“Female actors end up working much harder than male actors to counter the gender pay gap,” is the first thing Andrea Riseborough tells me as we sit down a few days ahead of her trip to Sundance with not one but four projects to promote. Anecdotally, it’s hard to dispute that. In Cannes last year, it was Nicole Kidman whose multiple projects owned the Croisette. And last Sundance, Aubrey Plaza felt like the festival’s MVP with roles in two of its hottest titles.
The Time’s Up and #MeToo movements are understandably a central feature of our conversation, but Riseborough has been working to elevate female voices her entire career, marrying her financial responsibilities to roles in big budget cinema with smaller, independent work which has made her something of a chameleon, losing herself to characters in the likes of Never Let Me Go, Shadow Dancer and Birdman. The women she prefers to play are complex, conflicted and deeply human.
Riseborough’s trip to Sundance will prove that she is as active as anyone in realizing the change she wants to see. Nancy, which gets its world premiere at the festival, is her first move into producing; a project, she says, that defied the doubts of the generally straight, white male financiers she met to make it to the screen. Christina Choe’s film casts Riseborough in the title role of a woman whose fractured life is patched together with fantasy and lies, as she searches desperately for her own truth.
It’s one of two films in which she stars with Steve Buscemi. The other is The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci’s uproarious political satire about the power struggles after Stalin’s passing, which first premiered in Toronto. Riseborough plays the nervously conflicted Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter, who is the first to realize that her own security is in jeopardy when her father dies.
And then there’s Mandy, with Nicolas Cage, which promises to build upon the distinctly wild aesthetic of Panos Cosmatos, established in his 2010 debut Beyond the Black Rainbow. Finally Burden, from Andrew Heckler, which tells the story of a Ku Klux Klansman played by Garrett Hedlund, who attempts to break away when he falls for Riseborough’s character and is taken in by Forest Whitaker’s African-American Reverend.
DEADLINE: You’re coming to Sundance with your first film as a producer, Nancy. When we meet Nancy we see her fabricating a life for someone else’s approval, but we can also see that she’s just trying to find her truth in a confusing world. Who is she to you?
RISEBOROUGH: The thing about Nancy is you so instantly identify with her. Or at least I did, when I read it. What I liked about the script is that she lives outside of the regular film narrative that a woman is supposed to inhabit. That’s what’s always the most interesting thing for me. I always do a lot of work around characters to make them real people, because oftentimes they really are a sliver of a person. Even with truly wonderful writers, women characters are there to emote and they’re often incredibly chaste or worthy. Or they’re a “different type of woman”, which is the worst.
DEADLINE: Where does that impulse to lose yourself to roles come from?
RISEBOROUGH: I don’t relate to people that look like me. I find it deeply unsatisfying to play a version of myself. It was something I had to figure out really early on, when I was at RADA, because I was being cast, over and over again, as the young, virginal thing. When I left RADA I was on an absolute mission to never wear make-up. I never, ever wanted to get anything based on how I looked. I managed to slip through, somehow, and I think perhaps only now people are starting to realize I might not be so asymmetrical [laughs]. But it was really difficult to negotiate that path, because at every turn as a female actor, people want to compartmentalize you so that they don’t feel uncomfortable. They don’t want to feel threatened. Transformation as a female actor is allowed up to a certain extent—as long as they can still recognize you on a red carpet. For a woman to be a shape-shifter, and to be that malleable in spirit, is really not OK with the patriarchy.
I remember when I was in Birdman, it felt so alien to me to play an anti-artist who was driven by her need for attention. I had no idea what it was like at that point to have a miscarriage. I literally had nothing to relate to with this woman. That was why it was so interesting, but then it takes a collaboration to get female characters to that point. Women are really complex and totally enigmatic. Humans are really complex, but in film, we’ve only ever seen that with men. We’ve seen antiheroes time and again with male characters. People like my character in Black Mirror—who was originally a man—who you strangely root for, but you know they’re morally bereft and often psychotic.
Charlize Theron’s character in Monster is an interesting one, because that character was demonized. If you think about any male in any film—like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, who’s killing people left and right and cheating on his wife—he’s seen as a loveable rogue. Why are those two characters seen differently?
DEADLINE: To talk about antiheroes, you play Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter, in The Death of Stalin. She’s a woman we meet as a nervous wreck. She is clearly devoted to her father, and in deep mourning, but she is also aware of the man he is, and complicit in that. And she knows his death means she isn’t safe anymore.
RISEBOROUGH: I wonder what it would be like to have a parent like Stalin. When I thought about it, what came to my mind was that you can get so accustomed to something that it is very extraordinary and very inappropriate and totally wrong. She just came to accept it. She’s always operating on this very high vibration of anxiety, but she’s always trying to keep it down.
She doted on her father, so there was this deep, deep love, but also this complicity, because she was obviously aware of what was going on. Family members were disappearing, aunts and uncles aren’t coming home. Her lover, once, never came home. My favorite line in the film, which never gets a laugh but I thought it was absolutely hilarious, was Simon Russell Beale telling her, “Sit down, my dear,” and she goes, “Oh I haven’t sat since he died. One can’t, he was too big.” She’s so confused about what it all means. He was her father and she loved him, but she’s also seen genocide under a different name.
DEADLINE: It’s a highly improvisational role. How much did you have to get to know her to be able to do that?
RISEBOROUGH: From an improvisational perspective, it was awesome to be able to wax lyrical with that. There’s this one scene with Steve Buscemi and I have where I say, “I may as well just kill myself like mother did,” where I could never have improvised that if I didn’t have all that fact backing it up. I was really fortunate because Rosemary Sullivan wrote a great book called Stalin’s Daughter, which was a great read and so in depth. Svetlana was an exceptional woman. She defected through the American embassy in Delhi, into the United States, and then died alone in an apartment in Wisconsin.
DEADLINE: You were working with a cast of comic legends. It can’t get better than that.
RISEBOROUGH: It was a wonderful thing to do and to shoot. When I think back to those conversations Armando and I were having, with him saying, “I’m going to send you some stuff, but this is the very beginning and Svetlana will be developed a hundred fold,” he was absolutely right. It was a true ensemble collaboration. For all intents and purposes, Steve was number one and Simon was number two on the call sheet, but we were all there every day. It was such a wonderful group of people—with a couple of exceptions—and I think it’s a really beautiful film.
I’m not sure that anyone has tapped into that political environment more adaptably than Armando. When he did it with Veep, after The Thick of It, it just proved that it worked in any environment. He and his team of writers have a wide scope, and the research is impeccable. It’s very satisfying to improvise in that way.
As a woman in my job, I rarely get to use my brain. Half the time it’s because I’m holding a baby for the male hero—and that’s when I need to make a bit of money—but also those periods are depressing because they stretch for a long period of time. When you get the chance to step up and have a voice… I was more than thankful to have a voice around that very broken table in the Kremlin.
DEADLINE: Was it working with Steve Buscemi on Stalin that led to his casting in Nancy?
RISEBOROUGH: The Death of Stalin was first. That was how we met. I reached out to him about Leo, who is his character in Nancy. I felt like his character, and J. Smith-Cameron’s character Ellen, were kind of the dream parents. They’re open, sometimes irritating liberal, and just wonderfully accepting. You just loved Leo so much when you read the script. And that’s Steve. I’m so happy he said yes, because he was our first and most perfect choice. As was Ann Dowd, and as was John Leguizamo. I was so excited to see him play that character. John and I had a relationship as well, and we’d wanted to do something together again. I think it’s one of the most tender and truthful romantic encounters I’ve ever portrayed on screen because they never look like they do in more mainstream movies [laughs].
DEADLINE: You also have Burden from Andrew Heckler, and Mandy from Panos Cosmatos. Based on the poster for the latter, I imagine we’re about to get something very unique.
RISEBOROUGH: Panos is just so good. I was sent the script and, to be honest, I had never anticipated doing a Nic Cage movie [laughs]. It wasn’t something that looked like it might be on my horizon. He’s such a great person to work with and so professional, kind and cool. For me, though, it felt like a leftfield choice. I read the script and it was so wonderfully insane and beautifully written. It took me about two minutes to say yes. And you cannot even imagine how insane it’s going to be.
It’s actually wonderful because each of these four movies are completely different—and I’m also promoting Waco at the moment, which is completely different again. It’s refreshing to go back and forth.
What I feel good about with the films I’m going to Sundance with is that most of them are from an interesting and diverse perspective. There’s one that’s really an interesting and diverse film that I almost would have been interested to see from a different character’s perspective—Burden. But that’s just my own personal preference. There’s such a diverse cast and such scope for diversity. But with the other three films, the perspective is so unique.
DEADLINE: You produced Nancy, your first credit as a producer. We’ve talked about the importance of elevating voices that aren’t being heard; is that your drive as you look for material from behind the camera?
RISEBOROUGH: The thing that makes me so excited about the fact we got in to Sundance with Nancy is that Christina is an auteur. She’s one of the very few genuine auteurs in Sundance this year. I think she’s going to do a lot, in her career, for diversity in our industry. My main hope for her, and the work I want to do, and I want to put my name to as a producer or a director or a writer, is that I always want it to be the work of an auteur, and so what I hope is that people will keep giving her money to make films. And it’s something that people don’t do for female filmmakers by and large.
When we first started to make the film, and we told everyone it would be called Nancy, people condescendingly contested that quite a few times. The project Christina was making before that, with an all Korean and African-American cast, she would go into ask for money in places and they’d say, “Good luck getting that made.” Everyone was a straight white male in charge of commissioning and financing at those companies, and it was very disheartening. So we were advised not to call it Nancy, because despite Barbara Loden’s Wanda having won the prize in Venice in 1970—or perhaps a little film like Carrie, for example—films with female names apparently don’t sell as well.
I think the reality is films with female names don’t get made as much, because the people commissioning film and financing a slate are usually heterosexual white males and, understandably, they gravitate to stories told from their perspective, because they identify with them. I think we need a better demographic representation of the world—or at least of this country—in the workplace so we don’t have these situations where women and minorities feel outnumbered and unable to speak up.
I ended up producing. We found two wonderful producers in Amy Lo and Michelle Cameron. Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson came on as executive producers. We’ve had so much luck, and it all worked out as it was supposed to.
What drove us to do Nancy, and it was a relatively quick process – three to four years – was Barbara Loden, Lynne Ramsay, Liv Ullmann. Those people don’t give a f—k, and that’s my favorite thing about them. Christina’s like that a bit, and I’m like that a bit. I was born that way. But it’s taken me a long time to assert that part of myself. In my life, as a female actor, I think what is most telling is I go to the male-driven projects to make my money, and then I take that money and put it into the female-driven projects I want to make. I’m being offered a lot of the female-driven projects because they hear me talk; but that’s about four a year [laughs]. There’s a serious imbalance.
I was meeting with a young writer who’d written this wonderful short, and I said, “Who do you think is going to direct it?” She said, “I hadn’t thought about that.” It broke my heart. That never would have been the answer from a straight male writer. Just believing you have a voice is difficult when you don’t see it reflected back to you at all. Subconsciously it’s very damaging, especially to young girls. I don’t know if those people financing slates have daughters, and if they worry about the fact that their daughters can look up at billboards and really not see any place for themselves in our society.
DEADLINE: We’ve weathered—or are weathering—an extremely tumultuous period in this industry, and exposed great hurts at its heart. Why did it take so long, do you think?
RISEBOROUGH: I can only speak for myself, but I have always felt very scared about speaking up when I feel uncomfortable around people. It’s traumatic enough to go through an experience, but then it’s as traumatic to retell it. It takes time just to get through things day to day, and with time comes perspective. And it’s not just on a film set. I can’t even imagine, as a farm worker for example, the amount of pressure you’re under just to get your job done. When you’re making money for your family, you have no time or energy to do anything except keep the family afloat.
So in every industry across the board vulnerable, strong male and female survivors have been subjected to this, because there’s never a good time to bring it up. There’s never the platform. That’s what would be wonderful, to come out of this, is that a lot of us hope to really unite and have a place where anyone can have someone to tell, who will give them the time and listen to them.
Why should it be a taboo subject? The only reason I can see it needing to be a taboo subject is if you want to perpetuate that environment.