“I was absolutely terrified,” Andrea Riseborough laughs. “I had six bodyguards following me every time I went to the toilet for a wee.” The porcelain-skinned actress is describing the downside to being decked-out in priceless Cartier jewels by a certain musician-turned-filmmaker (Madonna). What started out as a cup of tea with Miss Ciccone in London ended up a flight to the Côte d’Azur, where Riseborough stepped into the designer shoes and vintage Dior outfits of the original material girl, Wallis Simpson, in Madonna’s new film W.E. An American socialite and the subsequent Duchess of Windsor, Wallis coined that infamous pearl of wisdom “You can never be too rich or too thin,” and left behind a collection of rocks worth millions.
Madonna borrowed them for authenticity, giving Riseborough access to a truly fairytale dressing-up box. “I was wearing things some days that you can’t even price. But the reality of that was 150 hours of costume fittings… blood, sweat and tears,” she explains. As for being directed by one of the most influential women in music history, Riseborough appears unfazed. “We were just very complicit from the outset,” she shrugs in a down-to-earth voice, tinged with Geordie tones. “I think you have to work instinctively and my instinct told me that this woman is passionate and sharp, and this is brilliantly exciting subject matter – let’s go!”
Those instincts have been pointing the 29-year-old in all the right directions – after an “it” girl moment at Toronto International Film Festival, her career is starting to glitter with Hollywood promise and this young actress is fast becoming the UK’s most sought after new star – not that she finds herself on our shores much any more. She has ditched her Hackney flat for the unlikely location of Boise, Idaho (hometown of her street artist boyfriend) and a base in Los Angeles, but today she’s briefly back in London staying at the Groucho Club while she promotes no less than five films in one flying visit. She’s asked to meet in Soho, at a vegan restaurant to get her five-a-day while fluently discussing subjects from psychiatry to South African politics to Nazi history. “Sorry, we’re doing this on the hop,” she apologises, aiming her fork at a collection of vegetables. “I’ll try not to spit these organic Guatemalan children’s toenails at you.”
In the last few years, Riseborough has wriggled under the skins of such an eclectic galaxy of characters, and it is genuinely difficult to recognise her from one role to the next. Whether she’s on camera for two minutes or two hours, she immerses herself completely: you get the feeling she could tell you her characters’ earliest childhood memory, deepest fears or darkest secrets. If there’s any theme emerging, it might be that the outspoken actress is often attracted to rebels with a knack for upsetting the status quo. She lost her (onscreen) virginity for Sam Taylor-Wood as a Buzzcocks-obsessed teenager in Love You More, followed by a defining turn as the young Margaret Thatcher in the television drama The Long Walk To Finchley. Tracing the years before Maggie bulldozed her way through Parliament, Riseborough attacked the role with Thatcher’s own work ethic, spending long hours at the BFI pouring over old footage, and even visiting the politician’s childhood bedroom in Grantham to conjure up some ghosts. Last year’s Made In Dagenham was tackled with similar tenacity; to play a boisterous, pint-drinking Ford factory-worker campaigning for equal pay, Riseborough spent two weeks on a factory floor sewing car seats in an enormous beehive. Of her roles so far she says simply: “I’m very picky. I can only respond to what ignites something in me. I read some scripts and think, wow, we’ve knocked female emancipation back by at least 30 years. By page 16! It makes you want to take a plastic fork and stab your eyes out.”
In which case, her latest role must have come as a breath of fresh (sea) air. An adaptation of Graham Greene’s sinister 1938 novel Brighton Rock, director Rowan Joffe’s noir script trawls through a seedy criminal underworld, turning the kitsch English seaside resort into a pitch-black nightmare. It was a risky undertaking for the first-time director – both Terence Malick and Martin Scorsese have considered and then balked at the thought of tackling Greene’s monumental book. Joffe’s solution is to catapult the action forward three decades into 1964, allowing the drama to unfold during the infamous May Bank Holiday when the mods met the rockers on Brighton beach in a hail of pebbles and flying deck chairs. Control’s Sam Riley takes the lead as trench-coated gangster Pinkie Brown, who morphs from pickpocket to cold-blooded killer in a fit of rage under Brighton pier, igniting a gang war that rages across the faded seaside town (the last British actor to play the iconic anti-hero on the big screen was Richard Attenborough back in 1947). But it’s Riseborough’s gawky tea-shop waitress Rose that walks away with the movie.
“I’m very picky. I can only respond to what ignites something in me”
She won the part when Carey Mulligan took off for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, but it didn’t take long to prove she was the right actress for the job. “I had seen Andrea in a Tom Stoppard adaptation of Ivanov and although I was in the cheapest seats in the house I was riveted by her stage presence,” remembers Joffe. “And then the actress that walked into the basement room where we auditioned looked nothing like the woman I’d seen onstage. She has this chameleon-like ability that is actually rare in actors.” Her character Rose is not one of those larger-than-life figures Riseborough has embodied so well in the past – in her thick glasses and tweed coat, she is mousy, unloved and besottedly loyal to the casually sadistic Pinkie. But Riseborough’s delicately stitched portrayal is beautifully nuanced and pumps blood into her veins. “It’s a hard thing to define what a strong woman is, isn’t it?” she muses. “Rose is externally timid but she’s also the beating heart of bravery.” Riseborough set about building the character by studying stills from the period, “but inspiration can come from anywhere,” she insists. “It may be a painting in the National Portrait Gallery, a child on the street, a man up a ladder… I am my own tool. The only thing I have is all the things I’ve experienced.”
British seaside towns feature prominently in those experiences – Riseborough grew up with a car salesman father and secretary mother on the North Sea in Whitely Bay, once a rival to Blackpool, these days more famous as a popular destination for hen and stag nights. It was an insatiable curiosity that marked her out as a budding actress from an early age. “We’d be in a restaurant like this, and my dad would elbow me and say, ‘Andrea, you’re staring again!’ The writing was definitely on the wall. I sat and talked to myself in the mirror as a million different people. I wanted to be everything growing up – a plumber, a rocket scientist, a bin man… And then I thought, ‘Well, I could do all of those things…’” She remembers the day acting became a possibility as a kind of epiphany moment: aged nine, her mother’s hairdresser recommended her for a part in a play in Newcastle. “I felt like my soul was going to fall out through the seat of my pants,” she laughs. “In a way, it’s the first and last moment of terror I’ve ever had, relating to what I do.” From that day on she threw herself into a world of student films, doing eight plays a year, and nurturing twin obsessions fairly unusual for a nine-year-old – Shakespeare and black-and-white movies, thanks to Sunday afternoon trips to the cinema with her father. It was watching a mumbling Marlon Brando on screen that first opened her eyes to the possibilities of her chosen craft. “I was a precocious kid. It was a lonely life! But kids still spoke to me in the playground. It wasn’t too tragic…”
“The kind of cinema I want to create is the unknown, the dangerous… the kind of cinema that could go anywhere”
At school it was assumed by all that her fierce intelligence would propel Riseborough to Oxbridge, but she had other ideas. Just before her A-levels, she dropped out and ditched acting altogether, renting a flat in Newcastle while embarking on an assortment of random jobs, and a stint fronting a band. “Something inside of me said, ‘Get out, see some stuff!’ Eventually, I ended up in a Chinese restaurant. Three years down the line I had shredded my last duck. I said to myself, this is duck fat, and now I am ready to go to RADA.”
It’s not your conventional preparation for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but Riseborough has a habit of succeeding on her own terms. During her time there, she learned “to explore physicality and method and voice and imagination, and stamping out your own ego – always a tricky one,” she jokes. Since graduating in 2005 she’s rarely had a day off, collecting critical acclaim on both stage and screen. A role in Mark Romanek’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel Never Let Me Go recently united her with some other contenders for UK’s brightest acting talent – Carey Mulligan and new Spider-Man Andrew Garfield – in what Ishiguro calls a kind of “Magnificent Seven” moment for British cinema. After watching Riseborough and her peers tackle the intricacies of his novel – a haunting story of an elite boarding school with ominous medical plans for its pupils – the author commented that this new acting generation approached work differently to their older counterparts.
“I am my own tool. The only thing I have is all the things I’ve experienced”
“It’s hard to compare because I don’t know what Ian McKellen does in his house at night,” Riseborough says. “Perhaps there’s less romance? I think ‘method’ changed acting for all time. But I think talent prevails, empathy prevails, and it’s important to be in touch with your motivation.”
Riseborough’s motivation is not in doubt – with her recent shift from supporting to lead roles, from downtrodden waitress to glamorous aristocracy, few parts seem to be out of her reach. And with the rising profile her new films will bring, she is edging closer to a goal that was born on those childhood Sunday afternoons soaking up art-house movies in the dark. “It seems so clear to me and so obvious,” she says. “The kind of cinema I want to create is the unknown, the dangerous… the kind of cinema that could go anywhere.“ With that, her phone resumes its bleeping and she’s tugging on an enormous faux-fur coat against the cold – there’s a flight back to Los Angeles tomorrow, and in the meantime there might be some dangerous roles in that growing pile of scripts waiting for her attention.
Brighton Rock is out on February 4
Photography by Rankin
Hair Tracie Cant at Premier
Make-up Ayami Nishimura at Julian Watson using Shu Uemura
Nails Adam Slee
Photographic Assistants Andrew Davies, Rachel Smith, Max Montgomery, Jck McGuire, Dom Chinea
Styling Assistants Nell Kalonji, Nieki Chan
Make-up Assistant Shin Sone
Digital Operators Mike Tinney, Gabriel Lloret