Andrea Riseborough: ‘To Leslie’ didn’t have ‘hundreds of millions of dollars … and that’s as it should be’ [Complete Interview Transcript]
Best Actress Oscar nominee Andrea Riseborough (“To Leslie”) recently chatted with Gold Derby’s David Buchanan about what it was like working on the low-budget film about an alcoholic mother, Leslie “Lee” Rowlands, who wins the lottery and spends all of her prize money. She opens up about how “To Leslie” didn’t have “hundreds of millions of dollars” for a proper awards campaign, “and that’s as it should be.”
Amazingly, her team completed this film in just 19 days in Los Angeles. The shoot was so grueling that they would “sometimes do 10 scenes a day,” she reveals. “But in a way it was, it was a different fortune in and of itself, because I think it afforded us a kind of immediacy.” Riseborough received her first career Oscar nomination for this role, in part due to a successful grassroots campaign from her various friends and supporters. Before that, the actress scored a bid at the Spirit Awards.
Watch the full video above and read the complete interview transcript below.
David Buchanan: Andrea Riseborough is the star of the film “To Leslie.” I’m David Buchanan with Gold Derby. Andrea, I wanna begin by asking you… well, actually not asking, congratulating you on the Independent Spirit Award nomination for the film.
Andrea Riseborough: Thank you. Thanks. Thanks very much, (laughs).
DB: Tell us about you know, what that recognition feels like, for this film, in particular, because this is such a, a moving and powerful work, in your performance. So, what is the recognition mean for this role in particular.
AR: I mean, it’s, uh, you know, it’s vital for us as a film, really. The nomination has been such a helpful, um, step into breaking through the noise of all of the many other films with, you know, some of which I’m in, which have, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars to publicize with, and we don’t have that, and that’s as it should be. And it’s been such a, it’s been such a… it was a film that we shot in 19 days which, as you know, it’s very difficult now with processing time, and it’s difficult to even process film now.
But it was a commitment that we made. And we’d sometimes do 10 scenes a day. And every, every shot really is the first or second or third take, because we didn’t have the… you know, we didn’t have the fortune of having a lot of film. But in a way it was, it was a different fortune in and of itself, because I think it afforded us a kind of immediacy and urgent need a sense (laughs) of urgency, literal sense of terror, no sense of urgency that made everybody… every creative involved with the process, and, and there were lots of them.
It was a height of 2020, in the pandemic, when the hospitals were full, and it was a really horrible, horrible bleak time, and nobody was shooting. And we also probably wouldn’t have got funded had it not been for that time, because this was a very small, intimate character piece. And so, every moment was vital and precious, and every creative who made the film was really constantly at the top of their game. For, you know what, you know what I mean?
DB: It’s amazing to hear how quickly this came together. And I do wanna ask you, before we dive into the performance, about your role as executive producer on the film. What about it, when the project came your way, uh, made you feel so passionately, not only to star in it, but to kind of take the reins behind the scenes as well? You know, talk about the screenplay, and, obviously, you give us some insight into the process. But, you know, what about this project made you wanna, you know, dive in, in that capacity beyond just as an actor?
AR: The script was beautiful, and it was very paired. It was very, um, it was very… It wasn’t sensational in any way, and it’s, it certainly wasn’t saccharin, but it was, really seeing someone in the highs and lows of their life, and somebody who internally is unable to really find any balance at all. So, you know, even if a life looks pretty stable, internally, she’s still having… she’s still, you know, full of, temporary hope, or deeply hopeless. So, the script was wonderful, and it was written by Leslie’s son, really, who, gave his mom what she couldn’t have in life and, and wrote the story for her, and in the story, she finds a sort of redemption. Like I say, which was not in any way saccharin are unbelievable.
And a cornerstone for Michael and I had worked together before when we… when he brought this piece to me, um, was the film Wonder, Barbara Logan’s Wonder, which had inspired funnily enough, a different film that I produced called Nancy. Christina Choe and I, the director of that film had referenced that a lot had been real cornerstone of how we wanted to spend time with Nancy rather than see it through, the lens of judgment or morality or reduce her to being just an imposter, you know, just somebody who has impostor syndrome. And the same with Leslie in a sense, this is all tied together very nicely. It didn’t mean to, (laughs). But, in terms of, you know, passionately producing something, the same with, Leslie because in this… in the script, the potential was there to just spend time with a human and to immerse yourself in a cycles of shame.
We all… I think we can all identify with whether we’ve been Leslie or orbited somebody like Leslie or had both… or seen it from both sides, we can all identify with disappointing the ones we love, feeling the shame of that and then coping with it in a way that’s not necessarily healthy, for Leslie that’s drinking. And it’s a sort of spiral, and we can all spiral like that. Yeah, every human has the, the ability to spiral like that, except maybe Trump, (laughs). Not sure, not sure, he’s had a shame spiral.
Um, side note, (laughs). But I think, um, when Michael… Michael’s passion for wanting to share this female antihero, you know, with, with the world in a way that was just really a presentation, an intimate portrait of somebody, without great swells of music and, soft focus and strings that needn’t be there. Because there aren’t strings that come on in life when you’re being sick in a toilet, and you’re, absolute bottom. The way he wanted to tell the story and with Lark and our DP, who also shot everything everywhere, all at once. He’s a brilliant DP.
The way I knew he wanted to capture Leslie was so exciting. And so that’s the reason that I absolutely wanted to do it. And it could have been a very different film, in the… I don’t wanna say wrong hands. But it could have been a very different film, it could have been, it could have been a much more mainstream film, I think that probably would have made it of less… perhaps less quality. I only say that, because I feel like with more money, comes more voices, and we had the great advantage of sticking to our vision, you know, really, what we set out to achieve and it was very little constrained, and there weren’t 300 opinions about what everybody was doing.
And also what that gave us was the the freedom to… Leslie is a person, a human, with whom I think anybody can identify. And that’s the most important part of the story really, is that somebody as vivacious and hysterically funny and wild and hedonistic and brilliant as she is, finds it hard to live in this world that we have constructed, and we all find it hard to live in this world. And there’s a truth about her, but she’s absolutely in touch with the idea that she shouldn’t be cleaning toilets, she doesn’t want to be spending a life doing that. What comes with that is a self-righteousness and a victim-hood, that’s very hard to watch.
But there’s also this brazen truth in a way, and we’ve all had a relationship with those people, you know, who are so magnetic, and you gravitate towards so strongly, and you can destroy yourself around them as well, in an effort to fill that, negative space inside them, that hole inside and that’s just it’s not possible to satiate. It doesn’t matter what you put in it, what substance you put in it. And we all of us have our own addictions, you know, some people are addicted to people and some people are addicted every… We all have our own… I don’t know what… I think the, the term is isms. We all have our own isms. But I’m sure on a spectrum everybody has something.
But, it felt like an important time to tell the story and we told it at the height of 2020, like I said and in a really difficult situation. But what that gave, me when I was playing Leslie is that I was surrounded by people constantly and the way that she would be in a bar and totally alone, you know. I’ve seen my other half Kareem, here and there. But I mean, even when… even with Michael and Larkin, who were covered in masks and face shields and (laughs) everything else, and our supporting artists who are brilliant, there were so many of them, and we had to be so careful, and we didn’t want single case of COVID actually on set, which was amazing. Everyone was so, vigilant.
It was… It felt, deeply lonely to be in a crowded room and really unable to have any sort of intimacy. So, the film then ends up being that the relationship is kind of between Leslie and the audience. That’s really fascinating, because, I think we had a lot of that in ’70 cinema. You know, and you get that quality on film, anyone who’s a sort of geeky in any way about film understands that when they see film, there’s a different quality, which we can convey as actors and creatives through that medium. It’s different to digital work and it’s not endless. It’s not like an endless resource either.
So, you know, you don’t just keep rolling and go over and over. And it’s a sort of precious commodity in of itself, you’re committing something to, it’s almost like, in essence doing theater where you can never take back that one performance, which sounds horrible and dreadful. But you can’t and it’s a special moment, and you have that rapport with the audience, and it’ll never happen again. And film is almost… is similar to that in a way.
DB: Yeah, let’s dive into the performance aspect. You were talking about the spiral you know, just kind of watching someone spiral and so full of life and vivacious, that can’t quite fit. Your performance is so full-bodied, and full-hearted and just so soulful. I mean, it must have taken so much to bring the character to those places. I wanted to know, what was your preparation process? Like? I mean, you see it on the page of the screenplay. So before you started production, how did you really get yourself prepared to, to take Leslie and to take your own body, you know, and heart to those places?
AR: Do you know, it was, it was a bit of a marathon because we’d been preparing this for a couple of years before we shot it. We had this opportunity, as I say, in the pandemic, and these things pop up. And as you know, with financing, it’s such a transient (laughs) thing that if you don’t take advantage of it sometimes, you know, that’s why people often back the wrong horse, I think, you know, like, make the wrong partnerships and then regret it later. Because it’s so… it takes such a lot of money to make film. It’s an expensive… it’s a very expensive art form. And it’s not a huge amount of profit comes from it. You know, so it’s… we… I was finishing, we sort of in its inception, it was maybe like a year and a half before, two years before perhaps when Michael brought the script to me.
It had sat in all of us for quite a long time. We had a group together, everybody knew we were pretty sure about you know, who was gonna be in it and it was just kind of about when it would happen. As it turned out, I shot Please Baby Please, up until the day before this started, and I shot Amsterdam. I mean, I was in… I was rehearsing for Amsterdam, the day after this finished. I already been preparing with David for Amsterdam before, um, Please Baby Please started. So there was just, uh, a lot in a lot of different plates spinning, and then we started at the beginning of the new year in Amsterdam. And that was a very different experience because we were in Paramount Studios, and we had Disney behind us.
And, you know, it was like watching the film Contagion. You know, that was like everyone was equipped. It looked like a battleground, (laughs). You know, Paramount was taking it very seriously in all the best ways. It was, a well-oiled machine because there was lots of money behind it and our experience on To Leslie, we had a brilliant COVID team, but it was so bare bones, and we had to be just so utterly careful at all times, and we were shooting on the sides of roads and in motels. And we shot it not in Texas but in LA, because we couldn’t actually get to Texas, at the height of the pandemic obviously, and we wanted to do it safely. It was great. We managed to provide loads of jobs at a time when people really needed them in the film industry.
We shot in Lancaster and downtown LA and the production team were amazing. But in terms of my preparation, it happened so far before the fact, (laughs) sort of, and, and now it’s strange because having done things before and after it, I’m now processing what we did back then so far after the fact, which is something very strange about being an actor, which a filmmaker doesn’t really have the same experience with, you know, they kind of birth this thing and they stay with it. They often do other things, but it’s, you know, it’s that one process, and then they bring it into the world, and then they spend all this time understanding how the world receives it. And for us, we’re always dotting around in different head spaces.
And the way we were shooting it… To speak to your question, the way we were shooting it, in terms of, you know, what was demanded emotionally was bonkers. I mean, it was, you know, we were doing 10 scenes a day. I have not… I haven’t thought of this. I, I don’t know whether that’s a bad or a good thing. But, um, people have said it a few times in all sorts of different stages of, of intoxication, I suppose, which is true. But for me, I’m… I was so clear about where she is, in each of those moments that it wasn’t something that,… it’s something I no longer needed to map out or plot out, or it, it… I mean, it was so in the bones of me, by the time we got to, to doing it. Um, but it was definitely a switch. And I would say that when I finished it, I was pretty broken, (laughs), I was pretty broken.
We finished on Christmas Eve, freezing cold (laughs) somewhere outside all of us, and it had been such an in- it had been such an insane experience for the crew, as much as anything, because everybody has a Leslie or has been one, or has both perspectives. And there was so much catharsis, really, for everybody who was involved in that film, it’s very difficult to say goodbye on Christmas Eve. There’s a moment in the film that Leslie references having had beautiful Christmases when her son was little. And really, if there’s any sort of thing that’s going to fill that void that I was talking about, before, it’s that, love for a son and the memories.
And that’s what, I think, what makes the film worth making and beautiful is that Ryan was able to… He was able to express that through film in a way that sometimes we can’t live out in life. You know, we think about saying things to those that we love all the time. Don’t we? But we don’t necessarily always voice them.
DB: Absolutely. I do have to let you go. I could talk to you for much longer about the film and the beautiful performance, but I do have to let you go. Andrea Riseborough (laughs) congratulations on the film. Thank you so much for spending some time with Gold Derby today.
AR: Thank you very much. Thanks for having us.
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