It's cliché to call a skillful actor a chameleon, and it's an especially overused word when it comes to Andrea Riseborough. But the English actress has partly been able to keep a relatively low public profile all these years because her transformations onscreen have been so total as to have rendered the offscreen Andrea Riseborough unrecognizable. She has disappeared into all variety of roles, from a member of the IRA in Shadow Dancer to the glamorous American expat Wallis Simpson in Madonna's W.E. to Billie Jean King's lover in Battle of the Sexes, opposite Emma Stone, out this week. Here, in an interview with Lynn Hirschberg in the New Royals issue, Riseborough reflects on her cinematic disappearing acts, and reveals the women-centric Shakespeare adaptation she's working on, via her women-centric production company.
When did you first decide you wanted to become an actress?
It was never really a decision. I started doing it when I was nine. Somebody asked me to be in a play at a theater that did classical work not far from my house. At first I said no and I felt really uncomfortable. And then a week later, I said to my mum, "You know, that play. I might like to read for it." And that was the first thing I did.
And you got the part?
I did. I mean, I don’t think there was much competition, to be honest. [Laughter.]
And what was the first movie you auditioned for?
Venus, which is a Roger Michell film. My first scene was with Peter O’Toole, and I cried. That was basically my part. I came in, cried in a white wig, and then left.
Were you scared?
I get scared of really simple things and not scared of big things. I’m very calm in a crisis, so I wasn’t scared, but I put myself under a lot of pressure to do a good job. I really wanted to please Roger Michell.
And you weren’t nervous about Peter O’Toole, a legend in your midst, in one of his last performances?
It’s not that... I got nervous when I met Patti Smith for the first time. That really, really shook me, but I think part of me not getting cut up in the headiness of someone’s fame has been kinda good for me because I was always able to go into a room and, you know, call someone by their first name and shake their hand and feel like I was just meeting a new person.
You are an incredible chameleon. Is that important to you to sort of disappear into a character leave Andrea behind and be this new thing?
I think when I was little, it was a form of escapism. Not because things were so f---ing terrible that I had to escape, but because it was, like, a magical world to escape to. Then as I grew older, it perhaps became a little unhealthy. Sort of a way not to deal with life, and now I’m at the point where I just enjoy working that way. I really enjoy picking up the physical rhythm of somebody else, speaking with their voice. I’ve never done in anything in my own voice and I can't imagine what that would be like. It would be weird, I guess.
To be in your own voice?
To play myself, yeah. It’s part of the job that I really, really enjoy and a big part of that was Shakespeare. Shakespeare was the thing that started me off on that train, you know, and every one of his plays. There are so many different characters, and the wonderful thing about being in an all-girls school was I got to play them all, you know. So I got to play Mercutio and Oberon and Malvolio—it was great.
Have you been Hamlet?
I’m almost finished adapting a female Hamlet for screen.
And you're adapting it yourself?
What prompted you to do that?
Well, I have my own company. It’s an all-female film company called Mother Sucker, and when I say all female, it’s not like we don’t talk to men or employ them [Laughs.], but every department head is female and that’s just because I think while we’re readdressing the balance in the workplace, if there's a role for a woman, I’d rather just pick a woman right now. That’s just my feeling.
We’ve finished our first film called Nancy, earlier on this year. I was in it, with Steve Buscemi, John Leguizamo, Ann Dowd. So extraordinary and J. Smith-Cameron, who just gives such a beautiful performance, such a brave actor. So that was very fulfilling.
And then Hamlet.
Next there's a project that I wrote maybe four years ago, called Great Grandma. It’s about where I grew up. I grew up in the middle-class suburbs, but it’s about where my extended family grew up, the working-class part, and it’s kind of a surreal tale. It’s a screenplay, but it’s written partly in verse and it’s a sort of surreal stream of consciousness. So super mainstream. [Laughs.]
So this isn't the female Hamlet?
We’re going to make that the year after. I’m still completing the adaptation of the female Hamlet. I think that’s why Shakespeare was so wonderful writing for women because he wrote them as men, ‘cause he was writing for young boys. Except maybe Romeo. There he kind of slightly faulted, but, you know...
Juliet’s not that interesting either.
I think so. I don’t think Romeo is as interesting, and he wrote that part for a boy who was perhaps in love with... um, well, that’s hearsay. That’s just gossip. Don’t quote me. [Laughs.]
So when you were playing the Duchess of Windsor, how were you cast? How did Madonna find you?
Madonna had seen me play Margaret Thatcher in something that I did with the BBC when I had just finished my drama school training. I went to her house and I had a cup of tea with her, which was weird because it was comfortable and it was lovely. I remember there was this small Picasso behind her head. Like I’d seen in books since I was little, but had never actually been in the same room with. And I guess we hit it off. I think she saw me as the Duchess. I mean, the Duchess is very different to me.
But that’s what I mean about you being a chameleon. The Duchess is different. The woman in Battle of the Sexes is quite different. The woman in Tom [Ford]’s movie [Nocturnal Animals] is utterly different.
In Nocturnal Animals, you know, I was effectively playing Tom’s best friend, who’s so earthy and deeply stylish. He didn’t actually tell me that that’s who I was playing until the evening we started to shoot.
And I’m somebody who likes to prepare. [Laughter.] You know, so much so that I’ve got a pole up my ass about preparation, ‘cause I like to do it and then forget about it and never think about it again before I even start working. So yeah, he told me the night that we were shooting it. So he just talked to me about her for 20 minutes before we started and I just felt like I knew her. And then when I met her, I thought, God, I did a crap job. I would’ve slightly done it differently if I’d met her, but I hope that I did it some justice.
With your character in Battle of the Sexes, is this based on a real person?
The character that I play in Battle of the Sexes is named Marilyn and she was Billie Jean King’s hairdresser on the tennis tour. And they became incredibly close and had a beautiful love affair and it was a very special time in Billie’s life. What we focus on is when they’re sort of falling in love, and it’s blossoming and, and I was playing the embodiment of the free spirit of the 70's. It was such a joy.
So you're here because you're in the New Royals issue. Who is royal to you in acting or in the theater?
The people who who made me want to act were Peter Sellers and Ronnie Barker and, um, a guy called Michael who I worked with in the Royal Shakespeare Company when I was younger. Funnily enough, in my line of work, when I was very little there weren’t a lot of women whose career I wanted, and that was purely because I wanted to play so many different parts and I didn’t see them getting the opportunity. So I love Peter Sellers and his transformation, you know, and I also loved how, with Ronnie Barker, how genuine and heartfelt each performance was, and how you felt like you could relate to him. That’s really what I want to do with every character—you know, how can you relate to Wallis Simpson? How can you be in the room with her and see the loveable parts of her as well? And also expose the human flaws, you know.
Your characters have such a strong relationship to the way they look. With Battle of the Sexes, was that important to you? Do you pick up a garment and it starts to inform the character?
Really picking up a garment is as important as everything else, I think, going into a character for me.
I mean, Wallis Simpson was obviously a fashion icon.
There's a difference between playing a fashion icon and what a red trench coat can do for you during the troubles when you’re a member of the IRA. Regardless, they’re both powerful. Since I’ve been little, that’s always been huge, you know, wearing different shapes on your own body and feeling perhaps like your body might even be a different shape. That’s always been something that’s really interesting and what you put on your frame certainly dictates how you feel about it, I think.
With Wallis Simpson, it was armor.
I was f---ing terrified when I was playing Wallis Simpson because I kept worrying I was going to drop one of her real rings, which I was wearing, down the port-a-loo.
[Laughs. ] And didn’t Madonna loan a lot of her own jewelry for this?
She did, yeah, and we had this really wonderful ritualistic thing every morning where she would dress the Duchess. So she put the jewelry on me and it was a moment that we had to, you know, start off the day off solidly. And I really enjoyed that. It was great. But I was wearing a lot of her own jewelry and there were, like, six guys. God bless them. I mean, I still know them. That’s how much time I spent with them. Six bodyguards who would follow me around, I’d never really had any experience of that before in my life. So it was kind of irritating. Like, you couldn’t have a poo, you know, because there was somebody outside the door. But also, really special because you’re holding something that has been touched by the person you’re playing. It has this energy to it. There was this absolutely grotesque little pug head broach that I wore, which was my favorite, favorite thing because I felt like I could feel her heart in it, you know. It was like the beating heart of all her fears and about being a disappointment to [Edward VIII]. Him having given his career up for her, in a way.
Emma Stone sucked her thumb until she was 11 years old: