The duo appeared in a session Monday at Sundance Film Festival’s Cinema Café track moderated by Variety‘s Brent Lang, executive editor of film and media. Both Dunne and Riseborough agreed that, in a perfect world, they would choose behind-the-camera roles rather than acting ones.
“I’ve discovered the day-to-day pleasures of becoming a writer,” said Dunne, who stars in and co-wrote the screenplay for “Herself,” which premiered at Sundance. It’s the Irish actor’s screenwriting debut.
Riseborough, an English film, TV and stage actor, said, “I would love to be able to zoom out… and when people have enough faith in me, to be able to tell a story where I don’t use myself as a vessel,” although she added that she has no interest in being a producer. Being an actor, she observed, is “such an odd thing to do to yourself psychologically.”
Riseborough appears in two films that debuted at Sundance: drama “Luxor” and thriller “Possessor.” She addressed strides the film industry has made in paying women actors relative to their male counterparts. Historically, Riseborough said, men have earned as much as 25 times what female actors were paid.
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“The idea that your time is less important, by the minute, is obviously wrong in every way,” Riseborough said. Awareness of pay equity has “been a lot better across the board in the industry. People are really mindful of it now.”
“Herself,” directed by Phyllida Lloyd, was just acquired by Amazon Studios for North America. The Dublin-set film is about a woman who struggles to provide a safe and happy home for her two daughters after leaving an abusive partner, ultimately building her dream house.
Dunne said she was inspired to start writing “Herself” after hearing about a friend in Ireland who had to legally declare herself homeless and live in one room with three small children.
“I was obviously pretty incensed about this,” she said. At the time she started, she was in New York learning lines for TV detective show but “couldn’t stop going off in fantasies of, ‘Couldn’t she bypass the system and build a home?'” she said. “I remember thinking, this woman builds a house and this community forms around her… I Googled ‘self-build Ireland cheap’… that was literally the beginning of my distraction from my lines,” Dunne said.
Originally, Dunne hadn’t expected to appear in “Herself” but that Lloyd (whose credits include “The Iron Lady” and “Mamma Mia!”) insisted that Dunne play the lead role in her pitch to the film’s backers.
Dunne said the “Herself” shoot was a grueling schedule, as she appears in virtually every scene. “It helped playing a character that has PTSD,” she said. Dunne is a veteran of the U.K. theater scene with roles in productions at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and Lloyd’s all-female staging of “Henry IV.” Compared with theater acting, she said, “it was great to experience [acting on a film shoot] and not have to actually repeat it the next day.”
Dunne said that when it came to playing Sandra in “Herself,” despite all the research she had done beforehand, being in the moment was a wholly different experience. “To actually be in it and do it was intense,” she said. “Because I’d written it, it was also a release.”
Variety‘s Peter Debruge, in his review of the film, suggested that “Herself” could yield an Oscar nomination for Lloyd next year, which would make her the sixth woman “to break the Oscars’ glass ceiling.”
Riseborough, who is a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, lamented that not more women directors have been recognized by the Oscars. “We have such a long way to go about to diversify the voting pool,” she said. “I feel like everything I nominated this year on my ballot, none of it got through.”
In “Luxor,” written and directed by Zeina Durra, Riseborough is a British aid worker who encounters an ex-lover (Karim Saleh) in the Egyptian city on the banks of the Nile and struggles to reconcile the choices of the past with the uncertainty of the present.
Riseborough said she was drawn to the project because it was penned by Durra, one of her favorite scriptwriters. “Her script was so beautiful,” she said. “She was presenting two people who were trying to find their way through the world — and choose to not do it alone,” she said. “To me, that’s the purest love story you can tell.”
In sci-fi thriller “Possessor,” Riseborough plays a corporate agent (“Vos”) who uses brain-implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies and force them to commit assassinations for the benefit of the company. The cast includes Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuppence Middleton and Sean Bean.
Playing Vos in “Possessor” was a “very feral” experience, she said, and while filming she would look in a mirror and not recognize herself. The character at one point inhabits a man’s body. “In ‘Possessor,’ I have a penis,” Riseborough quipped to laughs from the audience. “I love saying that.”