“I just looked at my schedule, and it’s completely bananas,” she told Variety on the eve of the festival. “I’m not going to be able to pee for three days.”
Over the past decade, Riseborough has built up an impressive resume of work in the likes of “Battle of the Sexes” and “W.E.” without ever becoming a household name. That may be changing. At the very least, this year’s Sundance will close with the actress’ profile significantly enhanced thanks to a buzzy set of performances.
There’s “The Death of Stalin,” a savage political satire from “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci, in which Riseborough plays Josef Stalin’s daughter. Then she stars opposite Nicolas Cage in “Mandy,” a gonzo thriller that combines romance, carnage, and supernatural creatures. Riseborough also appears in “Burdan,” a drama about a man’s break with the Ku Klux Klan that also stars Forest Whitaker and Garrett Hedlund. Lastly, she headlines and co-produces “Nancy,” the story of a disturbed woman who becomes convinced she’s an elderly couple’s long-lost child.
It was “Nancy” that Riseborough and writer and director Christina Choe labored on for three years, as they cobbled together financing to bring the edgy film to the screen. The experience was eye-opening; exposing the actress to the difficulties that female-driven projects face in getting made.
“It was like going up a downhill escalator,” said Riseborough. “We were told over and over again by financiers that no one watches films with a female name in the title.”
Apparently, they had never heard of “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Annie Hall.” Despite the pushback, Riseborough kept at it, in part because she believed in the importance of championing a female director. Although this year’s festival has a number of female directors, with 37% of the 122 feature films premiering in Park City directed by women, that kind of representation is in stark contrast to industry trends. For instance, just 4.2% of the 100 top-grossing domestic releases were made by female directors.
“We get a lot of films from the white male heterosexual perspective, but it’s so important that we have a plethora of experiences on film,” said Riseborough.
That’s what Choe offered. The writer and director of “Nancy” said she was inspired to create a female anti-hero that was compelling, but also deeply flawed and morally ambiguous. It’s the kind of part, she noted, that’s usually reserved for men.
“Until lately most female characters are the wife or the sister or the funny best friend,” said Choe. “It’s hard to find a true leading role for a woman that’s not the girlfriend or the straight up villain.”
Riseborough is optimistic that some things are changing for the better. When she appeared on “Late Night with Jimmy Kimmel” last month, she wore a shirt emblazoned with the message “equal pay.” With other actresses such as Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence pushing to get paid as much as their male co-stars, Riseborough has noticed a shift in how the issue is being addressed by the powers that be.
“I can walk into meetings now and ask for equal pay and the people will listen to me,” she said. “They may not give it to me, but I will be listened to. That’s huge.”
Riseborough said the pay gap has been a nagging reality for too long. Recently, she found out that she was paid “1/24th” of what her male co-star earned.
“God knows that in the past I was frightened to say anything,” said Riseborough. “I was scared I would lose my job and my ability to pay my rent if I complained.”
Riseborough hopes that the current conversation about gender parity in representation and compensation becomes more expansive.
“We need to band together in solidarity,” she said. “There’s so many portions of our community that are under-represented. You rarely see disabled actors on movie posters or black men or Latino guys.”
Going forward, Riseborough wants to move beyond the camera. She’s putting together backing for a script she wrote and hopes to direct the picture. It is not, she stresses, autobiographical, but it does draw from her experiences growing up in the U.K. seaside resort of Whitley Bay.
“At the heart of the story is the rhythm of the people that I come from,” she said. “It draws on a part of the world that I still love.”