Riseborough plays Wallis Simpson, the Baltimore socialite who in the 1930s shocked the world when she began dating Edward, Prince of Wales; he eventually became king but abdicated the throne to marry her. (Filmgoers may recognize the story, which launched the action in last year's "The King's Speech.")
Though history has come to view Simpson and Edward's relationship as a grand romance, Riseborough incarnates the character more subtly. Though the film doesn't downplay the sacrifices he made, it also plays up her doubts about their decision to pair. The couple were forced to live in exile for the remainder of their lives, and Riseborough shows Simpson as a woman whose joie de vivre was tempered by a sense of boredom and even melancholy about their existence.
"She's a figure a lot of people think they understand," Riseborough said. "And what was tantalizing to me was the chance to correct that." The actress appears in period scenes as a kind of specter to the film's Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), the modern-day protagonist who, trapped in an unhappy marriage, becomes increasingly obsessed with Simpson's story.
Riseborough said she enjoys playing historical figures because they offer the chance to defy popular expectation. She won raves, for instance, playing a young Margaret Thatcher seeking her first seat in Parliament in the BBC drama "The Long Walk to Finchley."
Possessed of a decidedly intellectual streak (on the day we met, Riseborough was reading an Allen Ginsberg book she said she had picked up at a used bookstore in New York), the actress grew up in the northern England beach town of Whitley Bay, getting her start on the British stage. She's part of a wave of young English actresses gracing American screens this fall — they include fellow newcomer Felicity Jones ("Like Crazy") as well as Carey Mulligan ("Drive," "Shame") and Keira Knightley ("A Dangerous Method").
To American audiences, Riseborough has been seen mainly in small parts in British imports such as "Never Let Me Go" and "Happy-Go-Lucky." She's also mostly starred in dramas. But the actress said her biggest influences have been comedic performers — people like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Peter Sellers.
"There's something very skillful about what they do and also something quite sad about them," she said. "I'm fascinated by the idea of the abandonment of play that happens as people like that move through adulthood."