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Andrea Riseborough on Madonna and Wallis Simpson

From Maggie Thatcher to Wallis Simpson, Andrea Riseborough has an uncanny gift for inhabiting her screen character, writes James Mottram Love story: Andrea Riseborough, above, playing Wallis Simpson, inset left, in WE, the new film about the British abdication crisis, directed by pop superstar Madonna

James Mottram

Published 16/01/2012 | 00:01

Red carpet: Andrea Riseborough with Madonna and co-star James D'Arcy
Red carpet: Andrea Riseborough with Madonna and co-star James D'Arcy

Like any actor starting out, you're not always first in line. Andrea Riseborough knows this more than most. She won her breakthrough role in Brighton Rock, as the naïve waitress Rose, only when Carey Mulligan dropped out to make Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

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And for her latest film, playing the most famous divorcee in history, Wallis Simpson, in Madonna's already infamous WE, she was brought on board only after the American actress Vera Farmiga (the Up In The Air Oscar nominee) dropped out because she was pregnant.

Still, it's what you do with your chances that counts -- and it could hardly be said that Riseborough (30) will remain second in line for long. Last year, the Berlin Film Festival pronounced her as one of their 'Shooting Stars', an accolade that has previously been afforded to both Mulligan and James Bond actor Daniel Craig. In TV terms, at least, from a Bafta-nominated turn as the young Margaret Thatcher in The Long Walk To Finchley to featuring in Civil War drama The Devil's Whore, Riseborough's star had already shot. But then a Madonna movie is a different matter.

When we meet, Riseborough isn't at her most glamorous, which must feel a little unfortunate for an actress who Grazia magazine declared a "British fashion icon in the making" for her sartorial style choices. She has a terrible cold, leaving her delicate nose Rudolph red and her alluring blue eyes watering. To her credit, she has gamely agreed to carry on with the interview. "Excuse me," she says, snuffling into a tissue before discarding it on the chair next to her purple suede handbag. "I'm so sorry. I really have not been very well. You'll be pleased to know I'm not contagious."

She is, on the other hand, very difficult to recognise from role to role. This is the second time I've met her, and, despite her striking black locks and porcelain features, I still have problems picking her out of a crowd.

"She really does have that chameleon quality," says Brighton Rock director Rowan Joffe, yet Riseborough is keen to underline that she doesn't do it for "egotistical" reasons. "I don't think, 'Now, I'm going to look different'. I just respond to the characters on the page. There's no point in doing any of that if it does not serve the story you're trying to tell."

Today, of course, the main topic of conversation is Madge. Was it interesting to watch how such a celebrity coped with the rigours of directing? "It wasn't really part of our equation," says Riseborough, refusing to go all gooey-eyed at the mere mention of the queen of pop. "Obviously, she is Madonna. She is revered. People are just intoxicated by her. There's this feverish love. So that's something that's undeniable. Like when we're doing an exterior shot, and there are a lot of paparazzi around. But in terms of what we were doing, it didn't factor into the equation. When you're on set, your job is to block all of that out."

But was she starstruck? "Again, it just wasn't in the equation," she says, deliberately playing it cool. "I was sent the script. I thought it was incredibly unique. We had tea. We talked about things. She is my director. I answer to her in that sense. That's our relationship. I was the vessel with which she was going to tell this story, this story that's so incredibly important to us. We both had a responsibility."

Certainly, Riseborough seems in synch with Madonna, who she refers to as 'M'. She tells one story about listening to her iPod to get her in the mood for a particular scene. Madonna asked what she was listening to and it was Yann Tiersen -- who, unbeknown to the actress, was contributing to the score.

When WE premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September, it came in for a brutal critical bashing. Arguably, it didn't help that the film, which covers American socialite Wallis Simpson's scandalous romance with King Edward VIII (played by James D'Arcy), covers some of the same territory as last year's Oscar-winner The King's Speech. Riseborough, however, feels that's to the advantage of WE and that Tom Hooper's film has already primed audiences. "It's actually amazing, because it's the other half of that story. So it's kind of wonderful. The two [films] are very close to each other."

If the film suffers because The King's Speech partly told its story already, it's major problem is not this but with a concurrent modern-day segment, following the fictional Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a lonely New Yorker obsessed with the Simpson story and the parallels to her own tragic love life.

But for all its flaws, Riseborough excels. She denies it bothered her playing a largely disliked woman whose actions led to the abdication. "Goodness, I didn't get into this to be liked. And I don't mean that in a trite way. A very big part of what you do when you play a very dark character is having the bravery not to care about whether you're liked or not."

Even if she didn't set out to make Simpson sympathetic, it helped that there was footage of her to absorb. "We all watched really the best interview that there is of them. It's in 1970, only three years before Edward pops his clogs. And it's very moving. She talks about the fact that she would have loved to have been working for an advertising agency, which is so very touching. Because it's the idea that she would be liberated enough to support herself and to feel she would have some value, rather than the endless succession of dinner parties that they were trapped in. This groundhog day of frivolity and loneliness."

Given her background, you'd think Riseborough might find it tricky to relate to a woman like Wallis Simpson. Born in Newcastle, and raised in the seaside town of Whitley Bay, Riseborough's own parents worked in factories before her father became a used-car salesman and her mother a secretary.

As a child, she wanted to do everything -- from being a binman to a nuclear physicist. So why did she and her younger sister, Laura, who is also studying to be an actress, veer towards the arts? "I don't know where we got it from," she chuckles. "I swear to God!"

She began acting properly when she was nine, when a hairdresser informed her mother of a production of Christopher Goulding's play Riding England Sidesaddle at the People's Theatre in Newcastle. She played the young Celia Fiennes, and went on to play Miranda in The Tempest when she was just 14.

Yet there was a rebellious streak in Riseborough. Without finishing her A-levels, she quit school, ditching the Oxbridge education that had been lined up for her. "I just didn't want to go to fucking school any more, simple as that." Leaving home, she got a series of jobs -- including running a Chinese restaurant -- before RADA accepted her application.

Her time at the prestigious drama school may account for why her north-east accent is barely traceable (she sounds very home counties now). If this is another example of that chameleon-like quality of hers, her post WE roles set to continue this trend -- from the London-set thriller Welcome to the Punch, alongside James McAvoy, to James Marsh's Shadow Dancer, in which she plays a young mother and IRA member who turns MI5 informer. There's even a tentative step towards America with Disconnect, an ensemble tale that centres on how the internet impacts upon lives, co-starring Alexander Skarsgård.

While she may be yet to secure her own Hollywood blockbuster, it seems now that she's well on her way to being first in line, even if the idea of fame still baffles her. "Maybe I'm very naïve, but I don't think anybody seeks it out," she says. "I mean, actors. Real actors. I can't speak for anyone else. But my assumption would be that none of us do. I suppose there might be times when people think that this might be a good idea. But the reality of it is something very different." And with that, she gives her nose another good blow.

WE opens on January 20

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