With four films at Sundance, 2018 is supplying us with ample opportunity to give this perpetually underrated actor her due.
Andrea Riseborough has been dubbed a “rising star” a bewildering number of times throughout her twelve-year screen career: in the 2000s, following several high-profile TV turns in the UK; in 2010, after her trilogy of performances in that year’s Never Let Me Go, Made in Dagenham and Brighton Rock earned her a Shooting Stars Award at the Berlinale; and in 2013, when she was nominated for an EE Rising Star Award at the BAFTAs following a leading performance in Shadow Dancer. The recurrence of this narrative – of Riseborough always being on the cusp of some just-around-the-corner breakthrough success – is somewhat baffling; how long can your star “rise” for before it reaches its zenith? One explanation lies in a description often applied to Riseborough: that she’s a “chameleon” of an actor, “unrecognisable” from one role to the next. Maybe people genuinely don’t realise they’re watching the same person each time.
Realistically, the fact that Riseborough remains woefully under-appreciated is symptomatic of an industry-wide problem. As my colleague Sinead McCausland has argued for the Australian actor Mia Wasikowska, nuanced performances full of “inward subtlety” are often passed over in favor of louder, brashier displays of talent. And so it is with Riseborough; the tendency to confuse, as Matt Zoller Seitz puts it, the “most” acting with the “best” leaves her work painfully overlooked. Here is an actor who whisks up intricately complex performances across an astonishing diversity of roles – she’s played a death-dealing architect, a movie-stealing Wallis Simpson, and a fifteen-year-old punk in puppy love with equally life-like depth – to little fanfare. It’s hard to pick a highlight in her career, not just because nearly every performance is one, but because proper appreciation of the subtle brilliance of her work demands time to build up. There’s no doing justice to her skill by condensing it down into the seconds-long VTs we’re used to seeing at awards ceremonies; Riseborough’s prowess is something you become gradually aware of. Whether it’s in her turn as a panicked IRA double operative in Shadow Dancer, as Billie Jean King’s free-spirited lover in Battle of the Sexes, or as an ambitious young Margaret Thatcher in the BBC’s Long Walk to Finchley, her habit of always giving excellent, intricately shaded performances means that comprehension of her talent is something that sneaks up on you, instead of ostentatiously announcing itself.
But if some people have trouble giving such a gift its due recognition, the directors who have worked with her certainly don’t. Sir Peter Hall, the late legendary English theatre director, described Riseborough as “one of the bravest and most impressive actresses I’ve come across in recent years”. He also extolled her versatility – “She’s got such courage. She makes things her own in a unique kind of way” – an estimation apparently shared by directors Mike Leigh, Alejandro Iñárritu, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Tom Ford, and Madonna. It’s precisely this exceptional ambidexterity that allowed Madonna to recognise an “androgynous” fragility in Riseborough that was perfect for the role of Wallis Simpson, where Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris saw in her a polar-opposite ability to radiate patchouli-scented femininity in Battle of the Sexes.
Speaking of androgyny, Riseborough’s latest performance, a star turn as the pixie-cut-wearing Mia in Black Mirror’s “Crocodile”, is emblematic of her ability to forge accessible performances out of ambivalent characters. Having been roped in to cover up a hit-and-run killing against her will years earlier, Mia is faced with another fork in the road when Rob (the driver of the car that killed a cyclist all those years ago; played by Andrew Gower) threatens to confess, and thereby destroy the successful family life Mia enjoys in the episode’s present.
The bulk of the action transpires across two days, and although that’s a lightning-quick turnaround time for her character to go from one-time aider and abettor to full-blown serial killer, Riseborough pulls off the steep character shift remarkably well, elevating the episode in spite of its more contrived elements. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the reunion between Mia and Rob in which Mia’s blind disbelief at Rob’s plan to come clean visibly crystallises into something denser and darker on her face; this might well be the very moment her character first decides to kill. A master of expression, Riseborough also deftly conveys the sympathy-inducing emotions and drives – panic, the urge to protect one’s children, and abject infuriation at being entangled in such a mess against her will – that give Mia the shred of humanity required for the episode’s disconcerting message (that maybe everyone is just one RTA away from becoming a total monster) to work.
The strength of her performance is certainly to her credit, but so is the complexity of the character she plays. As co-showrunner Annabel Jones tells it, the role was originally written for a male protagonist before Riseborough, who was auditioning for other parts in the episode, convinced Jones and Charlie Brooker that the part would be far more interesting if it were written for a woman. It paid off; as one of the season’s more character-driven episodes, “Crocodile” would have floundered without a compelling protagonist. Mia fits the bill perfectly — and arguably more so than a male lead lead would — so whatever the ultimate shortcomings of “Crocodile” are, Riseborough’s inspired suggestion is something fans of the series should be thankful for.
Riseborough has recently proved she can be as equally engaging in less bleak roles, too. Just before Black Mirror’s latest season dropped, she played Billie Jean King’s secret lover opposite Emma Stone in crowd-pleasing dramedy Battle of the Sexes. As flower child hairdresser Marilyn Barnett, Riseborough exudes an earthy allure that charms both Stone’s Billie Jean and us as the audience. The natural chemistry between the two actors is the chief joy to be had watching the film, especially because it’s granted generous space in which to bloom and blush organically, allowing Riseborough to play the more experienced partner of the two with great tenderness. The real Marilyn was also her own woman, though, and Riseborough honors that by ensuring her performance has a delicately perceptible edge to it, rather than allowing it to be confined to the stock love-interest staples of honeyed glances and soft touches.
We know Andrea Riseborough is capable of multi-textured, compelling performances; what we’re less sure of is everyone else’s ability to appreciate her ever-consistent, remarkable work. If any year can prove illuminating in this respect, though, it’s this one: Riseborough is set to star in no less than four films, all of which premiere at Sundance later this month, and there’s a supporting turn in Paramount’s miniseries Waco (also out in January) on the cards, too.
There’s Nancy, a film Riseborough’s all-female production company Mother Sucker is producing, which looks like the most promising feature-length offering for fans, both in terms of screentime and complexity. The film stars Riseborough as the eponymous Nancy, an affection-starved woman who turns to catfishing and other means of emotionally messy identity fraud to fill the void. Of all her Sundance appearances, this one is the most exciting: directed by Christina Choe, the role is being billed as a “compelling, complex, morally ambiguous female version of Travis Bickle, Walter White, Tony Soprano”, and thus looks to be tailor-made for Riseborough (especially in light of her multi-faceted Black Mirror performance).
Riseborough can also be seen opposite Nicolas Cage in Mandy, a film set to debut in Sundance’s Midnight category. Directed by Panos Cosmatos, this is a revenge thriller set in the Pacific Northwest of 1983 that follows Cage’s character Red as he hunts down the religious cult that killed his sweetheart (presumably the titular Mandy, who is played by Riseborough). Information currently available suggests the extent of Riseborough’s involvement might be limited by plot here, but her dependability for quality performances means we can still expect something of note (especially given the film’s writer-director, who helmed the trippy Beyond the Black Rainbow, also set in 1983).
Riseborough is back to leading in Burden, a more conventional offering based on a true story. Garrett Hedlund plays Michael, a young man who grew up under the Ku Klux Klan, but who leaves the white supremacist hate group when he falls in love with Riseborough’s character, Judy. Judy proves a positive, transformative influence on Michael: as Burden’s logline puts it, she “forces him to confront his senseless hatred”. Forest Whitaker also stars as the black reverend who takes Michael and Judy in, and Usher and Tom Wilkinson appear in unspecified roles. It’s easy to go wrong with subject matter like this, but Riseborough and the also-excellent Whitaker’s attachment hints at some under-the-surface complexity that will hopefully bear out across the movie.
There’s less speculation to be had with The Death of Stalin, Riseborough’s other film getting its US premiere at Sundance, as it’s been out in the UK since October. Based on a French graphic novel and written and directed by Armando Iannucci (Veep, In the Loop), The Death of Stalin is a satire set in the days following – no prizes for guessing – the death of Stalin. Riseborough is Svetlana, the dictator’s bereft daughter, whose grief, thanks to a just-right performance from the actor, nevertheless manages to accommodate the neurotic humor so characteristic of Iannucci’s creations. It’s hard to single out her darkly comic performance because of the calibre of the film’s ensemble cast, but it’s worth noting that, thanks to Riseborough, Svetlana is the best female character of the bunch (of which, admittedly, there aren’t many).
On the TV front, Riseborough has one performance lined up: as another Judy, in based-on-a-true-story miniseries Waco. A follower of Branch Davidian group leader David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch), Judy is caught up in the FBI siege on the religious group’s compound that follows a failed raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, who suspect the group of stockpiling weapons. According to this article, the real Judy Schneider was one of polygamist Koresh’s many wives, having had her first marriage to the group’s second-in-command Steve annulled by Koresh so that he could marry her. Given the mystery surrounding the actual events, and the intriguingly muddy morality entailed by cult-like religious sects, it’s not unreasonable to expect Waco will give Riseborough some tough material to play with. Available trailers don’t give away much about her character, but, promisingly, they do bill Riseborough as third behind Kitsch and Michael Shannon (you can see slightly more of her in this clip). While Waco‘s January 24 airing date is currently the last event of note in the Riseborough fan diary, we can expect to see her Sundance-premiering appearances elsewhere later on in the year, meaning we’ll have plenty of opportunities to be grateful for this under-appreciated gem of an actor in 2018.