Andrea Riseborough: “There’s no right way to do something differently but it’s important to try”

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  • She’s starred in some of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters and is now about to play a key member of a dangerous, cocaine-smuggling family in new crime drama ZeroZeroZero. Here, Newcastle-born actress Andrea Riseborough talks about her latest role and the landscape for women in Hollywood after #MeToo...

    As one of Hollywood’s hardest-working actresses, this month sees the release of Andrea Riseborough’s latest project – ZeroZeroZero, a true crime series directed by Stefano Sollima. Shot across three continents, it’s based on the books by Roberto Saviano, with Riseborough playing Emma, who takes over the ‘family business’. Incredibly, she managed to film Lone Scherfig’s The Kindness of Strangers and The Grudge at the same time (other recent projects include Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, Luxor and Louise Wain – told you she was hardworking).

    ZeroZeroZero is based on the books by Roberto Saviano, were you a fan?

    I love Roberto’s writing. He’s a journalistic novelist and at his own personal risk, he’s gone undercover and researched crime families which has taken a lot of his freedom away in his life. He’s always guarded by police and has an escort everywhere. He’s a really interesting ‘miner’, always mining for what he believes to be the truth. His book ZeroZeroZero was what this series is based on. But in a sense, they’re two completely different animals because the book is the setting for the world, but doesn’t hold the same characters.

    Your character Emma is interesting in the way she flips traditional gender roles…

    Because the characters that emerge in the series are really unique to the series, that was a really big draw. We were basically creating this character from scratch. Emma was a woman operating in a man’s world, almost as a man. And comfortably so, not occupying the ‘emoting’ space. Interestingly, her brother does that. That’s such a unique opportunity as a female actor, because you so often are the person feeling almost all of the emotions in any piece, whether it’s Shakespeare or Chekhov.

    How was filming all over the world?

    It was a real journey and took us about a year and a half to make. We filmed in Senegal, Morocco, Italy (Calabria), New Orleans and all over Mexico. I don’t think I’ve ever been part of something so epic. It was so vast and sprawling.

    Was all the travel challenging?

    It was life-changing – one of the most brilliant experiences I think I’ve ever had. To shift so many cultural currencies back-to-back in such in such a relatively short period of time – a year and a half sounds like a long time but you’re working with local crews and establishing relationships with different people, then leaving them and establishing new relationships in different places. In a way it flew by. And aside from all of that, I made two films in the middle of it!

    How did you manage that?!

    When we’d relocate – so we’d be going from New Orleans to Mexico, for example – during that relocation process, it took us four weeks to get everything set up. So in that time, I made The Kindness of Strangers, which was a very different character to Emma. Then in another relocation period, I made The Grudge.

    How do you go about shifting into three very different characters during the same timeframe?

    Alice, my character in The Kindness of Strangers is really interesting. She’s somebody who right now we’re all celebrating. The sort of person who works at a national health service and does a lot of voluntary work for the community. She’s an unsung hero and very soft, sweet and warm – the complete antithesis of Emma. The Grudge was a completely different experience because I’ve never done anything like that before – a mainstream, horror franchise. She’s [Riseborough’s character] is essentially losing her mind. Her sanity is breaking further and further down. That was a very difficult mind space to occupy for a long time.

    How did you switch off?

    In a way it felt like I’d go to work, work as hard as I possibly could then I’d come home and just have a completely blank mind. I was so exhausted emotionally from screaming in utter terror. Other than being quite scared about the creaky door in my very old haunted hotel that I was staying in – which was strangely reflecting the film we were making – I kind of switched off. And watched a lot of Father Ted!

    The Grudge is known for being completely terrifying and gory – was it tough watching it back?

    I haven’t seen it! Nick [Pesce], our director knew that about me going in. Nick’s a wonderful, wonderful director, and I really enjoyed working with him. But I was pretty clear about probably not being able to watch the movie when I made it.


    Yeah, we didn’t have a premiere so there was no point that I sat down and watched the entire thing. And I’m actually quite thankful for that. Not because I don’t think it would be really interesting, but because I was aware how terrifying everything was when we were making it.

    ZeroZeroZero explores the drugs trade and the people involved in it. Were you ever worried about the possibility of glamorising drugs or the industry?

    It’s really hard to know whether anything’s going to be glamorised for the sake of sensationalising a subject or making it look more attractive to a viewer. It’s really hard to control that at every level. As an actor, you have virtually no control. I had lots of conversations with Stefano before I signed on about that very topic. In the moment when you see a mother of three taking off her clothes and cutting cocaine, you feel, ‘Oh, this is a real-life version’. What I liked about Saviano’s book is that it’s exploiting the evils of cocaine. Often entertainment material that involves drugs, heists and crime families are always so titillating that you want to be part of one. What I loved about ZeroZeroZero is you absolutely do not want to be in any of those situations.

    Let’s talk about [Riseborough’s production company] Mother Sucker. You’ve previously spoken about your disappointment in roles available to women. Is that what prompted it?

    At the time, I think I was quite pissed off. I’m always amazed how long I can stand to run with the status quo before I’ll stand up and do something. And then you feel like maybe you don’t have the right to do it, like, ‘Why should I start a company? Am I being exclusive because it’s a female company?’. There’s no right way to do something differently, but I do think it’s important to try. I didn’t see many women in my workplace – I was sometimes the only woman in the workplace. Crews are notoriously made up of many men. We made Nancy [the first film produced by Mother Sucker] and we had a 90% female crew by the end and 60% women of colour. It felt like a very minor win, you know?

    It’s great because it proves it can be done?

    Yeah, the whole idea really came from ‘how do the people behind the camera affect the art put on the screen’. Or lack thereof! I was interested in the idea that if we had more women in the workplace it might actually affect the material in ways we couldn’t foresee. What would that feel like? What would it look like? And how would it be possible? It’s been great because for example, Christina [Choe] our director has been championed by Ava DuVernay and Jordan Peele. She’s gone from being a writer/director who found it really difficult to get a film made despite having the most amazing track record, to now working on wonderful material with brilliant people.

    It really highlights the importance of vouching for others and lifting others up with you, doesn’t it?

    It takes wonderful people to champion you to be able to do those things. [Bond producer] Barbara Broccoli was the person who really helped us at my company. She’s a guardian angel for young female filmmakers. Women like her – who are able to invest emotionally in in these projects, who read them, love them and think ‘I’d love to see this, why isn’t there already a film like this?’? They’re the people I’ve relied on.


    Have you personally felt a shift in the way things work on set since #MeToo?

    It depends which set you’re on. Certainly across the board there’s a change. There are people who are only equipped to deal with the system they were used to. And I assume those people will either pivot towards growth, or die off. Then there are so many people who are relieved we’re having the conversation and appalled they didn’t know so many ills were going on. We didn’t know what the outcome of all of this was going to be a couple of years ago. We didn’t know if it was going to be a heartening response or if it might be brushed under the rug, and prison sentences might not be served. There’s a long, long, long road ahead. But there are some amazing people doing wonderful things like the [people behind the] Annenberg Inclusion Rider that Frances McDormand mentioned in her Oscar acceptance speech. Of course, we have statistics on whether people like lettuce in their hamburger, but we don’t have statistics on how many women are in a film…

    Do you think those stats are critical, in order to measure progress?

    Yeah, to even just compile the facts and show people and say, ‘This is what’s been happening’. You can always say, ‘I think this is what’s been happening’ but then the question after that is always, ‘Well, what do you have to back that up?’. And you feel voiceless and patronised, like you’ve made a mistake and don’t know what you’re talking about. If you can get an academic institute and a bunch of statisticians to step forward and put their name to good solid research? That’s the best thing you can possibly have behind you.

    ZeroZeroZero airs on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV on 4th February and all episodes are available as a box set

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