‘Being judged by your sex. We are so used to being treated as less’

Battle of the Sexes star Andrea Riseborough, who slips in and out of parts with ease, is agitated for real. She has a few points to make

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Andrea Riseborough is animated. She’s not exactly angry. But she has a point to make.

“I was having a conversation with somebody today,” she says. “Look, I know you would never say this, but, in TV interviews, it can get so insulting. She didn’t mean any way to be insulting. But she leaned in and said: ‘You just look so totally different.’ That’s my f**king job, mate. I wonder if she would say that to a man.”

Oh God, can she see the questions on my notepad? Can I surreptitiously erase the next one without being caught?

People say that Andrea Riseborough is among the best actors of her generation. These people also say she has an uncanny ability to shift appearance from role to role.

Her pale, washed-out Svetlana Stalin in The Death of Stalin could be from a different planet to that inhabited by the glamorous, Silvikrined Marilyn Barnett in Battle of the Sexes. More than a few fans sat through last year’s Nocturnal Animals without spotting her.

What I hate is this idea that: Oh you are so lucky. You popped a wig on overnight and you are in Downton  Abbey

Today, more than ever, that question seems worth asking. Her long locks shorn and dyed blonde, dressed in a cool blue thing with legs (it might be a jump suit, but I couldn’t be sure), she gives us not a hint of, say, her Wallis Simpson from Madonna’s W.E.

This is not a gender thing. She just has a gift for transformation. Right? Can I say that? “Oh, I spend a lot of time on that. That’s great. It’s intentional,” she says with a smile. “What I hate is this idea that: Oh you are so lucky. You popped a wig on overnight and you are in Downton Abbey. Now, that’s insulting. From people who are respectful it’s a wonderful compliment. When it gets insulting is when people say it as if you haven’t noticed. As if it is some happenstance.”

Traces of Geordie

Raised in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, the daughter of a car dealer and a secretary, Riseborough retains gentle traces of Geordie in vowels that group around carefully hit Rada consonants. She can occasionally drift into theatrical damespeak. But she remains enormously good fun.

She excels as Billie Jean King’s lover and hairdresser in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s irresistible Battle of the Sexes. Centring on the tennis star’s match against hustler Bobby Riggs, the film is notable for its generosity to almost all concerned. Emma Stone makes a pioneer of King. Steve Carell plays Riggs as a harmless showman. The picture makes no mention of the late Marilyn Barnett suing King – then still married and closeted – in one of the first high-profile palimony cases.

Andrea Riseborough as Marilyn Barnett in the film Battle of the Sexes. Photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Andrea Riseborough as Marilyn Barnett in the film Battle of the Sexes. Photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

“She was such an elusive character to research because there is so little on her. Particularly because at this point, because Billie was such a centre of attention,” Riseborough says. “But the pressure I did have was that I was playing somebody who had passed away. None of us can know what will happen to any of us down the line. You can’t play a character thinking what’s going to happen to her in 10 years’ time. They had a very gentle, exciting, tender love affair.”

The only real villain in Simon Beaufoy’s script is Margaret Court. The Australian tennis champ, who became a Pentecostal minister in 1991, is seen scowling angrily at King throughout. She is still in the news. “There will be no Mother’s Day, there will be no Father’s Day, there will be no Easter, there will be no Christmas,” she said of her country’s recent move towards marriage equality.

“Well, Simon was worried that he hadn’t shown Margaret in a more favourable light,” she says. “But with what she’s come out with lately I think he’s shown her in a very favourable light. Truly, truly. She has some pretty extreme views.”

Equal pay

The film also has much to say about the fight for gender equality in the workplace. King and her contemporaries were the first to argue for equal pay in professional tennis. Similar questions are still being asked about the entertainment industry.

“In every industry,” Riseborough says. “Look, one theme here is sexual equality. Being judged by your sex. We are so used to being treated as less. We almost believe our time is less valuable because we have been told that over and over again. Being interviewed about it has been very interesting. A lot of people have said: ‘This is also about equal pay.’ Would you need to say that if it was about the civil rights movement? It would be obvious. It’s tennis and it’s also about civil rights.”

I certainly felt inadequate. But those were my own feelings

Class is another issue that hangs around acting. We were told that, in the 1960s, as the likes of Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay rose, the business became less southern and middle-class. Yet there are now more old Etonians and Harrovians on stage than ever before. Did she ever feel that being from the Northeast held her back?

“Well, yes. To an extent. I certainly felt inadequate. But those were my own feelings,” she says. “That was my own fault – just because I felt slightly unusual. Then Peter Hall was one of the first people to give me a start in classical theatre. I think I was 22 when I worked with him. It’s never really been a disadvantage to me because I have never played anything with my own accent, ever.”

Hang on. She’s been performing for 20 years. And she’s never spoken on stage or screen as she speaks now? “No. I have played a similar accent, but I never used my own voice.”

Period of uncertainty

Riseborough acted a great deal as a teenager. She worked with the People’s Theatre in Newcastle and then moved on to the Young Person’s Theatre. With that voice and that capacity for open emotion, she should have walked into a professional career. But she admits to a period of uncertainty after school.

“I was working in restaurants. I thought I would never act again,” she says. “Then I auditioned for Rada sort of on a whim. I was the last audition that year and they gave me a place the next day. It was supposed to happen that way. I could just as easily have not gone. I never thought they would let me in. I didn’t think it would be a possibility. Though it was something I wanted so deeply.”

Riseborough may not have yet become a star of Knightley proportions, but she has been sought-after ever since her last years at Rada. In 2006 she had one scene opposite Peter O’Toole in Venus. She was cockney in Made in Dagenham, American in W.E. and convincingly Northern Irish in the excellent Shadow Dancer. Meanwhile, she was taking significant stage roles for the National Theatre and the Peter Hall Company.

“I did my first scene with Peter O’Toole and that was wonderful. That was amazing. That was the first scene I ever did on film. But the baptism of fire was playing Miss Julie at 24 in Peter Hall’s company. And Isabella in Measure for Measure. I was doing two plays at the National in rep as I was doing a film for Universal called Magicians. I was doing a TV series about Mrs Beaton with the BBC. Now, that is a baptism of fire.”

It really is hard to imagine Riseborough doing anything else. She seems made for the life. But I guess she could have found something else to do. She’s clever. She’s got charm.

“Oh I’m sure lots of things,” she says with a chortle. “I think the reason I am an actor is that I wanted to do so many other things. Now I have a job where I can be everything. I get to walk into so many types of shoes.”

Andrea Riseborough: Five great performances  

The Long Walk to Finchley (2008)
Riseborough offered an uncanny version of the young Mrs Thatcher in BBC Four’s speculative examination of her efforts to secure a safe Tory seat.

Made in Dagenham (2010)
Sally Hawkins headed Nigel Cole’s study of the 1968 machinists’ strike at the London Ford plant, but Riseborough, all Springfield beehive and Quant hems, stole every scene.

W.E. (2010)
Riseborough shines as Wallis Simpson in Madonna’s flawed – but still interesting – glide through the relationship that threatened the British monarchy.

Shadow Dancer (2012)
Riseborough plays an IRA volunteer tempted to become an informer in James Marsh’s tense thriller. Few English actors have got the accent so well.

National Treasure (2016)
A breathtaking performance as the drug-addicted daughter of a comedian accused of rape. Robbie Coltrane starred in the series unofficially inspired by the Jimmy Savile case.

  • Battle of the Sexes is in cinemas now
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