'I was very taken by surprise in a way that was really glorious and welcome,' says the 'Luxor' star.
Andrea Riseborough and Karim Saleh know the exact moment they fell in love. The actors met for the first time at the airport upon landing in Egypt to film writer-director Zeina Durra's sophomore feature, Luxor. The movie is the story of a British aid worker, Hana, who returns to the titular city in search of respite from her work on the Jordanian-Syrian border and winds up reconnecting with a former lover, Sultan.
When Riseborough was sent the script, she was wrapping the Amazon series ZeroZeroZero in Africa and had mere weeks to return home to Los Angeles before departing for Canada to film another project. Still, "There wasn't a question in my mind that I wouldn't do this film," Riseborough recalls. "I didn't really understand that compulsion, but I knew it was something that was very special, and it wouldn't have sat right in my soul had I not gone from Senegal to Luxor and then on to Toronto. The obvious path," she laughs. "The quick way."
Saleh had starred in Durra's previous film, The Imperialists Are Still Alive!, and was asked to audition for her follow-up. While Riseborough would only later say she went to Egypt to meet Saleh, he had an indication that there might be more for him there than just the film. "I rely heavy on tarot readers for decision-making," he laughs. "As crazy as it seems, I was told in a reading not to mistake what was happening for reality but not to dismiss the idea that it is reality. To keep things in the work."
And so it was that, in a whirlwind of scheduling and prep, they landed in Egypt. Riseborough's arrival didn't just require a hasty change of travel plans, but she broke both of her legs filming ZeroZeroZero and had only recently recovered. Durra's screenplay saw Hana wandering the streets of Luxor, haunted by her past and uncertain about the future, and it was on those many walks that Riseborough and Saleh -- as Hana and Sultan and as themselves -- fell for one another.
"We got to know each other -- as Hana and Sultan, as Karim and Andrea -- walking together, holding hands, through Egypt. And we were walking to the same rhythm," Riseborough says. "We were in a place that was outside of time as we understood it. And it sounds a lot like a dream, but in many ways, we were more connected to reality than we'd been allowed to be."
Saleh remembers, "We were doing a scene on the street and I came to her and I said, 'My voice is not working properly. I can't get my words out, Andrea. What's happening to me?' She looked at me in a way that meant, 'Don't you know what's happening? Isn't it obvious?'" He grins. "That was the moment for me. It was a moment of not being able to speak and her giving voice to my inability to speak, accepting the we could be lucid about what was going on, which freed my voice. That's what I needed. I just needed to stop pretending it wasn't happening."
Luxor wrapped its 18-day shoot in early 2019 and had its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, before the world shut down due to the coronavirus. (The film is now available digitally and on demand.) Without a set to be on, the couple returned home for a well-earned if unplanned break, although even amid the ongoing pandemic, Riseborough was back to work by summer's end.
"How long have you got? How much do you charge?" she quips when asked how they're faring now. They're on Zoom, albeit in two separate windows at their respective houses just down the street from each other. They've just gotten back into town after filming their second film together, director Amanda Kramer's Please Baby Please.
"It was four weeks of night shoots in Butte, Montana. It was very cold. Creatively, we had such a fantastic time," Riseborough says. The film is set in 1950s Manhattan and is "a homoerotic love story, dance routines, a few songs here and there." "We both got to experiment with being villainous with extreme physical comedy. Karim did some dance routines."
"So did you," he points out.
"We made this beautiful little home out of our apartment there," Riseborough says of the shoot, with Saleh adding, "Which for me was great, because I've always felt the loneliness of being in a hotel while I was working. It's one of the things that I enjoy the least. It didn't feel that way for me at all."
"Being able to have the constant feeling of home after work, the constant feeling of 'I don't want to be somewhere else. I'm fine being here for the time being' -- even if I haven't seen the sunlight in a few weeks -- that changed my entire relationship to my [work]," he says. "I love to maintain a connection with my own story and reality as much as I like to get lost. And because I like to get lost, I need that connection. So, I was provided with this very beautiful anchoring presence that allowed me to go nuts and then come back home and feel human again."
This next project and the characters each plays in it could not be more different from Luxor and its lovers, but it all goes back to Egypt. To the connection formed wandering around its city, to the call both felt to move heaven and Earth to be part of the project, to the healing she had to experience to get there.
"I was very taken by surprise in a way that was really glorious and welcome," Riseborough reflects. "I think so often in life, so many of those brilliant things that you might see as an obstacle or as a challenge, even that appear to be an annoyance-- Which is not what Karim appeared to be at all!"
"I'm sure I do at times," Saleh interjects with a smile.
"So often those things are a gift and you can't quite determine what you might glean or how it might really be a life-changing experience," she says, "but it turns into one."