Andrea Riseborough says 'Birdman' was like working with a theater company of actors
"Birdman" flies into theaters this weekend, and with it comes one of the year's most finely tuned and vibrant ensembles. Indeed, as wonderful as Michael Keaton is in the leading role, and as much as actors like Edward Norton and Emma Stone stand out on the periphery, one of the unsung stories of the film is how well the cast jumped through the hoops of production, turning out an incredibly organic community performance.
That was one of the main topics of discussion when I hopped on the phone with actress Andrea Riseborough recently. It was just hours before the film's big New York Film Festival premiere, which she said felt like a homecoming for all involved as they shot "Birdman" just a few blocks away at the St. James Theater in April of 2013. We talked about that camaraderie, the film's humanist theme of seeking love and approval and working with the likes of Keaton, Naomi Watts and filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu. Read through the back and forth for all that and more.
"Birdman" opens in limited release on Oct. 17.
HitFix: Are you excited for the New York premiere?
Andrea Riseborough: Oh, I'm really, really excited. We filmed in the St. James Theater in the center of town. And a little bit in the Astoria studios in Queens. And now we're all back. It's a reunion and it was such an ensemble.
That is a perfect segue to my first question. You're amazing.
This is one of the better ensembles of the year. What was the environment like on set between all of the actors?
There were two things running through my mind as we were shooting. One was Charles Mingus, because Alejandro had given me these CDs, like heady jazz. Charles Mingus wasn't on those CDs but personally I love Charles Mingus and so really inadvertently a kind of like heady, erratic score just kept coming into my mind as we were winding in and out of the entrails of the backstage set of the theater. It's so claustrophobic and hot; you feel New York City, I think, when you watch it. And it felt like that when we were shooting it. There was a pace and an energy that the city brought to what we were making. And it was choreographed as almost like a dance because we had long sections that we were trying to achieve at once. And Emmanuel Lubezki, our incredible DP, I mean he really was like an acrobat. The stuff that he was achieving in this incredible 360 spectrum was mind blowing, and that involved all of us; none of us could drop the ball for a second. In a strange way it was like being a sports team because we were behind and then in front of the camera. We had to know exactly the time that we were coming in. Alejandro described it more than once like an orchestra, you know? You can't have a, you know, you can't deliver a wonderful score with bad musicians. And so we all had to be on our A game.
So it was nerve-wracking but it was also hilariously fun, waiting behind wings, waiting behind pieces of set and in doorways and under tables ready to pop out. It was kind of the only way that we could achieve it, so it was really a groundbreaking way of working.
I asked this of Edward Norton, too, but when you've got Chivo running around with his crew and everything, does that make it difficult to stay focused or does it kind of keep you alive and in the moment?
What really helped with that were the three weeks that we had of rehearsals prior to shooting. We shot for about 30 days but actually rehearsed for three weeks before that. So it very much felt like the rehearsal process was as long as the filming process. Not as intense, because we were figuring things out. Essentially that was the time Alejandro was choreographing the steps. We rehearsed inside of a Los Angeles studio that was marked out exactly to the inch the way that the backstage at the St. James Theater is. So we were all negotiating pieces of tape, you know, and very much trying to imagine they were walls. And then negotiating our way around one another as well. We did that for such a long time that by the time that we actually came to shooting — of course things changed and the whole film, the whole piece was an ever-evolving beast. Alejandro's talent is that he's discovering the meaning of every single moment as he goes along. No moment's wasted. So that discovery was always happening, but we were freed up to focus on where we needed to be tonally, in terms of emotion and volume, in terms of whether we wanted to be very, very close to the camera or far away. It was all rehearsed, so we knew that was freeing in a way. It's like you learn in steps and you can forget about it and just relax and bring your own flare to them.
There's also that romantic notion of community in acting, so it's nice to have a project like this that really taps into that so potently.
I talked about this play a lot in reference to the film because it reminded me so much of it. We were doing "Ivanov" in the West End in London and Tom Hiddleston very kindly used to lead a warm up for us every night which was was lovely. It was a chance for the whole cast to get together and have a laugh before we went on. I was playing opposite Ken Branagh and I remember the day that we found out that Obama was elected — we used to do this warm up that Tom created that was called "Big Booty." We had to jump around singing "Big Booty," "Big Booty," "Big Booty," "Big Booty," and like shake our ass. And all of us were a wreck in London's West End on those days jiggling our asses about. It was ridiculous — including Ken Branagh, if you can imagine that. And the day that Obama got elected, you know, one of many moments I remember in my life where I shared it with a company of actors in a theater. And we all danced around the stage, and instead of "Big Booty" we said "O-bama," "O-bama," "O-bama," "O-bama." And so it just felt like a homecoming being in this film, because we really were a company of actors relying on one another. We were making a film about a production, a Raymond Carver adaptation, as you know. And it needed that kind of technical prowess, I think, to be able to handle doing it, really. Because when you're on stage and there's 1,500 people waiting out there before you're about to go on, there's not a lot of room for fucking up.