Andrea Riseborough: Oscar’s Most Talked-About Nominee Breaks Her Silence
The best actress surprise on making 'To Leslie,' her shape-shifting career and the debates surrounding her nomination: "It not only makes sense that this conversation would be sparked, but it is necessary."
Andrea Riseborough — the shapeshifting actress whose name is on everyone’s lips — has lived in Los Angeles since 2010. But right now she’s back in her native England, where she’s filming the HBO miniseries The Palace, a period political satire co-starring Kate Winslet. A swanky hotel tucked discreetly at the end of a narrow alleyway in London’s Soho district serves as her temporary home. Riseborough, 41, enters the hotel’s busy restaurant precisely at the agreed-upon hour — 3:30 p.m. Tea time, although she will be drinking coffee.
Nothing in her demeanor suggests someone who nine days earlier had been nominated for an Academy Award — her first, no less, after 20 prolific years of dues-paying. She is petite, practically swimming in a striped wool overcoat. Her hair is cropped boyishly short — this for another recent role, playing British Vogue editor Audrey Withers in Lee. Right now, however, it gives her a whiff of Joan of Arc. She takes a seat and removes a black mask, exposing a wan smile.
As this is Riseborough’s first major interview since that surprise nomination — but arranged before the backlash that followed it — she is aware that anything she utters over the next two hours could easily boomerang back to wound her. When asked questions about the awards campaign or the conversations about race and privilege it’s sparking, she hesitates, preferring to address those matters in a later conversation (which she will, via email).
In this moment, however, she can’t even concede to being happy about it.
“I don’t know what I know,” she says. “I think once I have time to process everything, I might understand it a bit better.”
The Oscars long have had a knack for stirring up creative controversy. But this brouhaha — call it l’Affaire Riseborough — is different. For starters, it erupted not during the ceremony but on Jan. 24, Oscar nominations morning, when Riseborough — a screen vet (she’s a favorite of auteurs like Mike Leigh, Armando Iannucci and Alejandro G. Iñárritu), if not a household name — was one of five lead actresses whose name was read aloud by Riz Ahmed. That the film she starred in was To Leslie, an ultra-low-budget indie that grossed only $27,000 in its single week in theaters, served to enhance the shock value.
How did it happen? Hollywood awards strategists will surely dissect the phenomenon for generations. What’s clear is that a word-of-mouth Hail Mary campaign aimed directly at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ acting branch and led by a raft of such A-listers as Winslet, Charlize Theron and Gwyneth Paltrow — with even competitors like Cate Blanchett jumping in — allowed Riseborough to clinch the nomination.
At first, Riseborough’s triumph was trumpeted as a watershed moment for independent film and a stake to the heart of the conventional wisdom that only studio-backed pictures have the resources to score Oscar nominations.
But that uplifting narrative quickly morphed into something more contentious. With Black performers completely shut out of the best actress race — notably The Woman King‘s Viola Davis and Till‘s Danielle Deadwyler, two favorites on the 2023 circuit — questions arose as to how and why Hollywood’s ruling class had rallied so enthusiastically around Riseborough. Pointed accusations — of white privilege, cronyism, elitism — were hurled.
All of it has added up to a very peculiar Hollywood controversy, one that could only have erupted in these very complicated times — amid the rise of social media, the ever-raging culture wars and, ironically, cinema’s waning relevance, where a digital screening room and some well-placed endorsements managed to do what millions of studio marketing dollars could not.
And here, at the nexus of it all, sits a shell-shocked Riseborough — a talented artist who just wants people to experience the work.
“It’s been confusing,” Riseborough offers, her brow furrowed. “And it’s wonderful the film’s getting seen. I suppose it’s a really bright ray of light. When any of us engage in anything, we want for that piece of work to be absorbed in some way. You can’t control how people absorb it.”
Riseborough’s zealous approach to her craft has always suggested the mind of a fine artist at work. It’s been said that her ability to slip so seamlessly inside the skin of her characters — there’s something almost Cindy Sherman-esque about her wild corporeal transformations from project to project — has hindered her from developing a full-fledged star persona of her own.
But stardom was never the goal, she says. She was born in 1981 in Northern England to educated, working-class parents. Her father sold used cars, and her mother was a secretary. She has a younger sister, Laura, also an actress. By 7, Riseborough was performing in productions with a local Shakespeare company. “It was an informative, imaginative space,” she says. “Something that was addictive. As a small child, being surrounded by grown-ups, talking about literature in that way — it was a really unique experience.”
At 17, she dropped out of high school to move to London. She paid the rent with a series of odd jobs, including one in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. Tiring of an existence of shredding crispy duck with a spoon and fork, she applied at age 19 to Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Of the more than 3,000 to apply, Riseborough was granted one of 28 spots. Her classmates were Tom Hiddleston and Joel Fry.
“At RADA, we trained in pretty much everything,” she says. “It was a wonderfully comprehensive experience in that way. I felt like we did enough of everything that we were steeped in it, but not too much of any one thing that it was dominant, if that makes sense.”
Riseborough started booking film and TV gigs well before graduation. In 2008, Leigh spotted her in a play and gave her a role in Happy-Go-Lucky. The same year, she was cast as a young Margaret Thatcher in The Long Walk to Finchley, a TV movie that earned her a BAFTA nomination and heightened her profile considerably. Having seen it, Madonna thought Riseborough perfect to play Wallis Simpson in her 2011 directorial effort, W.E.
Riseborough has barely taken a breath since. There was her scene-stealing turn as Michael Keaton’s girlfriend in Iñárritu’s Birdman; the boozy Hollywood housewife of Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (“We spent a good deal of our time laughing,” says Ford in an email. “Off set, we have become good friends”); the daughter of Joseph Stalin in Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin; she even co-starred with Tom Cruise in the sci-fi spectacle Oblivion. Most recently, she can be seen playing Matilda’s mother in Netflix’s Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical. Chances are good that one is already familiar with her work, even if one is not familiar with her name.
The To Leslie saga begins not in film, however, but in episodic television, on Netflix’s Bloodline, a family crime drama set in the Florida Keys. It was there, in 2016, that Riseborough — who played the conniving baby mama Evangeline — met Michael Morris, the 49-year-old, icy-blue-eyed Englishman who served as Bloodline‘s showrunner and director. The two developed a creative shorthand and mutual admiration.
In the summer of 2018, Morris stumbled upon a script from an under-the-radar writer named Ryan Binaco. Morris — whose directing credits include Billions and Better Call Saul — quickly became convinced he had found his feature directorial debut. Set in rural West Texas, To Leslie introduces us to the title character, an alcoholic mother whose addiction has long ago spiraled out of control. Leslie circles rock bottom for much longer than most movies would allow, testing audience sympathies, before ultimately finding grace and sobriety in the final act. There was only one actress who in Morris’ estimation could tackle a role as unflinching and raw as Leslie: Riseborough.
Much of the narrative — including the fact that Leslie wins $190,000 in the lottery only to squander it all — was inspired by Binaco’s relationship with his own mother, who did not live long enough to experience her son’s success, having died in 2020 from complications of early-onset Alzheimer’s. “I wanted her to get clean and find happiness and be Mom again,” Binaco says in an email. “And she started down that road — she touched it — but it was too late.”
Riseborough knew none of this as she paged through the screenplay, but she could sense To Leslie came from a deeply personal place. “Sometimes you read something and you think, ‘Oh, this is that one important story for them.’ That was clear on the page,” she says. “It was a celebration of somebody — in all of the glorious and horrible moments.” It called to mind some of her favorite films — gritty, character-driven pieces from the early 1970s like Wanda and The Panic in Needle Park. “Those magical pieces of cinema that, even when you get to the end of the film, leave you completely hanging and aren’t necessarily conclusive in any way,” she says. She told Morris she was in.
Even so, it would take several years for To Leslie to secure financing and wade through a labyrinth of COVID-19 delays. Production finally came together by Christmas 2020, just weeks before Riseborough was set to start filming David O. Russell’s Amsterdam, in which she was cast as Christian Bale’s social-climbing wife. The 19-day shoot would film around L.A., standing in for Texas, and proceeded under strict pandemic precautions.
Marc Maron was cast as a motel manager who sees something in Leslie and hires her as a chambermaid. He took the role somewhat reluctantly, still grieving the death of his girlfriend, filmmaker Lynn Shelton, who succumbed to leukemia in May. “I was in my own sadness and fear from loss and also from COVID and everything else,” Maron recalls. “And I wasn’t as familiar with her work as everybody else. So my intimidation factor probably would have been higher had I known the arc of her career or depth of her work. I didn’t get the sense that she really knew me, either.”
There was no time in the whirlwind schedule for luxuries like table reads or rehearsal. The first time Riseborough and Maron got a clear look at each other was when the cameras were rolling. “So you are in a world where you’re not taking your mask off anywhere, and then you actually have a real human encounter when the director calls ‘action,’ ” explains Maron. “I have to assume that turns things up a notch in terms of delivering the goods.”
Owen Teague, who played Riseborough’s son on Bloodline, once again was cast as her son — at 19, this time closer to manhood. “I didn’t realize it was her at first,” says Teague, calling from Australia, where he’s filming Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. “Leslie is basically homeless by that point. So Andrea was covered in dirt and her clothes are a wreck. She just looked terrible.” (“I spent three years at drama school flailing around the floor pretending to be a hyena,” says Riseborough when asked about Leslie’s unflattering extremes. “As humans, we’re horribly messy.”) Adds Teague: “I think she’s one of the most extraordinary actors that’s alive today.”
The film premiered out of competition at Austin’s South by Southwest in March 2022 to generally glowing reviews — particularly for Riseborough (THR praised her performance as “an unfolding, alive with flickering rough edges”). North American and U.K. distribution rights were acquired by Momentum Pictures, the indie movie arm of Toronto-based eOne, which gave it a day-and-date release on Oct. 12, 2022 — meaning the film was made simultaneously available in theaters and streaming. One week later, Momentum pulled To Leslie from cinemas, where it grossed just $27,322. (The film is still available on VOD, though Momentum will not reveal what it has earned from digital downloads.)
In early November, it screened once more — at the London-based indie festival Raindance — where Riseborough was awarded best performance. But with virtually no marketing spend from Momentum, the critical darling — it currently boasts a 97 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating — sank like a rock. “It’s always disappointing when traction is not capitalized on,” says Riseborough. Maron is less diplomatic in his assessment: “There was no possibility of any more visibility because this distributor was awful and remained awful.”
If there is a “patient zero” of the outbreak of Riseborough fever that would soon grip Hollywood, it’s Helen Hunt. The Twister star had been in attendance at the film’s Nov. 2 Raindance screening in London, there to support her friends Morris and his wife, The West Wing actress Mary McCormack, whom Hunt had originally introduced to each other. That night, Hunt posted a six-image slideshow on Instagram praising the film and its stars. “Here with Sweethearts @marycmccormack and @filmbymichaelmorris after watching his BEAUTIFUL film ‘To Leslie,’ ” read the caption. “Go see it!!!!”
“That was just marvelous,” recalls Morris. “And that’s kind of what social media does. It is a platform for people to touch base with the people that follow them and say in enthusiasm, ‘Check this out.’ People can pick up those threads and then they can amplify them if they like it.”
But that was only part of the story. Behind the scenes, Riseborough reps and publicists mounted a grassroots awards gambit on her behalf. Also key to the effort was Jason Weinberg, who manages both Riseborough’s and McCormack’s acting careers and who has guided many other starry clients — including Penélope Cruz, Christina Ricci, Jean Smart and Connie Britton — to awards.
The microbudget campaign, self-financed by Riseborough and Morris, had no money for billboards, bus or trade ads but covered the $20,000 fee to screen the movie on the Academy website. “The distribution budget was very small,” Riseborough later recalls in an email. “But having had success at SXSW and Raindance, having seen the impact of the film on audiences and having had some wonderful reviews, we all tried to contribute in any way we could. I showed up for screenings and Q&As and was witness to some incredibly cathartic Q&As afterward, during which audience members shared their own stories in relation to addiction.” Meanwhile, Morris, McCormack and Weinberg spent the normally dead weeks around the holidays plundering their Rolodexes. (Riseborough was far away in Budapest filming Lee, which once again pairs her with Winslet, who plays a real-life fashion model turned photojournalist in World War II; Academy guidelines prohibit campaigning on one’s own behalf.) “We think you will love it,” went one email blast from McCormack. “We feel so strongly about beautiful films being seen whether or not they have millions and millions to spend on publicity.”
Theron hosted a To Leslie screening in November at CAA, where she introduced the film as something that “stays in your bones.” Edward Norton, who worked with Riseborough on Birdman, and Jennifer Aniston hosted screenings at their homes later that month. (The performance “just knocked me sideways,” Norton told his 410,000 Instagram followers.) Through December, the film garnered kudos, being named one of the top 10 indie films of the year by the National Board of Review and a nomination for Riseborough from both the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Independent Spirit Awards.
In January, the campaign really picked up steam. Paltrow hosted a screening and the following day called the film “a masterpiece” on Instagram, adding that Riseborough “should win every award there is.” Looking back, Riseborough says she was “gobsmacked” by the outpouring of support. “When it got through to me that so many people were reaching out with personal and passionate responses about the film,” she says, “I was very moved — because the subject matter is very important to me, and I believe in the message of the film.”
Then, on Jan. 15, while accepting her Critics Choice Award for Tár, Blanchett cited Riseborough first in a list of equally deserving actresses. “I almost choked,” says Riseborough, who was on a flight to London for a Palace read-through when it happened; her partner, French-Lebanese actor Karim Saleh, whom she met filming the 2020 film Luxor, relayed the news. “It was just so generous and flabbergasting,” Riseborough says. “I’m amazed she didn’t call me Angela. I wouldn’t have blamed her. I didn’t think she knew me from Adam.”
For insight, I asked one of Riseborough’s vocal admirers, Sarah Paulson — herself a member of the Academy’s acting branch — what inspired her to respond to Riseborough’s nomination by posting, “THIS IS FUCKING THRILLING,” in all-caps on Instagram.
“I think a lot of times when actors take on the responsibility of playing a person at the lowest point in their lives,” says Paulson, who has never met or worked with Riseborough, “what you get is a glamorized version of it for fear of being seen in an unflattering light. What I was so struck by was the total lack of vanity in her performance. I’m not talking solely about the way she looked.
“It felt to me like I was looking through a keyhole and I was watching something I shouldn’t be watching,” Paulson adds.
Even with the swelling A-list support, few awards watchers expected Riseborough to land a nomination — including herself.
“There was a lot of chatter beforehand in those few days leading up to [the nomination],” Riseborough says. “But the very realistic part of me that has been doing this for 20 years didn’t think this would happen. I don’t think that you dare to allow yourself to imagine that that would happen to something that you shot in 19 days.” Recalls Morris of the Jan. 24 announcement: “I was in tears. It was just this feeling like this impossible thing had happened.” For Riseborough, it was a moment of “disbelief.”
But the celebration did not last long. With the exclusion of Davis and Deadwyler in particular (who were nominated for both BAFTA and SAG acting awards), there was a sense that Riseborough’s nod came at the expense of one of them (even though Ana de Armas’ nomination for Blonde also was considered somewhat of a surprise).
Riseborough couldn’t even catch a break in her own homeland: “The Andrea Riseborough Oscars nomination proves misogynoir in Hollywood is still thriving,” charged Glamour Magazine U.K. (“Misogynoir” is a fairly recent neologism that refers to misogyny directed at Black women.) “Danielle Deadwyler was robbed,” accused the Sunday Times. Sensing a ballooning PR disaster, the Academy announced an investigation would be undertaken to determine whether anything in Riseborough’s unorthodox campaign had violated rules, as some alleged.
If any campaign rule was broken, it was the one instated in 2016 that prohibits receptions not accompanied by screenings, in order to curtail lavish party spending. McCormack and Morris hosted at least one non-screening event at their home — a not-uncommon practice in campaign cycles, yet suddenly one under scrutiny. The Academy’s finding was that nothing her cadre of powerful supporters had done rose to the level of disqualification, though Academy president Bill Kramer said in his statement: “We did discover social media and outreach campaigning tactics that caused concern. These tactics are being addressed with the responsible parties directly.”
Maron scoffs at the Academy’s show of concern. “If they need to fix the rules around how social media works for the voting process, just do it next time,” he says. “But somebody put a fire up their butts about, you know, ‘How could this happen?’ It just became loaded on a lot of levels. They freaked out.”
If fault lies with anyone, he reasons, it’s with Momentum Pictures. “They botched the submission process. For a distributor, the submission process is a no-brainer. Michael wasn’t submitted for the Directors Guild Awards. The music wasn’t submitted, the ensemble wasn’t submitted for SAG or Golden Globes or Oscars. None of us were submitted for SAG Awards or Golden Globes, or Oscars. Just Andrea for the two or three awards that she was nominated for,” Maron says. “So in light of that, you know, when I saw this grassroots thing happen, and then it delivered her this nomination, I was thrilled. I was thrilled for her, and I was thrilled for the movie. It’s upsetting in retrospect that this experience has to be so loaded and toxic and challenged.
“A few highly paid consultants for big-money campaigns for big studios got blindsided and then started a bunch of shit,” he continues. “Andrea, she’s in it for the work, dude. I mean, if that’s not clear from this woman’s career — that she’s the real deal and she does it for the work — then you’re not looking at her correctly. But now that she’s targeted and at the center of this fake controversy, I hope it works in her favor.”
Riseborough isn’t entirely sure what, if anything, her experience will mean for future Hollywood trophy-jockeying. “Awards campaigning is as acerbically exclusive as it has always been,” she says. “I do not yet know which measures will best encourage meritocracy. I’ve been working toward discovering them and will continue to.”
The debate persists. Gina Prince- Bythewood, director of The Woman King, which was shut out of nominations, wrote in an op-ed for THR that there was an unwillingness of Academy members to even see her film and noted: “There is no groundswell from privileged people with enormous social capital to get behind Black women. There never has been.” Deadwyler, meanwhile, echoed similar sentiments about Till and spoke about the general erasure of Black women on the podcast Kermode & Mayo’s Take. Of her snub: “We’re talking about misogynoir. It comes in all kinds of ways. Whether it’s direct or indirect, it impacts who we are.”
More recently, Michelle Yeoh seemed to stand up for her fellow nominee, telling BBC Radio: “I love [Viola and Danielle] to the extreme and wish we were all getting Oscars, but it’s tough. It took me 40 years to even get a nomination. Every single actor and actress puts their heart and soul into these movies and you don’t necessarily start thinking you are going to get nominated. The stories we want to tell are more important.”
A little over a week after our London rendez-vous, Riseborough says she is “coming to terms with what the nomination means, for me and for others.” Of the debate her nomination has elicited, she writes, “It not only makes sense that this conversation would be sparked, but it is necessary. The film industry is abhorrently unequal in terms of opportunity. I’m mindful not to speak for the experience of other people because they are better placed to speak, and I want to listen.”
Regarding the impact the controversy has had on her campaign, she says: “I am grateful for the conversation because it must be had. It has deeply impacted me.”
As Maron predicts, however, it all could indeed work in Riseborough’s favor. There have been grumblings among Academy voters who feel she has been unfairly scapegoated in the whole affair. The upside could lead to one of — strike that, the greatest upset in Oscars history. Time will tell.
Back at tea time, I ask Riseborough whether achieving household-name recognition — marquee stardom — was something she’d ever even wanted. And had it occurred to her that she had finally achieved it — perhaps not in the way she’d imagined it, but, to quote her own words, that she is the indisputable beneficiary of “a celebration of somebody — in all of the glorious and horrible moments”?
She stares up at the restaurant ceiling for what feels like forever to gather her next thoughts. “I think what I’ve been pursuing — or the thing that I’m most interested in — is other people’s rhythms in the world,” Riseborough says. “And I don’t want anything to stop me being able to do that. There are just an endless array of opportunities with each character. And so why not explore the vastness of different nuances that every human being has from within? I think it always has to come from within for me.”
“So with that said,” I respond, “do you feel like the bigger spotlight in which you now find yourself could somehow become a hindrance to your ability to get lost inside roles?”
“I don’t know,” Riseborough says, sighing faintly. “I think it’s very important to be able to have a relatively normal experience, to be able to move around very anonymously in the world in order to be able to accurately reflect life. Because if you’re not able to be near people or experiencing people, you sort of have nothing. That’s the meat of it. So an experience has been taken away. A human experience has been taken away.”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.