English actress Andrea Riseborough is having a moment. She’s featured in a whopping four films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, including the U.S. Dramatic Competition films Nancy and Burden, the Midnight selection Mandy (in which she acts alongside Nicolas Cage), and the Spotlight film The Death of Stalin. From one film to the next she not only plays a completely different character, she’s thoroughly unrecognizable, transforming herself physically and vocally, whether it’s as a raven-haired eccentric in Nancy or as a country girl with a deep southern drawl in Burden. But the moment that Riseborough wanted to discuss in this interview wasn’t hers, but the collective one pushing for change in the film industry. More women have felt empowered to speak out about sexism, harassment, and abuse in Hollywood and independent film, and in this conversation and others throughout this week and in the months prior, Riseborough has added her own impassioned voice to the call. And as she discussed below, she’s also working to change things systemically, having formed a production company called Mother Sucker that is run entirely by women. After several years of development, the company’s first completed project is Nancy, on which it served as co-producer. Riseborough talked to us by phone the day before the Festival began.
Eric Hynes: Whenever an actor turns up at the Festival with multiple films, the inevitable question is how you managed to work this much over the course of the past year. The reality of production is more complicated though, in that you might have completed a few of these films at an earlier time, and of course some films take longer than others to make. But still, four films at Sundance demonstrates an actor working hard and in demand, so clearly you’re doing something right.
Andrea Riseborough: The pay disparity has been bad for the last couple of years. It’s actually gotten worse than it had been in the past. I found myself really just needing to accept more work in order to keep up as a woman. Generally the projects I really care about, the ones that push the needle, the ones that have diversity and eventually one day affect some sort of social change, are not ones that pay a great deal. You have a choice of doing one really terrible movie a year—which I’m just not interested because I end up wanting to kill myself—or, as a woman, you can do five projects to make up the same sort of pay. I would’ve liked to have not worked as much. But that’s the reality. That’s the honest truth. I did do them all back to back, and in one of the films I was paid 1/24th of what my male co-star was paid.
EH: Did you know the extent of that disparity at the time?
AR: Yes, I did. I knew that. And I went into it with my eyes open because I believed in the director, in his unique perspective and voice. That he’s not a run of the mill, mainstream director. As women, we make our money from being involved in more male-driven projects that make the money. We have to balance between doing some of that, where hopefully you don’t feel too compromised because it’s normally a male-heavy situation on set, and putting money back into films like Nancy with my company, which is an all-female film company.
EH: You’re referring to Mother Sucker, right?
AR: Yes. And then you take a hit financially, of course. Not many people want to invest in diversity. Though I do feel like that has changed in the last few months, which is a wonderful, wonderful feeling. And I feel now like I can actually step into a room and say, “I would like equal pay with my male co-star.” Not that they’ll give it to me. But I feel like I could say it and the option wouldn’t be off the table. Which is what used to happen in the past. If you asked for more money, they would just offer it to somebody else. Because they could. The long-term message being that you’re disposable. And that’s the opposite of what we’re all striving to come to believe in life, isn’t it? And that’s coming from a deeply fortunate position—I cannot even imagine what an actor of color goes through.
Andrea Riseborough attends the premiere of 'Nancy.' © 2018 Sundance Institute | Marie Ketring
EH: When and why did you start Mother Sucker?
AR: In 2012, and the original concept was: What would it be like to see a film that was, from beginning to end, a female construction? Beyond that, I wondered what it would be like to live in a world where town planning had been done by women, rather than men. Where we didn’t live in concrete boxes, separate from one another, but in communal spaces where we all breast fed each other’s children. I’d really like to walk through a world of female constructs because the patriarchy has been in place for so long. I had been going through a very difficult moment with a film that I was on. I was originally the protagonist and then I was bumped down to a secondary role in order for the male to be the protagonist. I tried to get out of it but couldn’t. So I just started writing ferociously—I’ve always written. A couple of projects came about and we developed a few things, then I met Christina Choe and we started the Nancy journey. I quickly realized that was going to be the first film Mother Sucker was going to be part of co-producing. Because Christina’s voice is so strong. She truly is the definition of an auteur.
EH: What did you learn from the making of a film co-produced by an all-female company?
AR: We wrap early on set.
EH: Meaning you’re actually able to have a life during the shooting of the film?
AR: No, let’s not be crazy. Just very efficient. The experiment concept has not yet been fully had, because Nancy was made with several other companies, and mine is the only one that is all female. But for another film coming up I would really like to try it, to see how the energy shifts on screen when everyone around it is a woman. I mean, it might be a shitshow, who knows? But I think it’s a very interesting social experiment. I’ve spent so many days being the one woman surrounded by lots of men—and a makeup artist. Sometimes it’s very hard to do my work. Sometimes I have felt unsafe on set. People say weird things to you. You feel very outnumbered. You come onto the set and you feel virtually invisible. It’s hard to command focus on a set. I don’t mean the way a director [commands focus], I just mean to be very silent and do what you need to do. Imagine giving birth. Imagine being raped. To have that silence where it’s not just joke time for everyone else. It’s very difficult with a woman. We often do most of the emoting. We often need to get in that headspace, and it’s just tough. I just imagine getting in that headspace and being surrounded by a bunch of women. Why not just see [what happens]? We almost did it on Nancy, which was really wonderful.
EH: Let’s talk about your performance in Nancy. I would imagine it’s a tougher role because she’s somebody who makes it hard for the audience to read—she’s a bit of a fabricator and lives in her own head a lot of the time. As the performer, you have a much better sense of who Nancy is, but you also can’t always reveal that.
AR: From the beginning of Nancy, it was always very clear to me. She was an entire human being, which I really appreciated. Flawed, confused, disenfranchised, isolated. Desperately wanting to connect. Feeling isolated and disconnected from the rest of the human race, which we all feel with the advent of social media. That feeling of wanting to connect and not knowing how to do it is very timely. Christina and I used to joke that if Nancy had been brought up on the Upper East Side of New York to very liberal parents, perhaps she might have been one of the great writers of our time. But what actually happened was that she was smart enough and unusual enough that she ended up being the madwoman in her hometown. I mean, what would’ve happened to us if we hadn’t have gotten out of where we were from? We probably would have ended up as the mad people, too.
Andrea Riseborough in the U.S. Dramatic Competition film 'Nancy.'
EH: You could see how, with a different writer and different performer, that role could be played as a madwoman. But you definitely pull back from that.
AR: Well, she’s just a woman. All of us, in some respect, felt that. It’s so real and accurate to portray a woman as flawed. We have a film culture in which men are portrayed as flawed consistently. And a history of portraying women born to a few narrow things, and generally not all of the things together. They rarely make up a whole person. We can all identify with Nancy. We can all laugh at the manipulations that we’ve all been part of to some extent in our lives. Whether it’s for survival, or for gain. That unhealthy behavior is very familiar to me. And then, when she reaches out to Leo and Alan, the moment is too much. She doesn’t quite know where to put it. There’s a feeling of deep discomfort as a response to being loved. I think that is something we can all identify with. That’s very human. When it’s just too much.
EH: We crave it. We pull for it. And once we get it we don’t know what to do with it. I’d like to also talk about Burden, another of your films in the Festival, with both of these appearing in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Judy is technically a supporting character, to Garrett Hedlund’s character of Michael Burden. Yet Judy does carry a huge moral weight in the narrative, and is integral to his transformation and redemption.
AR: I think of the reverend as the hero. I would like to have seen [the story] from that perspective. But yes, Judy was the catalyst for most of the change, and she suffered for a lot of the actions that Mike took. I wanted to show how much of a part she actually played, which wasn’t quite reflected in our story. The facts about what actually happened are very interesting if you look into it.
EH: Did you meet the real Judy?
AR: Oh yes. Many times.
EH: Was that helpful? I would imagine sometimes it can be intimidating or derailing.
AR: It’s tricky when you meet the real people and you get the real facts. It’s always difficult to set those aside. It was very helpful to see that Judy was the person whose heart was open to change. She was the person who stayed changed, and didn’t go back after all of this. The reverend runs up to her and yells “Super Judy” when he sees her in the supermarket. She grew up in an environment where most of the people she knew joined the Klan at 16, yet she still felt innately like it was wrong. And the way that society still is wrong. In a different time, years down the line, will a black writer have the resources to tell the story from the reverend’s perspective? I hope so. I’m kind of sick of seeing it from the same perspective all the time. I really like seeing things from a different perspective. I’m a white woman. I’ve spent so much time in my body. I’ve known enough of that. I go to the cinema and I want to see other people. I want to see other walks of life. Different perspectives.
EH: As an actor, you’re a great ambassador for the power of story to take us out of ourselves. Part of why you do what you do is following an impulse to inhabit other experiences. And that’s also partly why we’re drawn to cinema. Why we’re drawn to stories, no matter who we are or where we are coming from. I don’t think anyone wants to hear their own story told over and over again.
AR: I think you’re absolutely right, and I think that’s the beautiful thing about humans. We’re really hungry to understand each other. Part of the gossip and the voyeurism comes from wanting to learn more about each other, to know more about what’s going on with other people behind closed doors. This a great time because now I think studios are so focused on the way they are set up, and on the white patriarchy specifically, they are really having to be held accountable now. Whether they are interested or not, whether they are morally invested or not. We just need to make sure that the door doesn’t close. It’s open and we cannot allow it to close.
EH: That’s why I think putting women in power and into creative positions is really important, because we can’t let the change be superficial, we can’t let it all be about show and checking a box.
AR: I can honestly already tell you though that this year, going into 2018, I know that I can say I want equal pay with my male co-star who has a smaller part than I do. They may not listen, but that I can bring that up and the job won’t necessarily go away.
EH: That’s huge.
AR: It’s so huge! I feel a bit like I won the fucking lottery. It’s so weird. I have a meeting this afternoon and I’m going to bring that very thing up with my agent. She’s a wonderful agent at CAA and been in a powerful position for a long time. And we’re going to bring that up today and it feels like Christmas. It’s very empowering and hopeful.
EH: And I don’t see that as irrelevant to the art itself. As someone invested in the life and evolution of the form, I can’t help but think that if we stop thinking about actors and performers as replaceable, as types and commodities, then the casting and the performances will get better, more diverse, and truer to our experiences. I can’t help but think that.
AR: Absolutely. The more diverse voices we get, the more perspectives that stories are told from. The story is often a similar story. We can tell Star Wars from a different character’s perspective, you can tell it from the eyes of the Wookies. There is a way for every perspective to be valid. We can tell a story that we’re all familiar with, but from the perspective of somebody else, somebody’s whose shoes we may not have walked in.