Ever since I saw her in The Devil’s Whore, I was kind of transfixed by Andrea Riseborough. Since then she has gone on to become one of this country’s best and most unheralded actresses. I had the pleasure of interviewing her for that series, and she was lovely, opinionated and had a certain energy about her that marked out as one to watch. Ever since then she’s picked really interesting projects and, in this site’s case, I’ve been thrilled that she’s put in some amazing performances in not one crime drama (National Treasure) but two: Sarah Phelps’ latest superb Agatha Christie adaptation, The Witness For The Prosecution. I managed to get hold of interview with Andrea, which is after the jump.
The Killing Times: What is Romaine’s story?
Andrea Riseborough: My character Romaine is a child of the First World War. She’s Austrian-born but grew up in Liege. I imagine that her parents would have had simple jobs and she was really broken by the War. I have a whole story in my head of what might have happened to her during the War that we don’t see on screen.
TKT: Did you get any specific input from Sarah Phelps to help with your development of the character?
AR: I think the bare bones of the story were cleverly fleshed out by Sarah Phelps. She did this by setting the story against the backdrop of the First World War and it really helps you understand the motivation behind what all the different characters do. So whilst it is an Agatha Christie story, Sarah Phelps has managed to give it texture in a way that is quite profound. What Sarah has achieved is really beautiful.
TKT: Were you familiar with Agatha Christie’s work before coming to this production?
AR: Of course! We all grew up aware of Agatha Christie; there is no writer more prolific than her in England. I love the different incarnations of Poirot and I loved Peter Ustinov’s portrayal of him. David Suchet’s Poirot was very charming and, when I’m away in the US, those series’ remind me of being in Britain and being British on a Sunday night.
TKT: What was it about the character of Romaine that drew you to her?
AR: She is broken and it was her brokenness, tenacity and innocence that drew me in. I see Romaine as a serial, fragile, fairy-like, pastel-coloured nymph. I believe that her wounds are so all-consuming that she’s lost any sense of perspective in order to become completely self-sufficient. Perhaps there is a sense of being amoral when survival is the only aim. Leonard and Romaine are each other’s strength, not just to exist together as ghosts of the First World War, but they provide for the other the strength to live a full life. Their relationship is twisted and broken and brutal but there is a great deal of love.
TKT: The shadow of the First World War runs very deep in this drama?
AR: Yes it does and that’s testament to Sarah’s writing. Sarah has put the story into context. I haven’t lived through a war myself but I think everyone who lives on this planet has experienced the ripple effects of conflict in some way or another. Both of my grandfathers fought in the Second World War and my great-grandfather died at the Somme in the First World War. I never truly believed that the War just finished and everyone was happy-clappy, brought out the bunting and felt everything was okay again. That’s definitely not my impression of the fall-out of war. Maybe that’s because my schoolteachers put the fear of God into me about war or maybe it’s because I had the great fortune to be born in a time that we are quite truthful about the fall out of war. My grandparents were deeply affected by war and it was obvious that the men who fought were horribly affected, as were the women who remained at home.
TKT: Would you say that Sarah Phelps’ script explores the darkness of the effects of war?
AR: Sarah examines the sense of hopelessness these characters would have felt, they saw things that they could never un-see and through her scripts, Sarah expertly reminds us about the fragility and stupidity of it all. The characters of Romaine, Leonard and Mayhew have gone through serious trauma and in those times they have no help.
TKT: What underlies Romaine’s relationship with Leonard?
AR: Romaine is terrified and the control she exerts over Leonard is all motivated by her fear of losing him. She just keeps him, like most things, at bay. That’s her great power and it’s how she’s gotten by. I really get the sense, from what Sarah Phelps has written, that is because
of what she endured during the First World War.
The Witness For The Prosecution: Monday 26th and Tuesday 27th December, 9pm, BBC1