According to my research, the first time I laid eyes on actress Swedish-born actress Rebecca Ferguson was in the recent Dwayne Johnson take on HERCULES from last year, but after scanning photos and cast lists, I can’t figure out who she was in that film. For most Americans (and many others around the world) Ferguson is best known for playing Queen Elizabeth in the highly touted miniseries “The White Queen,” and a few may have seen her as Dinah, the lead in THE RED TENT, a Lifetime bible tale about Jacob’s only daughter.
But she’s on the verge of becoming a very in-demand actor thanks to a co-starring role as the mysterious Ilsa in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE–ROGUE NATION, in which she kicks a tremendous amount of ass in ways we haven’t really seen in this series to date. To paraphrase an old saying about Ginger Rogers pairing with Fred Astaire, Ferguson must do everything Tom Cruise does, often in heels and a killer dress. But Ferguson adds a layer to ROGUE NATION that has been missing from the M:I franchise. She’s not playing a love interest, and she can more than hold her own both alongside Cruise and against him. For most of the film, we never know exactly what side of this world-dominating equation she’s on, and that makes her far more interesting as an character and actor.
She’s already shot her next two films: DESPITE THE FALLING SNOW, in which she also plays a spy; and Stephen Frears’ next work FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, opposite Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. Furguson came through Chicago recently, before I had a chance to actually see the film, but there was still plenty to talk about regarding her experience stepping into the world of impossible missions. Please enjoy my chat with Rebecca Ferguson…
Capone: Hello. It’s wonderful to meet you.
Rebecca Ferguson: Hi. Lovely to meet you. Have a seat.
Capone: I couldn’t help thinking that you’re walking into this situation where everyone else has worked together in various capacities, either in these films or others—Tom and [director/writer] Chris McQuarrie have worked on several films together—but you're coming in as a totally new person on this.
RF: Rub it in [laughs].
Capone: But there has to be an extra level of pressure. How were you treated? And how did you indoctrinate yourself into this world, into this fraternity of other actors and filmmakers who you hadn’t worked with before?
RF: Well, first of all, as you said, this is an established group, and they’re great characters. They had no need to welcome me into this dynamic, but they did. Tom Cruise, this is his baby. He’s a producer, he has his foot in everything but gracefully lets people also take charge of their work. It’s welcoming. It’s embracing. It’s as if they just go, “Here we are. There’s a seat. Just sit down, have a cup of coffee. What are your ideas? Who are you?” I felt a part of it and welcome from the first day I met him.
Capone: When he says something like that to you, how do you respond to that? What are your ideas?
RF: I sat down, took coffee, and said, “Do you have milk?” [laughs] No, no! The first day I met him, I had been in Morocco filming, and I flew over for a quick meeting, just a chemistry test to see how we would work together, because it would be eight months of intense training. So we wanted to see how we would communicate, and Chris was there, and he was directing us to have fun together, and Tom directed a bit, I directed a bit. And that freedom and energy in a room where you felt there was a creativity and an openness from the start was far beyond anything I’d met before.
Capone: Did you have specific ideas for the character that maybe weren’t on the page that you wanted to introduce?
RF: I didn’t know much, because I didn’t read the script before meeting them. But even in that first meeting when we were talking about the character and talking about the film, as much as they could tell me, I absolutely had ideas and questions and thoughts. We were throwing ideas out. I just thought, “Wow, this is how you create. This is how it should be.” You have a thought, and someone sees where you’re going and snaps it up, and they continue. You could see that Chris and Tom had been working together for a long time.
Capone: You said, there was training months before the movie started. What did you have to learn?I assume you had to learn specific things, as well as generally keeping in shape.
RF: Oh, completely. From the day I got the part, when we arrived at Heathrow, the car picked me up, and we went to the gym. I had six hours a day, six days a week. That was basically I had Pilates as a ground, because Pilates is very much about establishing safety around muscles, so you have an understanding of how it works when you do a kick, the rotation of the hips, so you don’t throw anything out of socket. There’s so much that can happen in a fighting sequence. There was so much knowledge to learn about something that you will see in a fighting sequence that might take a couple of seconds. My fullest respect and hats off to anyone who does this. A lot of sprinting and fight choreography, and gradually we would train for whatever episode that was coming up. If we were shooting something in January and this was August, we wouldn’t start prepping for that until December, and that was an epic water sequence where we had to hold our breath for a very long time. But at the beginning, we had to descend from a rooftop in Vienna [from the top of the local opera house], and I had vertigo, so I had to work on my fear of heights.
Capone: I’ve seen clips of you holding on to him, and you’re just falling straight down on a wire. The footage I saw looked like it was shot from across the street—someone just pointing a camera at the action.
RF: Oh, really? Okay. I haven't seen that footage. It’s probably some one standing around.
Capone: It’s funny, because you drop, you hit the ground, and I think, “Okay, they’re going to disconnect and walk back up to the roof.” But of course that’s not what you do. They just pull you right back up. I guess that would be the easier way to do it.
RF: Yeah, absolutely. It’s fun. Then you get used to it, the more you do it after a while I was the one that was scared, even though I had Tom Cruise and I had my legs wrapped around him. That does make things easier having him know this shit inside out, basically.
Capone: He has no fear.
RF: Yeah, he doesn’t. And I kind of get it, as well. It’s intoxicating. You realize that. I have vertigo, but because I knew I could say no whenever I wanted to, and they’d throw in a stunt double. She was always prepared. If I felt unsafe, if I was nervous, I could just go, “Look guys, I’m scared.” They’d go, “No problem, we’ll throw her in.” And I think that’s what made me feel, it’s just doing it. Just try, try, try. And then we did it. There’s that first leap over the threshold of fear, and then we had done it three or four times, and then you go, “Can we do it again?”
Capone: So it’s cathartic. It’s like therapy.
RF: It’s basically just challenging yourself. It’s challenging yourself and feeling safe with these people around you and watching Tom do it so many times. It’s incredible.
Capone: Do you know how you entered on to their radar in the first place?
RF: No. I know I made a tape, from my perspective. I don’t know if Tom had seen any of my material. I know you talked about “The White Queen,” but that’s nothing I really asked about. But I made a tape, and then Christopher McQuarrie Skyped with me and said, “Tom is probably going to want to meet you.” Just that sentence alone is kind of fun.
Capone: Besides the Vienna jump, were there any other stunts that were particularly scary for you?
RF: The underwater sequence wasn’t that scary. It was very, very straining in a completely different way physically for your body, because we’re doing this high, intense fighting and challenging sequence underwater. And to be able to hold your breath while exerting, which means oxygen is being taken from your body, we had to train to be able to hold our breath between four and six minutes.
RF: Yeah, but we would never shoot for that long. It was more a necessity of knowing that we could. And then you have people in the water with breathing tanks and oxygen, and if I needed to, I can go up. There’s nothing that is a problem. You can always get out, you can always get up, you can always get air. You know you can try. I’m happy I wasn’t tied in. I was loose in the water. So that was all good.
Capone: =You were in the HERCULES film, so you’ve had experience with both larger- and smaller-scale filmmaking. What are the pros and cons of the bigger-budget Hollywood films?
RF: When you say they’re both different, I’m thinking that all films I do are different. Sometimes we talk about the “independent way” of shooting, and I’m going to say that it’s different shooting an independent movie in England compared to shooting a big film in Sweden, compared to shooting HERCULES, compared to shooting MISSION. What I found out and that I did in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, which is an incredible movie, but compared to MISSION…MISSION is so much grander and bigger when it comes to sets and people and how many are involved, but basically for me, it’s a feeling of being around extremely professional people. You know the names of everyone. It’s very familiar. It’s just a work environment. You come with your coffee, have a couple of laughs, do a couple of squats, shoot a couple of scenes, and then home you go.
Capone: Going back to the opera house scene, you’re wearing a really formal dress and I’m guessing heels. Is that a whole other level of pain in the ass?
RF: [laughs] You’d think, wouldn’t you? That’s a good question. But the funny thing is that Joanna Johnston, the costume designer, said, “We’re making a dress for you completely.” So she saw me, she would come to the stunt rooms and would watch me move. And then she would make the dress based upon my movements. So she knew if I was doing a leap up around Tom, I guess she would visualize a beautiful silk fabric with a slit where the leg would be open. So she’s actually creating a dress for my movements, for the motions. And if you see when I do the repelling down the opera house, Tom was smart enough to say, “Don’t you think we should take the shoes off?” And I went, “Yeah.” Well done, Tom. Well done.
Capone: I did want to ask you about FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, because Stephen Frears is one of my absolute favorite directors, and you have an incredible group of people that you’re working with. Tell me about it.
RF: Florence Foster Jenkins is a woman who actually existed. You can check her out on YouTube. She was tone deaf. She could hit notes, but she was in this environment where they built up an idea that she was absolutely incredible. And this was held together by the man she was married to, which is played by Hugh Grant, whose name is Bayfield. So he creates this image, the idea, the vision that she is phenomenal, but he is actually bribing the audience. He’s building up an ambiance for her out of love. I believe she had syphilis as well. So he lives two lives. He has one bohemian girlfriend, who I play, I guess to be able to generate both lives, and Meryl is absolutely out of this world incredible. She sings everything herself, which is phenomenal, because this woman was off pitch, and Meryl is an incredible singer, and she delivers it with love and energy.
Capone: Does it force you to up your game a little bit, working with and watching her?
RF: You don’t up your game with Meryl Streep [laughs]. You basically try and deliver anything in her presence. You just watch her. I’d just watch her act. When my day was finished and wrapped, I’d make sure I de-rig, grab a coffee, sit at the back and just watch her. Basically, it’s acting lesson Number One.
Capone:Rebecca, thank you so much. It was great to meet you.
RF: Lovely to meet you.
Capone: Best of luck with this.
RF: Thank you. And to you, with everything you have.