Brandon Cronenberg’s latest offering stars Andrea Riseborough as an assassin who transfers her consciousness into the bodies of her victims
If you search for Andrea Riseborough on Google Images, you’ll find 15 widely different people who, upon further examination, are all Andrea Riseborough. A metalhead in Mandy. A clone in Never Let Me Go. A socialite in Madonna’s W.E. Whatever the role, Riseborough, an actor who’s never used her real accent in a movie, transforms herself so convincingly you may not realise it’s her. You can reach the end of Nocturnal Animals, spot her name in the credits, and then rewind to learn that Amy Adams’ eccentric, party-throwing pal was Riseborough all along.
In that sense, Possessor represents the ultimate Andrea Riseborough movie. Written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg, Possessor is a kinky, trippy, sci-fi body-horror that doubles as a chilling metaphor for amassing eclectic IMDb credits. Again unrecognisable, Riseborough plays Tasya Vos, an assassin whose career involves extreme roleplay: she puts on a headset, her consciousness is transferred to another human being, and Tasya puppeteers the victim into committing heinous crimes. Tasya’s problem, though, aside from the ethics of murder, is that she’s too dedicated to her job and keeps forgetting who the real Tasya is. Subsequently, Tasya is dead-eyed, twitchy, and up there with Riseborough’s most disturbing onscreen villains – she did once play Margaret Thatcher in a TV series.
“I was trying to find a profession other than acting that has such a similar experience to being this assassin,” Riseborough tells me over Zoom. “But Brandon told me not to fight it.” The Newcastle-born, 38-year-old actor is speaking from Butte, Montana, in the middle of a film shoot, in early November, where it’s nearly 3AM her time. She should, really, be asleep, but instead she’s listening to me describe what happens when you search her name on Google Images. “That’s related to the way I enjoy doing my job,” she says. “I can see pictures of me at a press event, and know where I was mentally at the time, and which character I was playing, and why I looked that way, and why I postured myself differently.” She wants to word this correctly – I’ve accidentally asked her to sum herself up as a person. “I’m very affected by the characters I play. I haven’t found a good way of balancing that, to be honest.”
Upon exiting a stranger’s body, Tasya shrieks, vomits, then needs to practise speaking in her “Tasya” voice before rejoining her family. If that’s what it takes to be an actor, I’m glad I’m not one. “Tasya divorces herself from her emotions in order to carry out her job in the most calculated and brilliant way,” Riseborough explains. “It was liberating to play because there was a sense of acceptance, calmness, and blankness – the feeling you’re trying to achieve when you meditate. Yet she’s a ruthless killing machine. The only way she can feel any sort of rush is through extreme, extreme violence, to the point where she’s not only carrying out her job but she’s stepped over the line into bloodthirst.”
For Tasya’s latest mission, she’s instructed by her boss (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to inhabit the body of Colin (Christopher Abbott) in order to assassinate a CEO (Sean Bean) and his daughter (Tuppence Middleton). The acting from both leads is balletic and mesmeric: Tasya rehearses how she will walk and talk as Colin, then Colin’s body contorts as if there’s a woman controlling him from the inside. Initially, Colin’s movements are off-kilter and alien, like an adult learning to walk for the first time. In most body-swap movies, this would be played for laughs; here, it’s cold, clinical, and realistic. Which is to say that Tasya-as-Colin checks out his equipment in the mirror and it’s not a punchline.
On set, though, it’s really Abbott playing Riseborough. “We spent a lot of time together, me and Andrea, and you naturally pick up each other’s mannerisms,” Abbott notes over Zoom from New York. “Tasya’s having an identity crisis of her own, then you add the layer of her being in somebody else’s body.” Abbott re-enacts an improvised line of dialogue in which Colin repeats a sentence twice because Tasya’s still test-driving her new vehicle. “While Tasya’s good at her job, she’s constantly fucking up.”
Abbott, 34, boasts an impressive filmography, having been cast by the likes of Damien Chazelle, Brady Corbet, and JC Chandor. His major breakthrough – aside from two seasons as Marnie’s boyfriend on Girls – was as the fiery lead of James White, in which he made every scene with Kid Cudi and Cynthia Nixon feel spontaneous and electric. “James White was like playing tennis in a room,” Abbott recalls. “But Possessor was this internal battle where the audience doesn’t see the dialogue that is happening, because it’s all in one body.”
“It was liberating to play because there was a sense of acceptance, calmness, and blankness – the feeling you’re trying to achieve when you meditate. Yet she’s a ruthless killing machine” – Andrea Riseborough
Whereas Riseborough identified with Tasya as an actor, Abbott was more affected by Colin awakening from his slumber to realise he’s no longer in control. “The technology doesn’t exist, so I have no idea what it’s like to be in somebody else’s body,” he says. “So you go: ‘What’s the closest thing?’ Whether it’s multiple personality disorder or schizophrenia – I’m not saying I have those things, but I have had enough issues like bad anxiety to relate to what it feels like to have an out-of-body experience.”
Within the film, an out-of-body experience can be a catalyst for gruesome images. So gruesome, in fact, there are two versions on sale: Possessor and Possessor Uncut. One imagines what kind of menacing, intimidating figure would conceive of such a warped, sinister film. However, Brandon Cronenberg – who is, yes, the son of Videodrome director David Cronenberg – reveals himself on a third, separate Zoom call to be softly spoken and not the Tasya Vos monster I was secretly hoping for. So much so, the 40-year-old Canadian filmmaker reveals that anxiety over interviews for his 2012 debut Antiviral was what inspired Possessor. Maybe Tasya Vos isn’t just an actor but also a director doing junkets?
“When you travel with a film for the first time, you’re creating a persona, consciously or unconsciously, and you’re performing a media version of yourself that goes off and has a weird life without you online,” Cronenberg says. “I was feeling like I couldn’t see myself in my own life. I was sitting up in the mornings, feeling as though I was sitting up in someone else’s life.” If press for Antiviral felt like an out-of-body experience, then what’s it like doing Zoom calls during a pandemic? “Incredibly strange. It almost doesn’t feel like I’m releasing a film.”
During the writing process, Cronenberg introduced a subplot involving data theft. Colin’s employer, Zoothroo, spy on homeowners through their webcams; Colin then jots down miniscule details, such as what curtains are in the background. “Zoothroo is a more on-the-nose satire,” Cronenberg explains. “People always assume that Siri, Alexa, and these AI assistants are a security threat. But when you read an article confirming that these microphones activate at random and record 30-second chunks of your life and send them to private contractors, it’s still shocking.” He laughs. “You assume that’s the case but it’s alarming to get it confirmed. These people get recordings of your doctor’s appointments, your business meetings, and you having sex, just because you have these apps activated.”
Cronenberg adds, “It’s terrifying that an internet algorithm has so much information about you – not just your buying habits but the way you move a mouse on the screen. As AI advances, people leave more of themselves online to be observed by data mining companies. It could be the case that major corporations know more about you than you do, and are able to predict your wants and needs better than you or your close friends are able to.”
While the poster image – Abbot wearing a mask of Riseborough’s torn-off face – may not suggest Possessor is erotic, it unquestionably is. At least, I think it is. “It’s absolutely erotic,” Cronenberg confirms. “Bodies entering bodies is always going to be erotic to a certain degree. If you’re taking the premise seriously, you can’t ignore what it would feel like to have sex in somebody else’s body.”
“When you travel with a film for the first time, you’re creating a persona, consciously or unconsciously, and you’re performing a media version of yourself that goes off and has a weird life without you online” – Brandon Cronenberg
In the film’s hypnotic centrepiece, Colin, while possessed by Tasya, has sex with his girlfriend; as the money shot approaches, psychedelic colours flood the screen and Colin is temporarily replaced with Tasya wearing a prosthetic penis. It’s a symbolic sequence that could not exist in any other film or medium. “At that point, the psyche of Colin and Tasya is so intertwined that we enter a hallucinogenic experience with them,” Riseborough says. “It was extraordinary to film because that moment is such a release, because it’s orgasmic, but it’s also such an oppressive moment.
“Right at the moment it’s the most intense, Chris leaves and I slip in, and then I leave and Chris resumes. Brandon flooded the set with this overwhelming blue light. It was so blue, it felt like you were dreaming. I also couldn’t imagine it in any other film.”
It’s especially surreal to watch Possessor on a sofa during a pandemic. If you’re lucky enough to do so, working from home is a cruel reminder that many of our lives are arguably pointless and that jobs are weird constructions to distract us from the meaningless of our existence. It’s a funny gag that Tasya can live an entire life by lying down and wearing a headset – but I just see something more ergonomic than the laptop I’m checking emails on all day. After all, aren’t we all, to some extent, roleplaying as adults?
“I think people can identify with the idea that Tasya is playing a part in her own life,” Riseborough says. “She’s maintaining the façade of being a wife and a mother so that she won’t be questioned. She lives up to the roles expected of her – gender roles, family roles – and she’s hoping desperately that she’s doing it right, because she no longer has any sense of what’s meaningful to her at all.”
Cronenberg agrees. “Most of us go around imagining we’re a coherent self that is the same from moment to moment and has some sort of will,” he says. “But actually, beneath the surface, each human being is a chorus of conflicting voices and impulses. We’re affected by ideas – psychological infections, maybe – that we pick up from other people. We’re affected by our own microbiome. There’s medical science focused on fecal transplants, and there are thoughts that your personality is influenced by gut bacteria and parasites you don’t know you have.”
It could just be that everyone will see themselves in Possessor. Personally, I identified with Tasya Vos. Early on, she spies on Colin from a distance, observing his body language and mannerisms in order to later impersonate him. It’s a creepy scene, yet also a visualisation of what happens when you type someone’s name into Google for interview preparation. Due to reading past Riseborough interviews, I’m able to mention, for instance, that she once admitted to wetting herself at school as a four-year-old.
“Bodies entering bodies is always going to be erotic to a certain degree. If you’re taking the premise seriously, you can’t ignore what it would feel like to have sex in somebody else’s body” – Brandon Cronenberg
“Shit. Did I?!” She looks mortified. “I’m not sure how that slipped out – pun intended. It’s odd. One of the joyful parts of promoting a film is having an intimate and relaxed conversation with a complete stranger about how you made it, what it was like psychologically, and how it relates to your own life. In a way, your job is like Tasya Vos’s – you develop this temporary rapport with a person you’re not actually close to.”
Riseborough has another film out at the moment called Luxor. The gorgeous drama – which is written and directed by Zeina Durra and is a must-see for fans of Columbus – stars Riseborough as a PTSD-stricken medic walking around Egypt as part of her healing process. As the character is closed off and won’t let anybody in, it’s very much the opposite of a body-swap movie. “I filmed Luxor first and went into Possessor. I went from this astoundingly beautiful and peaceful backdrop to play Tasya, who’s causing trauma for everybody around her.” Riseborough fell in love with her Luxor co-star Karim Saleh during the shoot. “Karim is here with me now, in the other room. It was a life-changing, beautiful experience. It’s mind-blowing we have it immortalised on film. Well, on digital.”
Abbott, I suspect, has a different acting philosophy from Riseborough, which is why they complement each other so well. While Abbott’s roles and film choices are certainly wide-ranging, you don’t get 15 different Christopher Abbots when typing his name into Google Images. “I’ve done the physical thing of losing and gaining weight or what have you,” he says. “The through-line for me is a certain level of honesty.”
Famously, Abbott asked to leave Girls after two seasons due to not relating to the character enough. “James White was a blend of me and my friend Josh, who directed it, and people we knew growing up.” He pauses. “It varies, man, but it’s still my face. I can change whatever the fuck I want, but it’s still me. It’s still essentially my voice. I can try to do things but I don’t think anyone can really run away from it unless you do some crazy prosthetics thing, and then it becomes a makeup show. Which is fine.”
2021 will be a major year for Abbott. His upcoming films include The World to Come, Black Bear, and, the one I’m most excited about, On the Count of Three – Jerrod Carmichael’s hotly awaited directorial debut starring Abbott, Carmichael and Tiffany Haddish. “Jerrod is a good buddy of mine,” Abbott says. “We shot additional stuff this summer, actually. It’s a dark comedy-drama about two very close best friends dealing with mental health issues. It’s a lot of crazy stuff in 24 hours.”
For Cronenberg, there are two genre films he’s ready to shoot back to back when COVID is either over or more manageable, Dragon and Infinity Pool. In the meantime, he’s totally relaxed that Possessor’s planned theatrical release was scuppered by lockdown. Instead, it’s coming out on VOD on the same date. While I felt distracted watching a sparse, quiet drama like Ammonite on my laptop, Possessor is big, loud, and immersive enough that it’s oddly perfect for home viewing.
“I personally don’t fetishise theatrical in the way that some directors do,” Cronenberg says. “As much as it’s a thrill, I don’t think movies need to be seen that way. I actually quite like watching films at home on my own. If that’s keeping people safe, I don’t think you absolutely must see the film in a theatre. I’m sure it’s a different experience to some degree, but I’m not crushed.”
Signature Entertainment presents Possessor on digital platforms from November 27