Andrea Riseborough: ‘I was shredding a duck and I had a moment of clarity’

She left the Chinese restaurant for Rada to become one of her generation’s best actors

There is no confusing Andrea Riseborough’s origins. She may be squinting in Californian sunlight, but the narrowed vowels of northeast England remain soundly in place. “The skies are blue. Impenetrably blue,” she says.

Lest we be in any doubt, she is also wearing a Tyneside Cinema T-shirt.

“Have you been?” she says. “Everyone in my family has been going for years and years. You can hear the metro rumble beneath your feet.”

I have met Riseborough a few times, and it is always a pleasure to discover the eccentric, articulate Geordie behind the distinct faces she has worn on film. Interviewers are forever bothering her about her perplexing ability to shift appearance from role to role. Her young Margaret Thatcher in The Long Walk to Finchley looked nothing like her Mrs Wallis Simpson in Madonna's WE. More recently, her eponymous doomed hippie in Panos Cosmatos's Mandy could hardly be more removed from her austere Svetlana Stalina in Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin. This has nothing to do with false noses or wigs. She is a natural chameleon and a serious contender for the best actor of her generation.

“It is difficult being away for long periods of time from the UK and Ireland and Europe,” she says. “Because we were all of us in this close-knit community. And, obviously, that’s changed quite significantly recently. And then also, with the pandemic, every trip that you make has to be essential.”

You can see the alchemy at work in Stacey Gregg’s fine, upcoming Here Before. Riseborough plays a bereaved woman who comes to believe that a new neighbour’s daughter may have a spiritual connection with her own dead child. Riseborough confirms here that not only can she do a perfect Northern Irish accent – no small challenge – but she can do at least two perfect Northern Irish accents. In Shadow Dancer (2012) she was a working-class IRA volunteer. Here she masters a more suburban timbre.

“It was obviously very useful that I’ve had training in those things,” she says. “I am very musical. And so I approach accents with ease. But I think if you don’t understand the history of where those sounds are coming from, then you haven’t even begun to do your job. I feel so grateful that two different directors took a chance on me to play those two people, with me not coming from there. I took a long time over it, but it doesn’t take long before you realise, as you start looking into this city, this country, and the 1,000 years of history that preceded, that the difference is vast. As soon as you hear that, it is undeniable.”

North upon Tyne

That’s how Riseborough talks. She often pauses for 10 seconds to search the ceiling for worthwhile answers to your questions. It comes as no surprise to learn that she researches each role in depth. As she speaks, so does she act. She leaps in more quickly when I ask if Northern Ireland reminds her of Tyneside.

“Certainly. In every way,” she says with a smile. “Recently my mum’s been trying to do a bit of family history. We don’t have birth certificates. We don’t have photos. She’s just doing it herself. She’s not doing it on an app or anything. My grandma’s mum seemed to have just landed from some strange planet, somewhere that disappeared. All we had was hearsay. And then my mam found out that she may have come across from Northern Ireland to Newcastle – which I think a lot of workers did. So geographically it’s similar. The weather is similar to the land my people live on. But also there is something strong historically. I’m part-Northern Irish and I hadn’t actually known that.”

Riseborough launched straight into one of the more unusual careers of her generation. She remains highly esteemed by her peers. But she has not yet landed the bossiest roles in the biggest-budget films

Riseborough was born in Wallsend, a few miles from Newcastle upon Tyne, in winter 1981. Dad had a car dealership. Mam was a secretary. She grew up in Whitley Bay and, as a kid, moved towards acting at the People's Theatre in Newcastle. When I mention that Here Before premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh, she explains that, as a kid, she spent time in that city as part of a theatre exchange programme. Yet, for all her enthusiasm, she drifted away from acting before deciding to audition for the Royal Academic of Dramatic Arts in London.

“I didn’t really think I was going to do it again,” she says.

Why not?

A long, long pause as she investigates an empty corner of her home.

“Um. Pffft! This is a big answer that may be of interest to nobody but my mum. I moved out of home. I had different jobs and had my own little flat. I’d done a lot of classical theatre.”

She points out that the Royal Shakespeare Company had a venue in her area.

“I think when you grow up with anything you go through a period of reckoning with it – where you have outgrown the way you were doing it. I had a period of time working in a Chinese restaurant. I remember clearly when I was shredding a duck and I had a moment of clarity: I could just audition for Rada.”

Highly esteemed

She was in the same Rada class as such talents as Tom Hiddleston, Amanda Hale and Joel Fry. Did the academy suit her? Some actors profit from high-end theatrical training. Others prefer to make their own way.

“For me, I wouldn’t give that experience up,” she says. “The amount of technical access that you get – and the tools – is phenomenal. It’s a very different training now to when I did it, because we were all aspiring to be in the next Martin McDonagh play at the National [Theatre]. It was less film driven.”

Riseborough launched straight into one of the more unusual careers of her generation. She has worked consistently since graduation. She remains highly esteemed by her peers. But she has not yet landed the bossiest roles in the biggest-budget films. If there is an actor today who deserves to compete for an Oscar, it is Andrea Riseborough. Yet she has to settle for being good. In 2010 she starred alongside Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Domhnall Gleeson – beat that for a brat pack – in Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go. In the same year she was the best thing in Madonna's unfairly ridiculed WE. (Ms Ciccone also found space for a rising Oscar Isaac. ) She works with good directors. She rarely appears in commercial faff. Spot her in the corner of Birdman. Enjoy her in Battle of the Sexes, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton's take on the rivalry between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Watch the deranged Mandy on repeat.

Is there a plan here?

“I think it’s possible to have standards,” she says with a light cackle. “Those are the things that haven’t changed – from even when I couldn’t pay my rent. We all have different tastes as well. I do so much work. I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me. I have been so fulfilled by this work that has been so kind to me in many ways. So I’ve always shied away from … Well, I’d rather get a day job than do certain jobs in the industry. It might be giving you a lot of money. That’s understandable. This is my only income. But, for some reason, there has always been this level in my head of what I will and won’t do.”

Gender roles

I’m intrigued. Obviously, she wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) tell me what she has turned down. But it sounds as if she had deliberately sashayed away from some significant projects.

“I think the more that you choose those sorts of projects the more they’ll probably come into your sphere,” she says elliptically. “I turned down projects that I felt I couldn’t contribute to – that were so far outside my wheelhouse. That were not enough of a challenge creatively. Or were perhaps perpetuating something that I didn’t really believe in or support – old-fashioned gender roles. If you turn those down early on, the message gets out there.”

She really seems drawn only by the potential of the role and, without overpowering her co-stars, invariably manages to be the most arresting presence on screen

She mentions gender roles. The last time we met was during the 2017 London Film Festival. While that event was playing out, the revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse emerged. At the beginning we were asking the usual questions. By the time of the closing film, there was only one subject of conversation. How did that debate change the business for women? Was the progress real?

“One of the really heartbreaking things about that whole situation was that, in an effort to come closer, to become part of brilliant work creatively, people were being exploited,” she says. “It’s insidious across the board. And it’s a very, very, very good thing that we’re now talking.”

It is wrong of us to wish that Riseborough were a bigger star. We have plenty of those. There is nobody else who does what she does. She really seems drawn only by the potential of the role and, without overpowering her co-stars, invariably manages to be the most arresting presence on screen. There is more singular material ahead. A David O Russell film with Margot Robbie and Robert De Niro. At Christmas she plays Mrs Wormwood in the film version of Matilda the Musical. "We made it and it was a glorious experience. And yes, it just fantastic to be singing and dancing again," she says.

Then she will go back to being her delightfully singular self. I wave at her. She waves at me. The impenetrably blue light illuminates her LA pad.

“I have another interview after this and then I am going have a bit of a rest,” she says. “Now I am at home watching British television and wearing a Tyneside T-shirt.”

No better life.

Here Before is released on February 18th