Film

Interview: Andrea Riseborough on Connection Through Brutal Annihilation, Working with Auteur Directors and Possessor‘s Psychological Anxieties

In recent years, British actress Andrea Riseborough has been absolutely dominating the world of genre filmmaking, while also making a real name for herself in more mainstream works. Stateside, she began to get recognized in such works as Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, Battle of the Sexes from filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin. But Riseborough is such a chameleon, it’s easy not to realize it’s the same actor in each of these films. In 2018, she began a string of stone-cold devastatingly cool performances, beginning with Mandy opposite Nicolas Cage; the racial-divide drama Burden; the fantastic Branch Davidian miniseries Waco with Taylor Kitsch and Michael Shannon; the newest version of The Grudge; and her current entree into violent sci-fi/horror, writer/director Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor.

Possessor

Image courtesy of Neon

In Possessor, Riseborough plays an assassin in the very near future who is able to take over the body and brain of a third party in order to get that person to kill her intended target. It’s a clandestine business, usually used for hostile corporate takeover purposes, and her Tasya Vos is one of the best at her job. It’s a job that has a limited timespan—while its assassins can do the work without getting permanent brain damage. Vos is well past that expiration date, but cleverly hides that fact from her boss (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and ends up risking a mission that involves taking over the body of a young man (Christopher Abbott) engaged to the daughter of the head of a giant corporation that someone wants dead so they can take over the company. But something goes wrong in the process, and both Riseborough and Abbott have the insane acting task of playing both their own characters and each other. Possessor can get rather gruesome at times, but it’s a fascinating study of what defines the self, and a profile of a woman who feels more comfortable pretending to be other people than in her own skin.

Riseborough’s films career actually goes back to the mid-2000s, with smaller roles in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, Mark Romanek’s adaptation of Never Let Me Go; the sexual discrimination drama Made In Dagenham; the notorious Madonna-directed W.E., in which she played scandal-centerpiece Wallis Simpson; and the Tom Cruise-starring sci-fi actioner Oblivion. I had a chance to chat with her recently about Possessor and her recent successes in the world of batshit crazy horror films. Please enjoy…

In terms of this character, what specifically about her were you intrigued by and pulled in by? And in terms of Brandon, what about his vision impressed you?

I think in terms of Vos, I was drawn to a character that is so expertly molded into so many other people and into their bodies and psychologies, and she really had almost no relationship to whatever they were before that. In terms of Brandon, I think he’s so so talented and has the ability to create a world that is oddly familiar to us, in which we can explore things that are sort of familiar but through a different lens. He puts fresh eyes on them. And I really like him; I miss him.

I read somewhere that you were really impressed with his first film, Antiviral, and in the back of your head hoped to have a chance to work with him down the line. Was it just serendipitous that this came to you?

It was. It was wonderful. And strangely enough, that happens to me quite often. If you’re drawn to someone’s work, they’ll probably be drawn to yours. I thought that Antiviral was one of the most useful pieces of really strange cinema; I really enjoyed it—psychologically, visually, in every way.

I also found it hilarious at times.

Possessor or Antiviral?

Both of them to varying degrees, especially now with Antiviral. I can totally see people today say “Well, if I’m going to get the Cornavirus, I want to get it from someone famous.”

Wow, that’s so true. Brandon has a really uncanny ability to tap into what’s happening on many levels. Even as you said that, I hadn’t really thought that until right now, about Antiviral.

I’m sure this occurred to you at some point, but I found it fascinating that the technology in Possessor is basically doing what actors have to do all the time—put yourself in the mind and body of someone who isn’t you and build a character. Did that ever cross your mind?

It not only crossed my mind, but I believe a writer does that too. I writer/director is consumed in a similar way. But it also depends on what kind of actor or writer or director you are. I certainly don’t think that every actor does that, but when I read it, I said to Brandon, I’m really grappling to find a profession that is more suiting as a comparison to Vos’s career than actor. Everything in me identifies with it, and he said, “Absolutely, don’t fight it.” Fortunately, I don’t need to spend most days on the precipice of my own annihilation. However [laughs], the thing that I really identify with is that when you come back to your own life, sometimes, depending on what or who the character is, it’s difficult to then pick up the pieces of whatever you identify as your own life.

There are certainly a lot of psychological anxieties that this film taps into—from imposter syndrome to free-floating anxiety to that public face vs. private face. The possibilities as a pure acting exercise that playing this character gave you must have been irresistible. And that’s in addition to playing two characters in the same body.

Hugely. What was most interesting to me was the breaking down of her own psychology, and that was probably the hardest place to live, the hardest space to mentally occupy for a while. And how that would manifest in every way, to the point of it being external, I really imagined it almost as a lab rat, as a blank canvas, and I think she comes across that way in the film. She hasn’t been outside for years; she’s pigment-less, persona-less; and really her only connection to feeling satisfaction in connection to the world is this brutal annihilation.

At this point in her existence, she almost seems to prefer that to her real life. She’d rather inhabit other people’s bodies than her own.

She’s way beyond a choice or preference at this point. The question of morality has come up a lot, which I think is really interesting because when we come to Vos, we’re so far beyond anything that could be a moral question, because the link between her and her former self is so tenuous. So it’s interesting that people are, in a sense, trying to figure out how and why she could perform these acts. It always seemed incredibly clear to me that she’s utterly desensitized, like any other hired killer, and there are many in the world that may have a different job title, and that has become their one goal.

In terms of the way you and Chris Abbott play your characters—each of you having to play yourself and the other person—did you two compare notes, compare body language and personality quirks? Did Brandon encourage that?

Really, that was between Chris and I, and that was a process that started about a year and a half before we actually shot because it took a while to get the film going. So by the time we got around to making the film, we’d been in conversation about it for almost two years by the time it was finished. And that was wonderful; it was such a blessing to be able to get time to talk about the psychology of both of the characters. One of the really difficult things was that Colin, Chris Abbott’s character, is established so briefly and only through Vos’s perspective that in order to try and make the differentiation, was sometimes mind-boggling, because we’re focusing on a protagonist who has pretty much lost all sense of herself, and she’s inhabiting somebody whose self we didn’t get to know before she inhabited him. So there’s a total loss of identity across the board.

In terms of the roles you’ve been choosing lately, you have been about as brave and bold as any actor working today. And to have this and Mandy and The Grudge all come out on top of each other like this has been like the one-two-three punch of batshit crazy horror. What is your process for choosing roles these days? Is it variety, fear, what is it?

I really want to work with auteurs, and that’s it really. I think a lot of what is bubbling up to the surface for all of us lately is batshit craziness [laughs], therefore it goes hand in hand with all of this repressed anger, violence, sadness, frustration—all bubbling up to the surface. So that’s really it, I want to work with a great filmmaker, and that approach takes a while. I didn’t start out that way. Well, I certainly did start out that way because the first film I was ever in was by Mike Leigh. Believe me, getting to work with Mike will probably remain forever one of the greatest things that happened to me. You can stray away from that, but I always end up coming back. There’s something about just making a film that’s pretty unsatisfying for me, but when you know that you’re in the middle of something that might even be revered forever because of the innovation that it holds, that’s what I look for, and you can feel that. I haven’t gotten it wrong yet. I try to hold the feeling I had making Birdman, or the feeling we had making Happy-Go-Lucky, which I’m in for two minutes, just that taste, I try to seek it out. And it looks like so many different things, and I think it’s important not to judge where the filmmaker is coming from, because they may have something extraordinarily valuable to bring.

A lot of the scenes in Possessor that you don’t share with Chris, you share with Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is a bonafide a legend and someone else who has never been afraid to take risks. What do you learn from spending that kind of time with her?

It’s almost immeasurable. She’s so intuitive and so natural, and those words aren’t really fitting. It’s difficult to articulate what it’s like to work with somebody of her caliber and fearlessness. She’s so lived outside of anybody’s expectations, and her career reflects that. She’s just the most extraordinary artist—she really is an artist. It was incredible to work with her. And she came in for the part that we shot, it was pretty quick—three or four days, maybe a week in total—and it’s like being the presence of…it was really a wonderful experience. I’m sorry I don’t have better words to describe that. When something is so meaningful and actually very moving, it’s very difficult to express. At the same time, yes, she’s sitting opposite me, but at the same time, I’m trying to do my job. So the thing that served me about being in awe of her is that Vos has modeled herself on Jennifer Jason Legih’s character, so that was fitting. But also, I would attempt not to bring how fantastic Andrea is finding it to be in a room with Jennifer. No one wants to see that [laughs]. That’s just me being excited. It’s one of the huge privileges of any industry, to be able to come close to those that you admire in that industry.

In looking at things you have coming up, did you have anything interrupted by this virus?

Yes, we were shooting Geechee in the Dominican Republic, which was a film to be directed by DuBois Ashong. He had already started to directed it; Jamie Foxx is producing it. It will be an extraordinary film, I think. So we started in March, and then COVID happened, and then we went back and unfortunately there was a shooting on set, and we were sent home. So I don’t know where we go from here on that one. We’re all taking a beat to get over what happened.

What will we see you in next at this point, because you had a couple things in the can when things began shutting down.

Yeah, Luxor, which is coming out [in the UK] on November 6. I play a doctor who has been on the Jordanian-Syrian border, and she comes to Luxor to put her life back together, and she reunites with her first love. I’m very proud of the film; it’s a very beautiful film; Zeina Durra directed it. She made a brilliant first film called The Imperialists Are Still Alive! We shot Luxor in Egypt, in some of the most incredible places. We shot in tombs that have never been shot in before.

Andrea, thank you so much. It was great to finally get to talk with you.

Thanks so much. Lovely to talk to you.

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