Andrea Riseborough on delving into the IRA for ‘Shadow Dancer’

Andrea Riseborough plays a woman who works for the IRA in "Shadow Dancer" Credit: Jason LaVeris/Getty Images
Andrea Riseborough plays a woman who works for the IRA in “Shadow Dancer”
Credit: Jason LaVeris/Getty Images

Andrea Riseborough is poised to become the latest major British export. Though most Americans will recognize her as Tom Cruise’s partner/lover in “Oblivion,” the English actress has had many high profile homeland roles for big directors: She was one of Sally Hawkins’ friends in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” the gullible girlfriend in “Brighton Rock” and Wallis Simpson in Madonna’s “W.E.” In the new “Shadow Dancer,” in theaters now, she plays a Northern Ireland woman in 1993 caught up with the IRA and forced by an MI5 officer (Clive Owen) to turn snitch on her family.

You were a teenager during the events depicted in the film. What were your own experiences with the Irish Troubles?
That and the first Iraq War were the two main fears I had as a child — that my dad could be conscripted, or a bomb could go off on the tube. As formative as those were, they were only peripheral, really. As soon as I started researching this, I realized what I knew was just the tip of an iceberg, and very biased. Political journalists had their hands tied and really weren’t allowed to report on any informer activity, because it put so many lives in danger.

What were some things you discovered about people living it directly as you prepped for the film?
They were born into it. This didn’t begin in 1922, of course. It goes back to the 1000s. The island’s been in so much turmoil for such a long time. But they got through it. How they got through it, I discovered, was all the women were on pills and all the men were drinking vodka. It was a situation in which you’d say goodbye to your kids on their way to school in the morning, and you had no idea whether they were going to return at the end of the day. And I’m really not sure how people get through that, other than just living it.

There aren’t many films on the Troubles that focus on women.
Our industry seems to have grossly misrepresented female involvement in the Troubles. There were so many strong women — and weak women — involved in the struggle. Or course, it’s a no-brainer. Who are you going to put on the tube with a bomb? Are you going to put someone who looks horribly conspicuous in a black leather jacket, a skinhead, a big guy? Or are you going to use someone easy to overlook?

Your character rarely speaks. What are the difficulties in conveying her inner turmoil through silence?
She didn’t start out that way. She spoke more. Silence is her strength, truly. And at that time of paranoia, deep paranoia, when you couldn’t trust family members, let alone friends, it just seemed very authentic to us to have her not talk much. We had a responsibility to be authentic, because there were so many people hurt and affected by this conflict. It was a challenge, but that’s why I love my job. It’s always a challenge. It was certainly heartbreaking, talking to people on the ground in Belfast.

What was it like working with director James Marsh, who also makes documentaries like “Man on Wire?”
I trust his taste more than anything. I once got this note to sleep prettier. You sometimes get the most ridiculous notes given to you. She’s asleep! She’s just f—ing sleeping. James trusted us. With him there is nothing but a feeling every day that you’re searching for the truth.


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