If Bafta had waited much longer to shortlist Andrea Riseborough for its EE Rising Star award, it could have been too late. She would already have risen. Some would say she has done just that, with memorable performances in such movies as Never Let Me Go and Made in Dagenham, and starring stage roles in Miss Julie and Measure for Measure for Sir Peter Hall. Besides, it would have been hard to portray the young Mrs Thatcher so vividly, as she did on television in BBC4’s The Long Walk to Finchley nearly five years ago, and remain an obscure presence in the cinematic sky.
Riseborough, who is 31, hesitates to single out the most significant roles of her 13-year-career, saying they have all made huge demands on her and have all driven her crazy. She does, however, keep returning to the strange character of the former prime minister and deconstructs it with the skill of a political analyst.
Not only did she inhabit her for dramatic reasons, she spent her childhood in the decade of the Iron Lady and reached adulthood in its aftermath. Moreover, she came from Whitley Bay in the north-east of England and her parents were what could be described as working-class Tories, Mrs T’s target voters.
Her father sold used cars and her mother was a secretary. They were, she says, nothing but supportive. She was academically gifted, seen in her teens by her teachers as Oxbridge material. But in the end she left school before taking her A levels, suffering from boredom. She says she had a hunger for being out in the wider world.
Mrs Thatcher was gone by then, but her legacy remained. For Riseborough, of course, these echoes were re-awakened with the preparation for The Long Walk to Finchley (left). And, whether she sought them or not, there were parallels – ferociously bright girl from plain background but with vision and ambition. “She lived in my head, at least my version of her did. I spent hours in her school and in her street [in Grantham]. I read the doorstops of fact and fiction, mostly fiction, that she wrote about herself.”
Talking about the range of characters she has played, including Republican informer Collette McVeigh in last year’s film adaptation of Tom Bradby’s novel Shadow Dancer, Riseborough speaks of the need to observe the “flaws and oversights” of her subjects. Flaws seems straightforward enough – but oversights?
“Mrs Thatcher had oversights when it came to thousands of people. No, millions. She is still untouchable for many because she didn’t operate in the way others did. Her connection with humanity was a very loose thread. Emotionally, she was not in touch with herself or anybody else. As well as being such an intelligent woman, I would say she had psychopathic tendencies.”
She laughs at the notion but doesn’t retract it. On the contrary: “As I understand it, the term implies a tendency not to feel as much guilt about one’s actions as perhaps one ought to.”
Home for Riseborough now is in rural Idaho with her artist partner, Joe Appel. After the imminent opening of her next movies, including crime thriller Welcome to the Punch and sci-fi actioner Oblivion with Tom Cruise, she plans to direct her energies to the formation of a new film production company, Mothersucker, which she says will embody “a more female approach to the making of films.”
But why Idaho? Joe, she explains, who comes from San Diego, was living in Los Angeles when they met. She suggested they go and live somewhere surrounded by natural beauty. She describes it as “a terrifyingly Republican state but with all these blue pockets of progressive liberalism, with a fantastic counter-culture”.
It felt a little alien. That is, until she immersed herself fully in the character of the place and came to know it from within. It is the only approach she knows. For all the craziness it brings, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Watch coverage of this year’s Bafta ceremony on Sunday from 9:00pm on BBC1