Andrea Riseborough Is Done Disappearing

Photo: Bobby Doherty

Andrea Riseborough is the kind of actor lauded for “disappearing” into her roles and rendering herself unrecognizable from one to the next, which perhaps explains why, after over a decade in the business, it’s only relatively recently that she’s become a big, revered name in the film world. But the run she’s had in recent years has been pretty impeccable — she had a memorable turn in Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman, is arguably the best part of the tennis dramedy Battle of the Sexes, and leads a harrowing episode of the most recent season of Black Mirror (the one with the pizza truck and the memory recaller.) She’s totally, astonishingly uncategorizable as a performer, which makes her trajectory incredibly exciting to follow both for her fans and film fans in general. This year, her eclectic tastes have brought her to two wildly different, and yes, defiantly uncategorizable title roles: Mandy in Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy, and Nancy in Christina Choe’s Nancy.

The former, a psychedelic, heavy-metal obsessed revenge film co-starring Nicolas Cage as the title character’s raging, grief-stricken husband, has been slowly blossoming into a modern-day Rocky Horror–esque cult phenomenon since its initial release last month. And though it boasts neither chainsaws nor cheddar goblins, Choe’s film might be the harder one to explain — a quiet, difficult little drama about a woman who suspects she was kidnapped as a child, and tries to get in touch with her birth parents. Riseborough’s Nancy is a character the likes of which we rarely see onscreen — a strange, specific woman with a specific life story who refuses to be vulnerable, or even understood. But her actions and decisions are captivating — especially once she shows up on the doorstep of her supposed real parents (J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi).

Riseborough produced the film in addition to starring in it, and as she explained over the phone from the U.K., where she was preparing for its premiere at the London Film Festival, championing Choe’s work and seeing it through is as much a responsibility for her as showing up to set and getting into character. Riseborough is a serious, tough, real-deal actor, the kind of actor that usually intimidates the living daylights out of me. So I was delighted that the woman on the other end of the line was a sunny, matter-of-fact hustler, who above all else, is working her ass off to get Choe into the spotlight — for the good of the film but also for the good of all film. I spoke to her about how she balances the workload of producer and star, what she looks for in a project to take under her wing, and about that scene in Mandy, and that laugh.

What was it about Christina’s script that made you feel like not only that you wanted to play that character, but also be responsible for getting that story out into the world?
That’s an interesting question, because I think certainly we all, especially now … I mean, I’ve always felt a responsibility to try and help enable female artists in some way. Until recently I didn’t really have the power to do that, and now that I do have some experience and connections and I can sort of navigate the waters of producing as well, it’s been so wonderful to meet young female filmmakers and really see their voice through from beginning to end. My company’s called Mother Sucker, and I started it years ago when I was really, really pissed off with Warner Brothers. Particularly pissed off with Warner Brothers one day over a sort of ridiculous male-female discrimination issue.

What was the project, or the issue?
That’s actually less important. The important thing was, that was not exclusive to any experience. I’d had that same experience on pretty much every film and pretty much every studio, so it was more that there was a gap in the market for women advocating for women’s voices. It certainly wasn’t my ambition to produce. It never was, and it’s still not to produce something on a big-budget scale unless I feel like it’s a female voice, or an LGBTQ+ voice, or a voice from a place in society that we hear from less than a straight male voice, which we hear so often and so loud. That would warrant owning that kind of insane stress and pressure [of producing].

But in terms of [Nancy] and why I wanted to continue with it from beginning to end and do it with my company is that often, we can get funding to make a female film. (“Female film” is such a strange term, but you know what I mean.) You need a brilliant young filmmaker, and then you can cobble enough money together, usually from female benefactors. Affluent ones who are Robin Hood types, who will invest because they want to see more female voices. But then after the fact, it’s so impossible to compete with the type of budgets that studios have … even, you know, bespoke studios. It’s so hard to even compete with their kind of power and muscle and the money that they have to put behind really publicizing that voice.

Really, getting Christina’s voice to world has been what the purpose of this piece was. I thought she’d written a brilliant script. She’d just come back from North Korea. She’d been making a short there. She just didn’t give a fuck. She’s so courageous as a person, and we got on really well, and just really from the beginning I just, I sort of just stuck with it. I kept checking in. We went through lots of different producers, I kept … I made some suggestions. After a while I asked, maybe I could produce it. And then once that happened, the ball really got rolling, and I brought Barbara Broccoli on. She was our fairy godmother, truly. Then, lots of people were interested, and the film managed to have a life.

At what point in your career did you feel like you had the power to produce? Or when did you decide to will that to happen, where you felt like you were ready to kind of have the title of “producer” be something in your arsenal?
Never, I don’t think. Like I said, because it wasn’t an aspiration of any sort. I mean, an aspiration would be finishing a novel. I’m an artist more than a business wiz, and all of that organization comes very naturally to me, so that part of it I find I can cope with with some ease. But I think it was more the feeling of just … I had a deep sense of injustice that there were these really brilliant stories about female anti-heroes which we need to see more of. The image that Hollywood has presented of women over the last 20 years had been really depressing. I certainly think it went backwards after the ’70s. You think back to the days of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, you can’t quite believe those films were ever made.

We like to think that history kind of trends toward more progress, but there’s definitely been a dip since the 70s of movies that are really expressly made for women. Maybe those golden age movies weren’t perfect in their portrayal of women, but way more of them had a woman’s perspective at the forefront.
I think so, and I think that’s because like any ideology, the patriarchy lives in all of us. It’s not gender-specific. It takes us all to keep it chugging along. I was having a conversation with a group of producers, female producers I’m working with today, about our part in enabling that to happen. Us not speaking up, or us sometimes “deciding” not to make a fuss, because the fallout is sometimes so messy that there’s not time for it, you know. We’re multitasking already.

It’s hard to not only have a moral compass, and be very aware about equality, but then also follow through with it, especially financially. It’s hard to explain to people, but we’re invited to so many festivals with Nancy. We’ve had huge success that we didn’t think we would; we weren’t really expecting it, given we had such a small release. And it’s been at so many festivals, and Christina simply cannot go and I cannot go to all of them because we have no money. For me, I can get myself there and that’s why I started my company. I can get the cast members and her there, but it’s very difficult to support a film when you also need to make money at the same time. Our producer just had a baby. There’s a lot going on for everyone.

Yeah, that’s something I think about a lot. Obviously there are a lot more films released every year now, and more women filmmakers every year, even though that’s still an uphill battle. But along with that, the resources are spread more thin. So while I’m glad that there are more opportunities for women directors and writers, I know that the actual material resources for them are nothing like they were for an average filmmaker a couple decades ago.
Right. We’re doing it without any of the infrastructural support. We’re doing it without a big studio putting $100 million into publicizing our film so we can take most of the time off, so we don’t need to make money. We’re still doing it with unequal pay. There are a lot of balls in the air, and of course, Christina would love to just take six months off and fully devote herself to our awards campaign, which would be wonderful and we would all love. However, she and I, and all of us, we have to work. Me, in order to keep having this smaller voice that I’ve managed to carve out, and her to just literally survive. That’s frustrating, and it’s difficult to explain. It’s also … I mean, I don’t know about you, but I feel like this last year, I mean, this year so many festivals were lacking a female voice.

Oh, God, yeah.
There were some other [festivals] that have really come forward and included every woman they can, and have wanted to hear what experience they’ve had. Just to hear them, to be on panels, to discuss what’s happened, just to hear them so that we can move forward in a more effective way, which is fantastic. We’re going to the Savannah Film Festival, and their focus is almost entirely female. They’re interested not in just stars. They’re interested in stalwart actors, like J. Smith-Cameron in Nancy, who’ve had an incredible onscreen careers, and talking about what the last 40 years has been like for them. I think that’s really good information. We need to keep talking about them. We need to keep communicating what our experience is like, and not feeling that we shouldn’t bother people with it. You know? I’m always worried about taking up people’s time.

It’s been drilled into us since infancy! Kind of on the same theme, but a very different subject, I want to talk a little bit about Mandy. There’s a scene in it that I think is going to go down as one of my favorite scenes in any movie this year. I’m talking about the part after Mandy has been drugged up by the cult, and the leader is playing his record to impress her. And she just starts laughing at him, uncontrollably. That scene gave me goosebumps. Because of course, it felt like this perfect distillation of the Margaret Atwood quote about men just being afraid of being laughed at by women, but it also made that laughter a very violent thing and a really powerful thing in that moment. It’s also hard for me to even imagine what it was like to shoot that scene, because the visual effects are so intense.
It was really … I’m trying to think of a word to even describe that experience. It was certainly cathartic.

It looked like it.
I think that laughter is born from 80,000 years of hominid oppression, from men to women. But I would say what made it possible … even just the telling of that story and the creation of that film, was Panos’s view of Mandy. In his vision, the film is all about Mandy, and Mandy being this spiritually … she’s almost unattainable, spiritually, she’s so spiritually sound, and despite all of the inhumane treatment in the physical world, her spirit is resourceful, impenetrable, everlasting, and she essentially becomes a deity.

It’s hard to describe the film to people, because perhaps, if you were to lay out the specifics on paper, it wouldn’t be something that you would think in any way had feminist connotations, but when you understand Panos and you understand what he was going through when he wrote it, and how much he was writing for his mother and his father and going through the grief of their deaths, you understand very much that the idea of Mandy is eternal. That he, in every way, seeks to portray the divine feminine as something incredibly powerful, and maybe the most powerful force. I don’t know. You’d have to ask him that more specifically, but …

Well, so much of the attention has gone to the cult aspect and the gonzo violence in the film. And Mandy herself doesn’t necessarily get to rage and rampage, but she certainly, I think, is revealed to be the strongest force by the end of the film. It’s hard to miss that.
Oh God, women have known since the dawn of time that raging and rampaging is virtually useless. It’s like throwing your toy out of the pram. We know not to waste time doing that anyway. That’s something that we’ve had secret knowledge about for a very long time. And I think what’s beautiful and painful about Nic’s performance is seeing him left in the physical world and struggling so much with coming to terms with his own grief. With being left behind, with having had almost half of his soul cut out. I think the performance is so beautiful.

I found it to be so pleasantly surprising to come in for a kind of trippy midnight movie, and end up being so moved by both your and his performances in it, in a way I totally did not see coming.
I think perhaps next to Brighton Rock, which is a film that I made with Sam Riley and Helen Mirren years ago, it’s, I think Mandy is the greatest love story that I’ve been part of telling. It felt very clear when we were shooting it.

I know you’re in London right now prepping for the London Film Fest, and you’re also in the middle of shooting ZeroZeroZero for Amazon. I was reading some older interviews with you where you were talking about the value of downtime, of resetting and committing to each new role as freshly as possible. I have to wonder how much of that is even available to you anymore with all that you have coming up, and everything that you have up in the air right now.
Well, that’s another good question. It’s kind of one of those balancing acts of, in order to keep investing in young female filmmakers, I do need to do quite a lot of work to be able to put money into my company, really. My workload has gone up, in every way.

Has it impacted how you approach performance at all?
Of course, sometimes it’s absolutely exhausting, but I don’t think it’s changed at all how  I approach a character. I think I have a lot greater trust in myself now, as I’m maturing, but I think that I used to research … I mean, I still research like a maniac, but I used to research to unreal lengths sometimes, you know. Travel halfway around the world to visit somebody, the place that the play was set in, somebody’s hometown. Even if I wasn’t … I was just, not even doing the job, you know.

That’s dedication. I’m sure any director would love that.
Well, it was something that I very much enjoyed, as well, because I feel like one of the great privileges of my job, and I’m sure you feel the same way, you get to travel, is being able to see lots of different parts of the world, and the way people live. But it has been a lot of work. I also think it’s worth it, and it feels really satisfying when we have things like this coming up. Right now I’m knee-deep in organizing flights and coordination everything, but I feel really satisfied that more people are going to get to see Christina’s work, which was the point of all of this from the beginning. She’s actually up on the iTunes director spotlight at the minute. Nancy’s up and there’s a picture of Christina, which is fantastic, up on iTunes at the moment. So, you know, small recognition like that, even though we don’t have a huge amount of money to do $100 million advertising campaigns or whatever, has meant that people are getting to enjoy her work. I know she’s got a really, really exciting career ahead of her.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Andrea Riseborough Is Done Disappearing