It’s 2am in Butte, Montana, and Andrea Riseborough is showing me the snow. “Can you see it?” says the star of Birdman and Black Mirror, holding her phone up to the empty streets of the old copper mining town. “Strangely, it settled when the presidential election result was called. It just seems really calm and peaceful since.”
The 39-year-old is halfway through a month of night shoots for a film called Please Baby Please, so she’s been on a “vampiric clock” – getting up at 4pm, going to bed at six in the morning. Hence the nocturnal Zoom call. “I feel really quite disconnected from what’s happening outside,” she says, settling back down on her bed, “and because we’re quarantining, we basically just go from our room to set and then back to our room. So my experience has really been inside of these four walls.”
Despite the bizarre routine, she’s enjoying Butte. “It’s very characterful and quite empty,” says Riseborough, her mellifluous Newcastle accent still intact despite her having lived for many years under the H of the Hollywood sign. “We’re shooting here because the film’s set in Fifties New York, but… it’s intentionally supposed to be a Fifties-set New York… almost like you’re watching it through a proscenium arch.” She laughs. “It’s a very surreal film.”
Surreal is kind of Riseborough’s thing. Though she has a sereneness about her, and what one interviewer called an “alarming” beauty, she has a habit of making the viewer feel conflicted, even straight-up uncomfortable. Whether she is playing Wallis Simpson, Margaret Thatcher or a body-invading assassin, her performances are never just skin-deep: if she’s gentle, she’s also brittle; if she’s calm, she’s also calculating; if she’s loving, she’s also damaged, or scared, or cruel. Think of her quietly crying as she prepares to murder a toddler in Black Mirror (2017); vying for power as a formidable but vulnerable Thatcher in The Long Walk to Finchley (2008); leaning in to kiss a fake blood-splattered Naomi Watts in the Oscar-nominated Birdman (2014); or laughing maniacally in the face of a dangerous cult leader in Mandy (2018). Even in the much-maligned, Madonna-directed W.E., the film that broke Riseborough into the mainstream and could have easily broken her career in one fell swoop, she committed so utterly to the role of royal interloper that she managed to avoid the vitriol. Critic Mark Kermode called hers “one of the best performances in one of the worst films I have ever, ever seen”.
We’re here to talk about Possessor. The latest sci-fi horror from Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, is a gruesome, fascinating film, full of close-up shots of impaled eyeballs and knives sinking into flesh. And Tasya Vos, a contract killer who possesses people’s bodies in order to carry out her murders, is perhaps the most amoral person Riseborough’s played since Thatcher. When she is hired to kill John Parse (Sean Bean), the owner of a corporation that gathers data through nefarious means, she must take over the body of his daughter’s boyfriend Colin (Christopher Abbott). The plan is to kill Parse, his daughter, and then herself – well, Colin. But something strange happens. Colin keeps trying to fight his way out.
“I’ve had a few conversations where people have said, ‘This must have been such a conflicting experience’,” says Riseborough, “and actually, that’s not what it felt like at all. It felt like a very focused, calm place to be mentally. I could never have anticipated that.”
Calming how? “I’m so excited about us not having to use this term in the future, but she’s a female anti-hero. There’s very little judgement about what she does, because it’s clearly understood that she’s an assassin and that’s her job. We’ve had so many examples in history of warriors who were women who were unashamedly violent in the expression of whatever cause they believed in. Brandon’s so progressive, perhaps the archetype was there somewhere in his subconscious.”
Riseborough speaks fondly of Cronenberg, whose first film, the similarly gory and high-concept Antiviral, split critics in 2012. “He’s part of this new school that I’m so happy to celebrate, which is non-tyrannical, really inclusive, really progressive,” she says. “So it’s great to walk onto set and feel like there’s this real collaboration and nobody needs to worry about anything.”
It is telling that Riseborough praises Cronenberg as much for what he isn’t as for what he is.
She has worked several times with Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who is currently in prison for rape, including on W.E. On a more recent film that he produced (she hasn’t specified which), she asked if there were going to be any women on set for a particularly vulnerable scene. The assistant director told her no. In 2017, she said that she experienced sexually inappropriate behaviour in Hollywood “almost every week” – that she had to go out with “two metaphorical bumpers” every day.
“I suppose I was referring to – I don’t know if you feel this – but the cushioning that you surround yourself with as a woman,” she says when I ask her to explain the bumpers. “Really simple things like walking in the dark and feeling almost like you’re bolstering yourself. You’re constantly on the protective lookout for yourself – because you have to be, realistically. That’s probably quite a feral quality, actually. Maybe it’s just the Geordie in me.” She laughs.
When the #MeToo movement started to gain traction, “it certainly felt cathartic”, says Riseborough, “but there was a sense that somewhere along the line, we were all going to be quietened”. They weren’t, but she did find herself being asked somewhat blunt questions by journalists. “Often when those interviews would be conducted at that time…” She pauses. “I think sometimes in the effort to get information out there, you can almost certainly re-harm.”
Riseborough’s own bad experiences on set are what led her to start her own, female-led production company, Mother Sucker. The ethos, she says, is simple: “‘We’re doing something here that’s quite delicate, we should probably all be respectful of that person who’s standing over there with not many clothes on.’” She doesn’t want people to feel the way she did – particularly in her early twenties. “I very much felt like I was lucky to be there and I should get on with it,” she says, “and there was an environment that supported that. But you can be grateful and express basic needs! There’s a difference between gratitude and conditional exchange. This concept that communicating your worth to somebody in a position of power is biting the hand that feeds you is an illusion. That’s just communicating.”
It’s hard to imagine Riseborough ever having been demure. There is something wilfully rebellious about her. When she appeared on Larry King’s talk show, her clippered bleached-blonde hair growing out in seemingly random tufts, she told him that she had shaved her armpits especially for him, and put her leg behind her head to prove that she had once been a contortionist at a Newcastle market. “Oh no, don’t do that,” he said, head in hands. “I’m Jewish, we get nervous.” She’s appeared on the Bafta red carpet with “Time’s Up” handwritten on her black tank-top, and on Jimmy Kimmel wearing a hoodie that said “equal pay”. “You know,” she says, when I mention the hoodie, “when I went back home to my apartment that night, the guy on the desk said to me, ‘This brand, Equal Pay, who are they?’” She laughs. “I was like, ‘No, I just wrote it on myself.’"
Equal pay has been something of a white whale for Riseborough. She was not born into privilege. She grew up in Wallsend, near Newcastle, her father a car salesman, her mother a secretary, both “working-class Thatcherites”. After dropping out of school before her A-levels, she worked as a greetings-card maker and in a Chinese restaurant before starting her career on the London stage, where she won the Ian Charleson award for actors under 30 for her roles in Measure for Measure and Miss Julie – Peter Hall, who directed her in those, has described her as “one of the bravest and more impressive actresses I’ve come across in recent years”. It was shortly after that when she was cast in Mike Leigh's sprightly comedy-drama Happy-Go-Lucky. She had a taste of pay parity then – the British auteur paid all his actors equally for their time – but ever since, her male co-stars have almost always received more.
She has been number one on the call sheet in the past, and still been paid significantly less than the men. “It wasn’t for want of me having asked for transparency,” she says. “It would be naive to assume that if you ask, you get what you want. For so many people in life – the majority of people on this planet – that is not their lived experience.
“Ideally what we want to get to is that everybody's time is as valuable, no matter what role they have in making a film,“ she says – but she knows that the problems extend well beyond Hollywood. “So many people are not compensated for working insane hours at ridiculously low pay, every single day of their lives, in conditions that are often torturous.”
By that barometer, things could be worse. Tomorrow, from behind a mask and a visor, Riseborough will present her Please Baby Please castmate Demi Moore with a cake for her 58th birthday, and then continue on with her surreal Montana night shoots. But for now, it’s nearly 3am. Time for dinner.
‘Possessor’ is on digital platforms from 27 November