Rebecca Ferguson: ‘Here I was, legs wrapped around Tom Cruise’

Rebecca Ferguson on learning stunts on-set, and Michael Fassbender's incessant singing

A glance at the cast list for The Snowman, Tomas Alfredson's thumping adaptation of Jo Nesbø's crime novel, confirms that the new age of the international film star is upon us. Michael Fassbender (German-Irish), who plays the drunk cop Harry Hole, certainly fits the description. Charlotte Gainsbourg (Anglo-French) is in that camp. And then there is the increasingly visible Rebecca Ferguson.

Born and raised in Stockholm, Ferguson counts as Swedish, but, with an English mother of Northern Irish descent, she has no trouble playing British toffs of all sorts. “Not just that. The queen of England,” she says merrily.

No lie. Ferguson first gained international recognition as Elizabeth Woodville, queen consort to Edward IV, in the BBC's raunchy adaptation of Philippa Gregory's The White Queen. "That was pretty massive. It was the first job I got outside Sweden," she says. "I was incredibly lucky. That reached to America. Suddenly I got nominations. I got offers rather than auditions."

Let’s tease out this heritage. Her dad is Swedish. Mum moved to that country when she was 25. Rebecca, who took her mother’s surname, was taught at an English-language school and absorbed culture from both countries throughout childhood. “My granny and all her relatives are all Northern Irish,” she says. “I don’t know from where. I am doing some research. I should know. But when you get to your grandmother’s past it gets difficult.”

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Is attending an English-language school common in Sweden? I naively imagine such places are full of diplomats’ children. “It sounds like I was a spy or something,” she says. “It’s a very open country. There is such a mix of countries there.”

Dark with neat, sharp features, and today dressed in an elegant black thing with Tudor peaks on the shoulders, Ferguson enjoyed dance when young and, as a teenager, secured work in soap operas on Swedish television. It seems as if she was actually pretty famous in her home country before the international breaks came along. “I was very recognised,” she says. “I was on prime time on the equivalent of the BBC. That was very hard when you are 16 or 17. My way around it was to move down to the south part of Sweden and leave Stockholm.”

Ferguson yearned to work on the stage, but she says success on TV counted against her. Snobbery still exists in that profession. “I couldn’t really get out of that world,” she says. “And Sweden’s such a small country. I was labelled by my character on the show. There is an elitism there.”

After the broadcast of The White Queen, in 2013, Ferguson found herself buffeted between eager studios and casting agents. That cool charisma was just what mainstream cinema was yearning for. Her role opposite the Rock in Hercules was a bit of a misstep. But induction into Team Cruise on Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – the one with the big shoot-out at Vienna State Opera – elevated her many rungs up the ladder. Ferguson slipped convincingly into the role of the rogue spook Ilsa Faust. She is currently shooting the next episode in England.

"It was very hard and very unexpected," she says. "I didn't understand the machinery behind these things. Tom has done this for years. He produces it. He plays Ethan Hunt. He's a gentleman, and he helped me train. I was in a beautiful cocoon, and it was a great place to be. It helped with the stunts that I was able to say no. When I didn't feel happy I could say no. That pushed me into saying yes."

The physicality of the Mission: Impossible films has been a key element of their appeal. We like to think that, every now and then, the actors have taken an actual punch for our entertainment. "I could come home and go, 'I just jumped off a rooftop in Vienna.' For somebody who couldn't stand on a trampoline before, here I was with legs wrapped around Tom Cruise, ready for the drop. Amazing."

She rubs up against a different class of celebrity in The Snowman. Despite the intensity of his performances, Michael Fassbender has no reputation for preciousness. The film finds Harry Hole, Nesbø's recurring cop, investigating a series of murders in often bleak, snowy corners of Norway. Blood and butchery are not in short supply. Ferguson plays a younger cop who complements Hole's rough style.

I assume she’s going to tell me that Fassbender was a total arse on set. “Oh yes, a real arse,” she says, laughing. “No, no! He’s great. He wanders around singing Irish folk songs. He sings all the time. He has this lively smile, and then suddenly he’ll just whip into character, and you have to go with him. I want to make him my costar in all films.”

I imagine it's a very different experience from shooting something in the Mission: Impossible franchise. Tomas Alfredson, who gave us Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is now among the world's most admired directors. The Nesbø books are huge. The film has a decent cast. But the Mission: Impossible flicks are monsters.

“Ah yeah. We’d come in out of the snow and there’d be a nice fire. We’d have a nice cup of tea and somebody would sing. That’s how you always want it to be.”

You can't grab those breaks on Mission: Impossible?

“Not really. Everyone is on a mission. Everyone is doing their things. You can’t compare one with the other. But Tom and Michael live different lives. They have made that decision to live different lives.”

For all our uncertainties about Cruise it can’t be denied that every actor who works with him comes away speaking of his generosity. He genuinely seems to make an effort. “What’s lovely is that when you go to dinner with Tom or you sit and talk he’s just Tom. He’s a young boy. He’s goofy. He’s totally normal. We dance when we train. Then there’s the hoopla.”

Cruise is back on set after damaging an ankle. Ferguson is set to jump off a few more rooftops. Before that we can see her play Jenny Lind, the Swedish soprano, opposite Hugh Jackman as PT Barnum in The Greatest Showman.

She waves as we are dragged apart.

“I’ll make sure to find out where those Northern Irish relatives are from before we meet again,” she says with a laugh.

Ferguson? Yes, that sounds about right.

The Snowman is on general release

THOSE SCANDINAVIAN MOVIE STARS

Nordic actors are suddenly everywhere. Here are five of the best.

Alicia Vikander There's no escaping the neat Swedish actor. After triumphs in A Royal Affair and Ex Machina she won an Oscar for The Danish Girl. Currently shooting the new Lara Croft movie.

Viggo Mortensen Does Viggo count? It feels that way. Mortensen was born in New York and lived only briefly in Denmark. But he has retained his Scandinavian identity. Recently Oscar nominated for Captain Fantastic.

Stellan Skarsgård (and family) After scoring internationally with Breaking the Waves the Swedish star has excelled in art-house fair, Oscar bait and commercial behemoths such as Thor. His sons Alexander and Bill are coming up on the rails.

Mads Mikkelsen Everyone loves Mads. Originally a dancer, the Dane excelled in Casino Royale, The Hunt and Doctor Strange. Next seen in Doug Liman's epic Chaos Walking.

Noomi Rapace After breaking through in the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Rapace has proved versatile in Prometheus, The Drop and Child 44.