Set in the turmoil of the Belfast in the 1990s, Shadow Dancer tells the story of Collette McVeigh, a woman who, tortured by the death of her brother as a child, seeks revenge by becoming an active member of the IRA. During a botched mission, Collette is caught by MI-5 and questioned by a weary agent named Mac (Clive Owen) who gives her a choice: cooperate and become a mole or go to jail for 25 years, leaving a young son without a mother.

Andrea Riseborough gives an incredibly nuanced and fully realized performance as the tormented Collette. We spoke to the Shadow Dancer star about crafting her character, collaborating with director James Marsh, and making tough choices.

Tribeca: Shadow Dancer is a great throwback to the espionage thrillers of the past. Were you a fan of the genre to begin with?

Andrea Riseborough: I have been a fan of the genre in the past, but strangely I did not see Shadow Dancer as an espionage thriller. I suppose that’s because I spent a lot of time in Belfast, and I found it difficult to refer to the situation that caused so many people so much pain as “thrilling.” I do understand that audiences watching this film in the cinema will think of it as an espionage thriller because James has told the story in such a tense and exciting way—the story is full of paranoia. I understand that element is why the film is so appealing.

Tribeca: Your filmography is filled with strong characters—a refreshing resume for an actress these days. What initially drew you to the role of Collette? 

AR: Thank you. It’s difficult for women because there are very few strong female characters that are written at all. Women are often resigned to playing very weak half-humans. And as you know, women are so many things. It’s unbelievable to me sometimes the way women are depicted in my industry.

When I first received the script, I sat on it for about a month. However, I did read the script eventually because of James. I think he’s an extraordinary director/filmmaker. The thing that made me think about it for so long was that Collette at that point was more a situation than she was a fully formed person. I saw the turmoil of a struggle, and it was fascinating. But I also felt like I didn’t know anything at all about her inner life, whether she had a sense of self. I didn’t know who she was.

In the original script, she just talked and talked. And the more time I spent in Belfast, the more I realized that her silence would be her power. So I suggested to James that maybe she should speak less. The more time I spent in Belfast, the more I came back to the set and suggested things to James. I felt I had a valuable role as a carrier pigeon. I could bring back information from the grassroots of what we were trying to represent.

James was really on board with my input, and so was Tom Bradby, the writer. So it was a wonderful, joyful collaboration in that sense.  They were really invested in my eyes being our only portal into Colette’s truth. I think that makes it a really interesting experience for a cinema-goer watching the film because her character is so much more ambiguous and enigmatic that she might have been.

I think that the wonderful thing about human beings is that they find hope in the most extraordinarily bleak situations.

Tribeca: What sort of research did you do into the role? Did you read the book?

AR: None of us read the book beforehand; we’ve read it since but none of us read it beforehand. We decided it was a different beast than the script, and we were sticking to the script. I researched academically—you just do that until you mine all the available information. You know the things that aren’t useful, you know the things your character doesn’t know and that you don’t need to know right at that moment. After that, I went to archive footage and watched a heap of video. I also read loads of newspapers at the time and had many other tangible things I could get my teeth into.

I felt like I had to go to Belfast, which I did back and forth for about a month. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to shoot there. We ended up shooting in Dublin, but it was great to be able to go to Belfast and then come back. We had a very controlled environment in Belfast, and our great production designers did fantastic work replicating the city.

Tribeca: James Marsh is a filmmaker who seamlessly moves back and forth between narrative and documentary movies like Man on Wire, Project Nim and Red Riding. Were you familiar with his work before you signed on? Can you discuss your collaborative process?

AR: I absolutely loved Project Nim. I think particularly for women watching that piece is very moving. There’s something very female about that piece. Seeing the women in a facility in the end, you just want to mother them; you can’t help it, its instinctive or that’s how I felt.

James was just very gentile and warm. He was just so open to collaboration and empathetic to the character.  He really trusts his actors, and he casts so that he feels really happy to let you explore.  James observes you as the character in the way he would if he were making a documentary.

Tribeca: You had some pretty impressive co-stars in Shadow Dancer, namely Clive Owen and character actress extraordinaire Brid Brennan. What was it like working with these two pros? 

AR: Brid was just extraordinary. I just felt like all of the things that I’d found in Belfast, the people I’d found, the heart that I’d found there, Brid had all of that with a silent grace. I felt like I really couldn’t have played Colette in the way that I did had Brid not been playing my mother. She’s an incredible actress, just so beautiful. She has such a dignity. And you can see she has a storm inside of her stomach. Through it all, it’s incredible she’s so still.

ribeca: Well, like mother, like daughter. I thought you both did a tremendous job bringing across that same sort of stillness and reactiveness.

AR: I’m so pleased because that’s something I wanted to have come across. I looked to Brid for her energy and, as I said, dignity, so that I could develop Colette even further. As for Clive, I spent some time with him and James before we started shooting. We talked about the script, and I really liked Clive and I really enjoyed his company as well. More than anything, he’s such a lovely person to be around. We trained at the same drama school, so his approach was very familiar to me.

Clive left, we made most of the movie, and then he came back in those last three weeks. When he came in, we’d had this already established world—we’d been dealing with the McVeigh family for such a long time.  It was like our little incubus of Belfast there on set in Dublin. When this alien presence stepped in, it was so wonderful because it was obviously so alien for him to step into the situation as well.

It was alien for us too that he was destroying this world, but Clive did unpleasant things with such a vulnerability and compassion. Those two qualities really impacted the way he chose to play Mac, which made the character so interesting to me. You can imagine the many versions of an MI 5 officer that could have taken shape, and I think it was fantastic that he brought something extraordinary.

The more time I spent in Belfast, the more I realized that her silence would be her power.

Tribeca: Collette, to me, is a character bound by duty to her family, to her son, to her political movement and, as the movie progresses, to Mac and MI-5. How did you manage to balance all the conflicting demands on the character?

AR: She deals with all the conflicting demands with as much pragmatism as she can muster. She’s very reactive in the situation, and that’s not a choice. Even the people who are perceived to be perhaps more proactive were being reactive because they have so few choices. These people are in a really desperate situation. They’re in the middle of a war zone. They’re coming toward the end of that real trouble and moving into peace, but still this is a   conflict going back hundreds and hundreds of years. So it’s so difficult to just resolve it with immediacy; it’s impossible.

Tribeca: Faced with the choice of working with MI-5 to spy on her family or spending 25 years in jail, Collette cooperates with the authorities.  I loved that amid the turmoil she was experiencing she still managed to enjoy the little things—like taking her son to school and joking with her brothers. Did you consciously try to strike a balance between the tension and levity in your portrayal of Colette?

AR: It happens instinctively, all of these things aren’t clinical. It’s not like you sit and you think beforehand; it’s just not academic in that way. But I suppose what comes across is that for all of them in the family, there’s a tainted happiness or a jubilant sadness. The moment when Sean receives his bike, the little boy that played my son, everyone’s laughing.  They’re in a family situation; they’re enjoying the situation, and they genuinely are happy for him. I think that the wonderful thing about human beings is that they find hope in the most extraordinarily bleak situations. It was instinctive. 

Shadow Dancer is currently available on-demand and digital platforms. The film is now in select theaters in New York and LA and will be expanding to more cities across the country this weekend