Grace and Grit:

Actress Andrea Riseborough Embraces the Full Spectrum of Femininity  

By Ashley Prince
Photographed for Constellation by Cheyenne Alford

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We meet at Actor’s Express, an intimate, professional theater in the West Midtown area of Atlanta, Georgia on an unusually warm October day. “There’s no place that I feel more comfortable in than the theater,” Andrea Riseborough says in her enchanting Northeastern England dialect as she perches on the concrete bench outside the building. “It gives me sort of, like, multi-feelings...of calm and sheer terror.” Her long, thin Virginia Slim bounces around the air as her hand gestures, leaving behind trails of smoke.

While this disciple of Joan Didion and Patti Smith’s first name—the feminine form of Andrew—means “manly,” she chooses instead to interpret it as “androgynous,” and it shows in the wide range of roles she plays. Riseborough, whom you might recognize as Evangeline from the Netflix series Bloodline, or as Laura in Birdman (2014), is the epitome of grace in the sense that she is kind and thoughtful—a lovely human. Yet she is equally strong and grounded in herself and the world around her. 

“I feel like part of being a woman is embracing that masculine side just as much as I do the feminine side. I’ve never really been down to embrace the idea that a woman is something purely floral, or even that a flower is something that’s purely feminine.” There’s the rub that draws me to her. 

I’ve never really been down to embrace the idea that a woman is something purely floral, or even that a flower is something that’s purely feminine.

Riseborough’s portrayal of Wallis Simpson in Madonna’s directorial debut, W.E. (2012), exemplifies her strong-yet-feminine appeal. In that film, even the way she wears the clothes demands respect in a time when women spent hours painting their lips. Yet several of Riseborough’s roles were originally written for men, as it turns out, such as Henry Alex Rubin’s 2012 thriller, Disconnect. It’s Riseborough’s tenacity and her fluid attitude toward traditional gender roles that allow her to make such roles distinctly her own. In the months ahead, she also plans to create more opportunities for other women to take on dynamic, non-traditional characters: In addition to her acting career, Riseborough has started her own film company and is currently working on developing some all-female takes on Shakespearean plays. Her forthcoming films Shepherds and Butchers and Mindhord will both be released in 2017.

Throughout her career thus far, Riseborough often portrays women who might be considered “unlikeable.” Take for example her turn as a female terrorist and member of the IRA in Shadow Dancer (2012), directed by James Marsh and based on the novel of the same name by Tom Bradby, while in Bloodline, she plays a con artist riding the coattails of her dead boyfriend’s lovechild into false stability. And as far as W.E., Wallis Simpson is predominantly remembered as the American divorcee that robbed a country of its monarch. The latter film, however, presents the story from Simpson’s side, and Riseborough’s portrayal somehow manages to make viewers empathize with a woman whom society deemed unworthy and unlovable. What draws her to each of these women lies in her ability to look at them objectively. 

“So would you ever consider playing a stripper with a heart of gold?” I ask naively, not prepared for the answer I’m about to get.

 “Well, you know. That’s a real story. I would happily do that,” she says with big eyes and a non-judgmental earnestness, a quality that makes her irresistible to watch both onstage and onscreen. ★

Styling by Ashley Prince. Hair and Makeup by Randi Garza.