Crystal chandeliers float above Andrea Riseborough’s head like tiaras as she crosses the French café, moving slower than the jazz but faster than the trailing glances. She sits down in the burgundy booth, hair in a pinned bouffant, wearing a thin beige sports coat over a pink western blouse. A bolo tie and a rosary hang around her neck, but she’s neither a cowboy nor a Catholic. The British actress’ porcelain face can’t hide its disappointment when she sees the red flashing light from the digital recorder lying next to the saltshaker. She frowns at the dictophone as if it were a co-star breaking character. “It sort of takes the Truman-Capote-interviewing-Brando element out of it,” she speculates, sipping her tea. “Doesn’t it.” The eternal Lambada of the interview proceeds.
The film at hand is Madonna’s latest directorial effort, the historical drama W.E., scheduled for release this December. Riseborough has been spookily well-cast as Wallis Simpson, the twice-divorced American from Baltimore who stole King Edward VIII’s heart in the mid 1930s. The king ultimately gave up his throne—a messy process known as abdication—to his younger brother and became the subject of one of history’s great love affairs.
When asked about the film’s universally negative reviews it’s garnered thus far, Riseborough gets diplomatic—“I haven’t read any of the reviews”—as if they are none of her business. The critics lashed out (perhaps undeservedly) at Madonna, condemning her for her use of anachronistic Sex Pistols-mimicking dance scenes, her flagrantly ignored history, her Frankenstein plot schemes. But Riseborough gets a pass. Crits reference her like she’s an innocent bystander in an unfortunate disaster, dressed remarkably well, beautifully reciting unjustifiable lines.
W.E., warts and all, has been at the center of Riseborough’s life for two years now, and Wallis Simpson’s spirit lingers in her corporeal body. She struggles to find words. “It’s like asking, ‘How do you feel about yourself?’” she says, raising puzzled eyebrows. “At some point [in acting], your feelings change. Their feelings become your feelings and their perspectives become your perspectives.” For the past two years, Riseborough’s been living in 1936 as the Duchess of Windsor. Before that, she’d been in the dark alleys of 1960s seaside Britain in Brighton Rock. She was Margaret Thatcher in the ’80s for the film The Long Walk to Finchley. And she protested Ford factories in 1968 in Made in Dagenham. Despite the wonky time machine, she’s not stuck in the past. She’s been working alongside Clive Owen in the political drama Shadow Dancer, due for release in 2012. She’s also been filming a crime caper called Welcome to the Punch. That should bring us up to date.
Riseborough takes us on one more ride in the time machine. A childhood memory recently materialized in her head, nearly 20 years later, at a yoga studio in Los Angeles. It was during downward dog, and she caught the scent of Lycra. “Lycra and bulldogs,” she recalls, remembering the bulldogs that once patrolled in her Newcastle dance studio. “They were each named after Flintstones.” Riseborough once sat in the back seat of her father’s Honda in Newcastle, England on a cold winter night after a five-hour dance class in the suburbs, arguing with her sister about who got to hold the bag of fish and chips, still warm from the deep fat fryer. It was the same routine every week. She nearly pursued dance, she admits.
Her bouffant falls over her eyes and she lets it dangle there as she stares through the window at the autumnal foot traffic. “I’m furthest away from myself when I allow fear to creep in, even remotely. I’d like to get even closer to eradicating fear as a motivating force in any decision I make, be it large or small.” She takes a bite of lettuce and finishes chewing before adding, “As I say, separate the wheat from the chaff.” She delivers a four-point list for eradicating fear.
It’s seemingly worked. The biggest worry on her mind—while sitting in the café, eyeballing a shrimp on a fork—is how to divide the holidays between her family home in England and her boyfriend’s family home in Boise, Idaho. Joe Appel is an artist who she finds “completely fascinating”, and, to her own surprise, she feels more at home in Boise. She speaks of her relationship casually, without excitement, but it’s reminiscent of a scene in W.E. when Wallis Simpson assures her husband that her relationship with the prince isn’t anything to be worried about.
“I suppose my assumption is—it may be naïve—that I will understand love as much on my deathbed as I understand it now.” She takes a moment, exploring the complexity of this and shrugs. “It’s such a wonderful thing to have, love. We [Joe and I] may paint a canvas together and then walk a mile and a half to go get dinner as the sun sets, and we cherish that time.” Pause. “We’re actually thinking about going to Vegas this weekend.”
She’s never been. She’s itching to go. It’s all that Hunter S. she’s been reading.
When asked twice about her yoga habits, she wiggles and dodges away from the questions, but eventually submits, “Yoga is really quite boring. It used to be unique; it used to be a unique thing to do. I’ve reached enlightenment, pain, frustration. I just like to move.” Her voice wanders in a disregarding tone, and then she changes the subject twice in one breath.
This miniature avoidance implies that she doesn’t want to be perceived as another actress who does yoga religiously. It’s as if she’d rather be a kitesurfer or a kickboxer—something everyone else isn’t. Is she letting it slip that she’s anxious that she could be typecast somehow? Does she feel a pressure to stick out from the crowd of pretty young actresses on the London scene? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
This was the single Achilles heel in Andrea Riseborough’s impenetrable veneer. Fortunately, she’s too self-aware not to notice the glitch, and backtracks with: “Not that good things can’t be appreciated by the masses.”
She promptly regains footing by speaking elegantly about ballet. Thanks for the dance, Andrea.