From Birdman to her latest role in The Death Of Stalin, Andrea Riseborough is fast becoming one to watch, says Esther McCarthy.
It’s a precarious time for the movie business, with shocking allegations of sexual assault against top producer, Harvey Weinstein.
Several stars have supported the women affected and have told of their own harassment experiences in the industry.
Actress Andrea Riseborough is hopeful of positive change but is doubtful. The star of award-winning movies, such as Birdman and Nocturnal Animals, has seen many years of bad behaviour in her business — and had a personal experience of it earlier this year.
“I would love to say ‘yes’ and I’m hoping, but I’ve experienced this for so many years in my industry and I’m so disenchanted that I’ll have to see it to believe it,” she said.
“I dealt with it myself, earlier this year, or the end of last year. It’s a regular occurrence, but I think it is for most women, in most industries, which is horrendous.
“I think anger’s always a great catalyst for real, good, quality change. So I’m hoping that the frustration and sadness and honesty, that’s come out of this week, can be channelled into something really positive. It just has to stop.”
The Weinstein allegations also reveal deeper, uneasy truths about sexism in the film industry.
Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, and Jennifer Lawrence have spoken out about the need for pay parity between male and female stars.
Now, Riseborough, one of the most respected and prolific actresses of recent years, is joining them, telling people: “It’s a vagina, not a lobotomy.”
She laughs out loud when I remind her of her turn of phrase. “I’ve used that one for quite some years; I really like it myself!” she added.
But there’s a serious point to it. On one project, she was paid a tiny fraction of what her male co-star received.
“I was paid 1/24th of what my male co-star was paid. He was number-one, I was number two, in the running order of the script. He should have been paid more, but he was paid twenty-five times what I was paid.
“I can tell you, in every project, it’s happened. Every single project I’ve ever done. In the last few weeks, we have addressed that problem and now I’m getting the same.
“In one of the films, I have a much, much bigger part than the guy, but now I’m getting the same as what the guy was going to get. And the guy’s not well-known.”
Does she feel that high-profile stars calling foul on such practices will make it easier?
“It’s not making it easier. Is it making a change? I think it’s really important that we write things down on paper. That we email about these things, and that we have records. Then, eventually, we’ll make a change. Because there’s only so many ways, legislatively, you can get around not paying people equally.”
This weekend, Andrea returns to our big screens in The Death of Stalin, a pitch-black comedy about the Russian dictator.
It is directed by Armando Iannucci, the man behind such hits as Veep and The Thick Of It. Riseborough plays Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana.
“He’s wonderful. I love his work so much. I really loved Veep. When you get a chance to work with Armando, or Alejandro (Inarritu, the director of Birdman), or Lynne Ramsey, or Andrea Arnold, I think, for me, I just make it work, whatever it is.”
Drawing humour from such dark territory was challenging. “We were making a brutalist comedy. In that sense, it was kind of similar to Birdman, it was a very similar experience, in the sense that we were creating this quite epic film that was hilarious, but it was heartbreaking, and because it resonated on such a real level, historically, sadly.
“At school, we kind of, I wouldn’t say brushed over it, but we didn’t go into it in great depth. So that was really what I had in my arsenal before I started researching. And then there’s a great book, by Rosemary Sullivan, called Stalin’s Daughter, which is all about Svetlana; that’s a huge, doorstopper sort of thing and I read that.
“There was a lot of still imagery and some moving footage, which was fantastic, of her in her apartment, before she died, in Wisconsin.
“It’s a blessing when you have just enough. On the other hand, you don’t want too much. Because when somebody becomes incredibly public, like Margaret Thatcher, or Wallis Simpson, everybody has an opinion on them. You want to get to the root of who that person is, rather than what everybody’s impression of them is.”
Riseborough has played both Simpson and Thatcher. (“It was certainly….interesting,” she said, of playing the late Tory leader). In fact, she’s become known for her chameleon-like abilities to inhabit very different characters.
She says being observational helps her do the type of work she’s interested in doing.
“I don’t think there are two similar people. I think every single person is different, incredibly different. In the way, they carry their weight — and I don’t mean body weight — how they speak, the amalgamation of all the different people in their family that’s created this very specific voice that they have. Their fears, their wants — no two people are the same, really, in any way.”
She looked terrific on the red carpet at the London Film Festival the night before our interview, and she sported a platinum blonde crop.
“My hair’s been like this for about four or five years. I wear wigs because I like to take the character off at the end of the day, and I don’t really play anyone like myself.
“It just feels a bit more like I can keep work at work and home at home when I can leave the wig in the make-up trailer.”
Growing up in Newcastle, her interest in acting was first nurtured at the age of nine, when her mum’s hairdresser, Keith (who was also an actor) inquired if she would be interested in a local play. Keith asked her mum, who asked her daughter if she’d like to try for it.
“I was so embarrassed and I said no. I went bright red. I was quite a shy kid, I was very outgoing in some ways, but very shy in others,” Riseborough said.
“A week later, I said to her: ‘You know that play, I think I want to go and do that’. I think the idea of being seen was so horrible, which is ironic, of course, because my entire life is about showing what’s going on deeply, emotionally, from the inside.
“But it took a while to get comfortable in that spot. I think, if anything, it showed it’s totally natural to feel scared. To feel, maybe, overwhelmed by possibilities.”
One of her breakthrough roles was in Shadow Dancer, in which she played an IRA member who turned informant to protect those closest to her.
The movie was filmed in Ireland, with Clive Owen and a large Irish cast, including Domhnall Gleeson.
“Domhnall is lovely. It was the second time we worked together (after Never Let Me Go).
"I think three characters I’ve played that were big changes in my life were Margaret Thatcher, Wallis Simpson, and doing Shadow Dancer.
"It was an amazing experience, that film, really special,” she recalled.
Next month, she’ll appear opposite Emma Stone in the awards-fancied Battle of the Sexes.
Ostensibly, the movie is about the legendary tennis match between Billie Jean King (Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), but it goes much deeper, revealing King’s struggles to come to terms with her own sexuality.
Riseborough stars as the first woman the champion fell for.
“I play Marilyn Barnett, who was the woman who Billie Jean King had a very intense love affair with, her first real lesbian relationship.
“It was a very beautiful time for them both, a very difficult time for them both, a very difficult time for Billie Jean.
"She’s been so extraordinarily gracious, and generous, and courageous to share that story. Because she has to watch this over again, two hours of the most intense time of her life. It was a pretty traumatic, confusing time for her, and, after that, she lost all of her endorsements.
"She’s been through so much adversity that…it was a really big thing for her to share that story, and I hope it makes a difference.”
The Death of Stalin is in cinemas now
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