you just put a wig on you can look like someone in a wig. It’s all about embodying someone and moving differently.”
Some actresses for instant can put wigs on but their face doesn’t change because they’ve had so much Botox. Riseborough nods sympathetically. “There’s a huge amount of pressure on women to be cryogenically frozen in time because people are telling us that we’re too old to play opposite someone who is the same age. It’s really a pressure. It’s like having a baby in the sixties. You’re never going to make the pay grade. I’ve always seemed to be able to transform. As a little kid I always found it easy to mimic people. I’m a trained dancer so I’ve always had good control of my body.”
Growing up her parents were not rich but they had enough money to send her and her sister Laura to one of the area’s best private schools – Church High. They wore bottle green uniforms. She said she was quite a geek at school. She looked forward to learning about literature and would walk around the school when it was empty touching its ancient walls, feeling grateful, hoping that she would find her people. As a teenager she had somewhat of a rebellion. She dropped out of A Levels in order to help run an Asian restaurant.
She said if she could choose her last meal it would be white rice with chilli sauce. The blandness and the fire, the white and the red. But she’s all about the extremes.
“After seven hours of being on your feet shredding duck it’s very comforting to have white sticky rice with the most delicious chilli sauce that we made in the restaurant.”
After growing up in Newcastle and attending RADA in London (her class was Amanda Hale White Queen, Andy Buchan Broadchurch, Tom Hiddleston, The Night Manager), she moved to Idaho which seemed odd. Why? “My ex boyfriend’s family is there.” Her ex-boyfriend was ex graffiti artist Joe Apelle. “We went to visit and I said Joe, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could have a place in the mountains. So we bought a place, cheap as chips, 9 acres of land, 5 bedroom house $200,000. 14 miles north of Boise. No one wants to live there. All we could see was ten thousand Christmas trees. It was a great place to write.”
There’s the extreme things again. Working in La La Land, living in Christmas tree land.
Even with a spray tan from a recent photo shoot she remains one of the whitest women in Hollywood. She describes her skin as “mortuary slab white” and feels uncomfortable in its ever so light golden glow. Other than that she straddles the world of actress, writer, northern Brit living in LA pretty well. She must have been quite isolated living in Idaho. She must have really noticed the extremes of life.
“Yes. There was one time where I did a particularly hellish press tour. Joe came with me. We stayed in the Savoy for two weeks which sounds extremely privileged and then going home to Idaho which was so quiet and clean, without being charged £70 to wash your pants. I just love the extremes. I’m from the north of England so of course I’m going to wash my shit in the sink but some people actually use the cleaning service.”
She moved out of Idaho when she and Apelle broke up. “It was just painful to be on my own in that house without him and also for him to be there and me to be somewhere else so we decided to let go of the house and I actually haven’t been back yet cos it’s too painful. When I do go back, perhaps it will be a healing experience. I loved him very much and he’s an amazing person and an amazing artist. He’s the only person I’ve ever dated who I don’t talk to on a regular basis. I just need the space to get over it really… I guess I’m over it as much as I ever will be. I haven’t seen him in years and I think if I saw him it would hit me like a ton of bricks but I’ve been in love since.”
Is she in love now? “Maybe?” Is because she doesn’t know or maybe because she doesn’t want to tell me?
“I’m clear about whether I am or not. I may not even be with this person but you can be in love with someone without being with them, right? We’re both single and available. Nothing inappropriate. He’s here for today. Love’s a funny old thing. After Joe and I broke up I couldn’t imagine being in love but that was four years ago. I absolutely thought we were gonna spend the rest of our lives together and he did as well. It just didn’t work out that way.”
She talks wistfully and lovingly about Patti Smith and Joan Didion (who she also loves). “She writes in rhythm, right? It’s almost an iambic pentameter.
She thinks that British television has a lot more integrity than American television and is very enthusiastic about Black Mirror that she has just shot in Iceland.
“British television is wonderful. It’s like doing a play. So refreshing. It’s odd that she’s so staunchly opposed to women being told to change their bodies for parts yet in her breakout role as Wallis Simpson in Madonna’s WE, she actually chose to lose weight to play the woman who said you can never be too rich or too thin. “Madonna didn’t ask me to.”
It was an extreme diet. “I used to cry in bed at night because I was so hungry. I was eating very cleanly but I wouldn’t say healthily. Healthy is eating whatever you want. I remember eating almonds and green shit. Four months of only shopping in Wholefoods. Nobody told me to do it. It was at my discretion. I had a female director and she would never have asked me to do that but Wallis was so thin. She was the size my grandmother was when she died – four and a half stone. I don’t think I ever made it past seven but I’m not short. I’m five foot, five and a half and it definitely was a lot of work. I did a lot of exercise and I was probably physically fitter than I’ve ever been. I managed to get through it but I had to conserve all my energy to carve out the emotional landscape. I was feeling pretty tired most of the time.”
Whatever extreme situation she puts herself in she maintains the comfort of the childhood friends that she grew up with. “In fact I’m still friends with people who were born in the same ward of the same hospital. When you go through the years and you’re all doing different things there can be times where you’re less close and times where you’re closer but all of our friendships have only grown and I have never felt as close to those childhood friends as I feel now. We speak all the time. Facetime has been amazing for that. It’s completely changed the world and I’ve never been closer to my mum and dad. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone on the phone than in person. I don’t know why. LA is so vast and it’s so hard to get from one side to the other but there’s always time to Facetime.”
You wouldn’t have expected her to have embraced LA the way she has, to love the sun yet stay white. “I feel so brown at the moment. It might be dirt.” If anything she’s a little uncomfortable with being off white. She doesn’t care about fitting in. She is after all white rice with chilli sauce.