Andrea Riseborough - Let's hear it for Miss Versatility

After starring in Brighton Rock, Andrea Riseborough will play Wallis Simpson for Madonna. Kaleem Aftab meets her

Excuse my horrible nails, they're so gross," says Andrea Riseborough in midstream. The actress breaks into this unprompted aside while explaining how she went from being a theatre-infatuated 9 year old growing up in Whitley Bay to being the star of Rowan Joffe's new adaptation of Brighton Rock and one of Britain's hottest acting properties.

There doesn't seem much wrong with her nails, or anything else for that matter. Indeed, she's far prettier in person than she has been on-screen, although that's mostly because she has won acclaim for roles that have required her to dress down. Nominated for a Bafta in 2009 for her turn as Margaret Thatcher in the TV drama Margaret Thatcher – The Long Walk to Finchley, she is now playing the dowdy young tearoom waitress Rose in this new adaptation of the Graham Greene book.

In the book, and John Boulting's 1947 British noir classic in which Carol Marsh played Rose, the young waitress is a naïve soul who believes everything that yob Pinkie Brown tells her in his attempt to cover up a murder. This latest adaptation is an altogether different affair. The action has been updated to 1964 and this allows director Joffe to incorporate the sexual revolution – most notably there is talk of the pill – to make his female characters more aggressive and savvy about the male mind. Consequently, Riseborough's Rose, who marries Pinkie, is more complicit in the ruse being conjured by him and tries to manipulate her new husband as much as she is being manipulated.

The 29 year old speaks with a clear Geordie accent, which is actually surprising to hear, as she hasn't had to utilise her own accent on screen much in recent years. In Made in Dagenham Riseborough actually gets to show off her looks, playing a sexy machinist working in the famous car factory in the Sixties. In Never Let Me Go, she appears as one of the protagonists' post-school friends living in a village in south-west England. One of the striking traits about her recent performances is her chameleon-like ability to inhabit a role, looking and seeming different on every single project.

Rather than talk up her own considerable abilities, the girl from a family of factory workers and miners puts this down to the roles she has been offered thus far. "I don't think it's something you can learn really. There is no point in wanting to play a certain character and being cast as another and then adding in a limp or a strange accent. There is no time for selfish indulgence. So if people want me to play lots of different parts, I am totally excited about excavating each new character."

For Brighton Rock she was cast only after Carey Mulligan withdrew from the role to appear in Wall Street 2. Riseborough had originally just lost out on the role to her Never Let Me Go co-star and in a moment of musical chairs, gave up on a part playing a Glaswegian communist in Cuba when she got the call that the Brighton Rock role was hers. "Well that's the way it worked out and, it's funny, you don't really think about it much," she opines. "We never thought about or talked about that. From the moment Rowan and I met, we were on the same page about Rose. I knew instantly; it felt very natural in that sense, and I'm really in awe of Rowan that what he has made is even beyond how wonderful I thought it would be in the first place. That's my opinion and that's my taste. You know I love the story and I just hope people feel the same about it."

Riseborough, both on stage and screen, seems to play in a lot of period pieces. Some of her more notable theatre work includes playing the title role in Strindberg's Miss Julie at the Theatre Royal Bath and starring opposite Kenneth Branagh in Ivanov at the Wyndham's Theatre. In January 2010 she made her debut in New York, starring alongside Hugh Dancy and Ben Whishaw in the award-winning play The Pride by Alexi Kaye Campbell.

One of the pivotal scenes in Joffe's Brighton Rock sees Rose take money from her husband's jar and go and use it to buy a dress without his permission. It's a moment that stands out as confirming that Rose can be her own woman and make her own decisions.

The Sixties is depicted in the film as an era where everything changes, including the clothing – and this is something that fascinates the actress. "I think every era is interesting in terms of fashion isn't it?" she posits. "You can call anything a period piece. I mean, 1983 in Soho is a period piece; 2010 will be a period piece in a couple of years. Every single period is specific, you know, whether you're in 1830s Russia or you're in the 1920s. Each one is extraordinary. The aesthetic of the period that you are looking at is reflected everywhere – the way a book is bound, or architecturally. The architecture reflects the clothes and the clothes reflect the architecture; and that's an extraordinary thing."

Her next role sees the actress go back to the 1930s to star in a romantic drama about the affair between King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson in a film directed by Madonna. The forbidden relationship between the British monarch and his American lover is juxtaposed against a modern relationship between a married woman and a Russian security guard. Riseborough sings the pop star's praises, and speaks positively about her work ethic as they shot scenes in New York and England.

Titled W.E. the film sees Abbie Cornish cast as the married woman in a relationship with a security guard in the present day. Riseborough, who plays the American divorcee, reveals, "The two storylines, mine and Abbie's, drive the movie. In a sense I'm a figment of her imagination and she is the embodiment of what I could have been, in terms of the possibility of liberation that my time period didn't afford."

The film will see the Rada graduate undergo yet another physical transformation. "I had to do a Wallis training regime to get into shape, because she didn't eat too much. She had a stomach ulcer, so she couldn't eat. And so that's been really interesting; her physicality is really quite extraordinary. It's been quite taxing physically and there have been a lot of massages."

Riseborough says that she didn't starve herself in the way that some actors have done, notably Christian Bale for The Machinist and Michael Fassbender for Hunger. "You need brain food," she claims. "There is no point in being stick thin if you can't think your way through a scene. It's all very well looking fit, but you have to be able to command your emotions. It would be detrimental to start starving yourself. I mean, days start at five in the morning and finish at ten at night, every day, six days a week, and when you have a day off you also work, because you prepare the week ahead. That's just what happens – and so then you spend two weeks on a beach somewhere and totally crash and burn, you know, and try and read."

She usually takes this time out with her boyfriend, Joe Appel. "He's an artist, so in a sense his life is moveable as he can work from where we are."

She is quick to point out, though, that she doesn't try to let her job dictate their relationship, and that he doesn't necessarily have to follow her around whenever directors request her presence. "No, it's a bit of both. I mean we just work it out. We're completely different people and we are devoted to each other. At the same time, we are devoted to our work. So we've never said that we wouldn't do something, because we were scared that the other person wouldn't like it, be that a geographical thing or an emotional thing. He is very supportive and he is very creative and imaginative and a completely left-field thinker – so nothing shocks him. He's a very odd man."

Further ahead, the actress is playing a role in the Second World War drama Resistance, alongside Michael Sheen. In director Amit Gupta's film she plays one of a group of women who wake up to discover that all of their husbands have mysteriously vanished.

However, given all the parts and media attention, vanishing is the one thing that the actress won't be doing on-screen this year.

'Brighton Rock' is out on 4 February

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