“This must die,” 36-year-old British actress Andrea Riseborough declares, letting a pink gown slip through her hands. Out of the question. No doubt about it. The same fate awaits other garments brought for this shoot. Methodic and ritualistic, when her make-up artist begins working on her look, she fetches her phone and plays Cosmic Dancer by T.Rex. She hums over the music and requests some privacy in the room until she is ready for her close-up. Riseborough knows what she wants, that much is clear. But she doesn’t see anything particularly radical about her words or actions— to her, it’s just open communication. “As everyone does, I have views. I think it’s unhealthy not to talk about things. Communication is so important,” she tells me as we catch up in a Mexico City hotel. She is here for less than a week to work on a TV series that she is not at much liberty to discuss. No diva airs here, no ornate riders. She takes not but a light soda from the catering corner before sitting down to talk. Obstacles have been surmounted. She is a bit sick, at odds with the altitude here. No booze, no toast to celebrate the wrap. The work rhythm has been intense, but even if she admits it can be tiring, she’s delighted to be in action. Among her meager demands for the shoot was a request to wear her own hoodie with the message “EQUAL PAY” prominently plastered. Female empowerment is something that she is unapologetically passionate about. Her decisions for the wardrobe mirror her stance. Nothing is deliberately feminine. Nothing incites the objectification of women. Formality is not something she enjoys.
It has been a banner year for Riseborough. She’s become a go-to for roles that require total immersion and transformation, and in a suite of Sundance stunners—the Midnight selection Mandy, the lauded historical comedy The Death of Stalin, and U.S. Dramatic Competition titles Nancy and Burden—she demonstrates not only her tireless work ethic but her seemingly limitless ability to embody a diverse range of characters.
Her latest project is Nancy, written and directed by Christina Choe. It’s a layered, complex portrait of a woman who creates elaborate alternate identities on the internet to fulfill her desire for human connection. Fiction and reality are blurred when she becomes convinced that she is the lost daughter of two parents whose child went missing thirty years earlier. Risebourough plays Nancy with sensitivity and total commitment. She’s thrilled about the project, and for good reason—this time around she not only stars, but she has also joined the production ranks.
I ask her how she came to stake a claim on the other side of the camera, where equal representation of women is even farther off than in front of it. “I met Christina about four and a half years ago now. She had just come back from North Korea and she had a script she wanted me to read. She wanted me to be Nancy. As I came to know Nancy’s story, I identified with her. I just decided I wasn’t going to leave this one aside. We were going to figure out how to get it made,” Riseborough recalls. “I have my own film company, but that was never because I had some great internal calling to produce shit, you know? It was more because I felt almost obliged to take that space that was so rarely occupied by women.” The result was her all-female production company, Mother Sucker, which seeks to advance female-driven projects and provide resources for women in the film business to bring their stories to life.
Playing the “film game” from the producer’s seat has given her a new perspective. “My company came together because I was so fucking angry. It was kind of a revelation because you realize it doesn’t need to be as shitty an experience as you have been told from the people you worked with in the past. You can actually make something that’s really valuable, collaborative, communicative, and progressive. It can be all those things.” A triumphant smile spreads across her face.
Nancy is the first project to be produced by Mother Sucker. “It took a lot of women rallying together to make the movie,” Riseborough states. She takes her time to answer when she speaks. She is meticulous with her words. She won’t tolerate misinterpretation—she intends for her message to come through loud and clear. She continues: “If making money was what drove me, I wouldn’t be in this industry; I’d be in Wall Street.”
Taking the production reigns wasn’t easy, but it did come with rewards. “It was not a walk in the park; no film is a walk in the park. The heavy weight that comes along with producing and being responsible for sixty-five people’s lives—when you are in a little film, that is indescribable. I would say ‘equal’ if you compare it with just acting: the stress is equal.” However, switching chairs was a great experience overall. “When I was producing Nancy myself, I felt a lot calmer, because there was no bullshit; because I knew that ultimately, when it came down to it, we could steer the ship whichever way we wanted to. That was a huge relief.”
For Riseborough, pouring life into Nancy wasn’t so much acting as it was an organic transformation that took place after feeling like she had known her for four years. “For the most part there she was, just waiting to manifest physically. With her it all felt very natural and experiences are not always like that. It just all became very apparent the first day we started shooting. There she was.”
There was an informative parallel between the substance of the film and the location where it is set—“upstate New York, in Grand Central Trump Town”—that lends the whole a greater dramatic resonance. “What Nancy is going through is a hard experience. And I know it’s not an epic big movie, but to me... I feel like it is. Not because anything particularly important is happening in Nancy’s life, but because it is very honest and human. We are very honest about her deceptions and her loneliness, and her feelings of being disenfranchised from not just the town she lives in but the world she is living in. We were honest about all that and so, for that reason, I think it’s epic.”
If Riseborough has a favorite word, it might be “honesty.” It comes up repeatedly during our discussion of her work and her objectives. “Sometimes I forget that I’ve been honest about things, and that that can be dangerous. But when two people meet and you give them honesty there is also an exchange of respect. I already trust you. I don’t worry about shit like that, I actually have more faith in people, and despite a few times when it was not well received, I keep doing it.”
That honesty may be the reason many describe her as an activist, but Riseborough sees that aspect of her life as less a choice or a position than as a natural result of who and where she is. “I think people in my profession (but especially females in my profession) for some reason are seen as unattractive when stating opinions at work. And I just think it’s really great for men, women, transgender people—everyone— to be politicized, to have a political life... It’s okay to have an honest relationship with the world and share that with people if you do have a platform or a voice. I think there was a time when that was seen as very crude; it was very crude to have an opinion or go against the status quo, and that is boring.”
If there is an inspiration for her refusal to stay silent about the “status quo,” it is in part due to the experiences of her colleague, English actress Samantha Morton. “When she talked about being abused as a child—somebody extremely talented and respected as she is, and with the same job as me—I thought, ‘Fucking hell, if she wants to say it, she should say it.’ That was the first time I remember somebody was honest about these things publicly.” Now that Riseborough’s voice is an increasingly prominent presence in the game, the status quo is in for some trouble.
Written by Roberto Rodríguez Mijares
Photographed by Ali Daniel Flores
Styled by Luis Enrique Bolívar Lugo and Juan Pablo Santoyo/ Le Style Maison for 212 Productions
Produced by 212 Productions
Location Hotel Mallorca Mexico City