One of this writer’s favorite films out of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival was Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, a cyber-punkish horror/sci-fi hybrid that follows an assassin who transports herself into the bodies of others to carry out jobs for high-profile clients. The film stars Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuppence Middleton, and Sean Bean, and features some truly gnarly effects and unforgettable visuals, making it one of the most striking films to come out of this year’s fest.
While in Park City, I had the pleasure of speaking with both Riseborough and Abbott about their involvement with Possessor, and they discussed what initially drew them into the project, the synchronicity that unfolded during production, and how their respective roles were unlike anything they had ever experienced before.
Well, first of all, congratulations on Possessor. It is phenomenal. I had a feeling I was going to like it just because of the premise, but what you guys do in this film is really unique and really fun to watch. I'd love to start off talking about what it was that initially appealed to you guys in terms of coming into this project and playing these characters, which are very closely connected at times.
Andrea Riseborough: For me, it was Brandon and his vision, those were the first things that drew me to it. His first film, I thought, was really, really interesting. And after Antiviral, I just was excited to see what he was going to do next, and I suppose the idea of playing two sides of a coin, in a sense. But for me, the idea of for a short period of time, for a limited period of time, possessing somebody else's physical being and somewhat their emotions and their psyche, but not completely, reminded me a bit of what I do for a living.
So, there was some sort of strange familiarity that I didn't really, till halfway through the shoots, pick up on. I love the idea that two us would be playing the same person as well. So it was a great metaphor, for as a human, I think how you feel there can be positivity and levity in life and there can be so much. Your own brain draws you to such dark places and it's a constant battle within yourself between the light and the dark, whatever that means. To have that personified, I thought it was really such a mind-boggling idea. Those are my reasons.
Christopher Abbott: Yeah, just to tack onto that, I had the same initial reasons, too: Brandon, obviously the script and what that was. Getting to work with him, getting to work with Andrea, and in itself, it was like a classic actor fun challenge to do. You don't get those very often where you get to experiment. It really felt like a lot of experimentation and playing and I felt like a kid in a way because you just get to talk about, “Okay, how are you going to do this, and what would you do if you do that?” I just think you often get roles just to be somebody else, so it was too much fun to pass up.
Essentially, there’s a symbiosis between your characters. Did you guys work out certain things ahead of time? How much time did Brandon give you guys to work out these different beats? It's one thing to go in and inhabit a character, but you're inhabiting a character who is inhabiting another character, which seems like it has a little bit of an extra step to that process.
Andrea Riseborough: We actually had a couple of years to talk about it, so we had time to process. We've had a lot of time to process it actually, which is funny because when you go into a project as an actor, you have to posthumously process it. Afterwards you're like, "What just happened?" But we had so much preparation time, we were so ready. And then when we actually came to shoot, there were some really weird things that happened, where we all did like the same hand gestures.
Chris, myself, Jennifer [Jason Leigh], everyone who was attached to the machine, or who was trained as a possessor, without even talking about it had these incredibly similar hand movements, which were quite distracting at times and very unusual. So a lot of it happened naturally as well.
Maybe it's because Brandon's blueprint was such a strong one, or his vision was so strong, that I think we all knew what we were reaching for. Sometimes it's hard to get inside of his head because his head's like a really interesting mausoleum with lots of different tiny objects and then some big, scary ones, so as an actor, you really want to be in there and look around. But ultimately, I just always wanted to know what he wanted from me, and I wanted to do well for him.
Christopher Abbott: I think a few of the things we wanted to stay away from was anything too overt or obvious in that way. Because again, like the character of Tasya, I think she is very good at her job, so starting out, you didn't want to be doing this body snatching kind of Idle Hands thing. I thought that would have been pretty silly.
So, just keeping track of that she is good at her job was important. Then, there was this slow progression, for lack of a better word, into some hysteria. A lot of it was physical. When we shot the shot in the movie, in the beginning when she's first in my body, we were doing this mirror thing, where my arm is like this, and Andrea did the same thing through this other mirror in this other room. It just naturally began to meld into essentially one performance.
Andrea Riseborough: That was one of the most mind-blowing, fun things to do.
Christopher Abbott: It was almost quite emotional.
Andrea Riseborough: It was like being on LSD.
Christopher Abbott: It was, yeah, but it didn't feel cheesy. It wasn't like this mirror game, but it was really quite emotional in a way. It was very strange.
Andrea Riseborough: It was an out-of-body experience.
What I think is really interesting about your character, Tasya, is that you can feel her own identity is starting to crumble because of her job. You see it reflected in her relationships that she has outside of her job and just the everyday things that she does. Can you talk about exploring this woman's identity? Because it's interesting to me that she's somebody who inhabits other identities, and yet the one that she struggles with the most is her own.
Andrea Riseborough: I think she doesn't recognize herself when she sees herself in a reflection. She doesn't recognize herself when she sees herself reflecting back to herself by other people. I don't think she started out that way, but I think she started out as a gun for hire, basically. A highly skilled assassin, because she has the malleability and she enjoys the thrill of escapism enough that she wants to do this consistently over and over again to the point where it's an unhealthy addiction that she has with it. She has an obsession, as Jennifer Jason Leigh's character has had, too, you can tell.
It's such a profound metaphor of how we all try and cope with life. But I think that's the really brilliant part of the script, that's the really brilliant theme behind the script that Brandon's exploring. He explores it in many ways, from a very intellectual and technical way. But from inside of it to playing somebody like Tasya, the brutality of taking on someone's joy and pain and fear, someone else's fear on top of your own, I just found it really fascinating to imagine what that does to a person.
And as I was imagining that, and realized that I was already doing that, just without being injected into anybody's body, where I was occupying a certain mental space as an actor for a certain period of time, was equally fascinating. Because once you get out of it, and then occupy a different mental space and come out of it, it's very difficult to feel tethered to anything or grounded, either.
[Photo Credit: Above photos courtesy of Karim Hussain and Sundance Institute.]