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Building Character: Andrea Riseborough

By: Mark Blankenship
Date: Feb 05, 2010

How’s this for an acting paradox? In MCC Theater’s production of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride, Andrea Riseborough has to play two characters and one character at the same time.

Let’s start with “two characters:” For part of the show, Riseborough plays Sylvia, a young British children’s book illustrator whose life is upended in 1958 when her husband Philip has an affair with her colleague Oliver. In other scenes, however, she’s Sylvia in 2008, a young woman navigating her love life while helping her gay best friend, Oliver, survive a break-up with his boyfriend Philip.

The time periods overlap, so Riseborough often slides from one Sylvia to another in just a few seconds. “It’s challenging on a purely technical level, because being upper middle class in 1958 and in 2008 were very different things, especially in Britain,” she says. “My accent is different, and sometimes I have to change it immediately. You can be upper middle class in 2008 and have a regional accent, but it 1958 it’s all very clipped.” She adds that 1958 Sylvia moves more gracefully than 2008 Sylvia, who doesn’t have the finishing school sheen of a society lady.

Riseborough enjoys this back-and-forth. “It’s fulfilling to explore your own ability with behavior,” she says. “It’s fulfilling to suddenly have to change your speech and your body. It pushes you.”

But despite her specific physical work, Riseborough isn’t exactly playing two characters. Campbell’s script makes it clear that we’re seeing the same people---the same Sylvia, Oliver, and Philip---as they behave in two different eras. This lets the play question how the time we live in does and doesn’t affect the people we become.

“I’d say I’m giving one giant performance,” Riseborough says. “I think that’s what Alexi wanted when he wrote the piece. The emotional throughline depends on having one person in two time periods.”

So how does she do that? How does Riseborough communicate the “sameness” in 1958 Sylvia and 2008 Sylvia, even as she’s adjusting her voice and her posture?
“We use the energy from the previous scene to push us into the next: You let that emotion carry you” she says, noting that if she’s furious at the end of a 2008 scene, then she’ll translate that anger into an equally intense emotion for the start of a 1958 scene. Ideally, that gives both the production and Riseborough a sense of cohesion. She says, “Finding the balance of her empathy and anger in ‘58 and the balance of her empathy and ambition in 2008, her ambition for own sense of self preservation---those are the things that I really want to explore.”


Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor.

Mark Blankenship