Perhaps it was a bit of method acting.
Over the course of the three-and-a-half weeks spent shooting “Luxor” in Egypt, Andrea Riseborough fell in love with her co-star Karim Saleh, who played the former boyfriend of her character, an aid worker named Hana.
“Perhaps we did our jobs a little too well,” says Riseborough. “It’s very rare for a couple to have forever immortalized on the silver screen their meeting. It was two weeks of connection. It’s something that we’ll always treasure. It was totally unexpected.”
“Luxor,” which is now available on demand and on streaming, follows Hana as she returns to Egypt after two decades away. She’s been traumatized by the brutality she’s witnessed as a surgeon tending to the victims of the Syrian Civil War. It’s Saleh’s character, Sultan, who helps her grapple with the emotional scars left from her work. His reappearance also forces Hana to contend with the reasons their relationship initially failed. The film’s meditative pace and restraint have earned comparisons with Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” films.
“I see similarities,” admits Riseborough. “We’re with Hana in her quiet moments, after she’s seen some of the most horrendous things that one can see. The character of Sultan holds hope for her because their relationship was so formative. I think the thing that people identify with is that in the difficult times when we find life incredibly challenging, the things that keep you putting one foot in front of the other are those great loves that you always carry silently in your heart. It’s a motivating hopeful jewel that you carry through the darkness.”
Riseborough opted to do the project because she was a fan of filmmaker Zeina Durra’s previous work on “The Imperialists Are Still Alive!” But she had less than a month to make the collaboration happen between wrapping up filming Amazon’s “Zero Zero Zero” and beginning Brandon Cronenberg’s thriller “Possessor.”
“Zeina has a unique way of exploring conflict and the fallout from war,” says Riseborough.
The actress, whose credits include “Waco” and “The Death of Stalin,” has been outspoken in her support of increasing representation in front of and behind the camera. She endorsed the Time’s Up movement’s “4 Percent Challenge,” which urged top talent to commit to making a film with a female director, and has pushed colleagues to follow suit. However, Riseborough worries that the coronavirus pandemic may jeopardize the strides the entertainment industry has made to become more inclusive.
“I feel like there was lots of momentum,” says Riseborough. “Then, interestingly, as soon as a hurdle comes up, everybody uses it as an excuse to just continue what they were doing before. That hurdle, of course, is COVID. There’s a tendency for producers and studios — not so much streamers — to fall back on the idea that this particular project doesn’t have enough funding to do the necessary outreach to make it diverse, and the reality is that’s not an excuse.”
“We must be very careful not to use COVID as an excuse to avoid taking the time to make sure our workplace is fairly and accurately populated with people who are representative of the country that you are working in,” she adds. “We were in a really good place before COVID. There was a lot of momentum, and I do think it’s been a little bit of a stumbling block.”
The public health catastrophe is also impacting the way films like “Luxor” are being distributed. The film is largely being released digitally at a time when many cinemas are closed. But Riseborough thinks that may actually benefit the film.
“At a time when we are literally unable to leave our houses and we are unable to see the world and travel it in the way that we could just a few months ago, this movie is something transporting,” says Riseborough. “It’s not ideal in terms of financially for our brilliant producers who made the movie to have it debut on streaming, but I think for the viewer this may be really quite a beautiful trip into the unknown.”