For Andrea Riseborough, Luxor was not so much an instance of art imitating life as it was a film changing her own life. The actress (known for roles in Birdman and a standout episode of Black Mirror) had a stacked dance card when the script for Zeina Durra's romantic drama was sent to her but moved heaven and earth to be part of the project.
Luxor centers on British aid worker Hana (Riseborough), who finds a respite from her work on the Jordanian-Syrian border in a return visit to the eponymous Egyptian city. While seeking to reconnect with herself, Hana crosses paths with Sultan (Karim Saleh), an archaeologist and former lover.
"It's a really interesting story about a woman piecing herself together," Riseborough tells ET. "And actually, I would take 'woman' out of that and say human piecing themselves back together. And there's love and joy in that, and it's happening in an incredibly spiritual place."
ET is exclusively debuting the trailer for Luxor, above, and read on for our conversation with Riseborough about why the film felt meant to be, shooting in previously never-before-seen tombs, and falling in love with co-star Saleh.
How did you come to this project? Or how did this project come to you?
Crikey, it almost seemed like fate. I was finishing a series called ZeroZeroZero. We were shooting in Senegal and I had broken both my legs on that shoot and then recovered in Morocco.
Oh my god.
We shut down production, got back up, finished the last part and I had three weeks off before I went to shoot a movie called Possessor, the Brandon Cronenberg film that is coming out this week. And in those three weeks, I said to everybody around me, "A script came through." I watched Zeina Durra's first film, The Imperialists Are Still Alive!, and just knew in my heart that I couldn't turn it down.
I can't quite explain it. I mean, I literally had three weeks to get back from Senegal and then get to Toronto and start shooting. Maybe wash my pants, have a break, unpack my bag again, pack my bag again, put some tea bags in there and get off. And [I had to] prepare this new character, which I was playing this trained assassin who possesses people's bodies. Everybody was very confused as to why I wanted to spend those three weeks pretty much working solidly. And we did. We worked solidly for the time that I was in Luxor.
My brain is still short-circuiting from you saying you broke both of your legs.
[Laughs] Zeina's writing is exquisite. I don't know if you've seen The Imperialists, but it's hysterically funny. She just has such a wonderful, open wit about her, and the script was full of the pain of where the character comes in, but it was also a rebirth of sorts. I don't know whether it was because I'd just recovered from having two broken legs or what it was -- what ignited this passion in me to go and do it -- but I just got on the plane.
And it all came together really, really quickly. Basically, I said, "Yes, but I would have to do it in a week." And they got it together. They got it together in about seven days. I'm not joking, thank god. We started shooting about a week later. I traveled from Senegal through to Cairo and then from Cairo to Luxor. And then within the space of a day, I'm on the Nile, on a boat, basically falling in love. Because that's where I met my other half, and that film, we forevermore will have that meeting immortalized on the silver screen. [Laughs]
Was this your first time in Egypt?
It was. One of the amazing things about this film is that so many films are set in Egypt, as we all know, and so many of those sets are right here in Burbank. [Laughs] We were allowed to shoot in tombs that nobody's ever shot in before, that people have not even been into yet. Only archeologists. We shot in one of the first feminists tombs, two women who believed it was their birthrights to be princesses. They went into a king's tomb and defaced all of his images with their own. We were in Setnakht's tomb. It was one of the most fortunate experiences I've ever had, being allowed to be that close to things that were so ancient and previously unseen.
I have to assume you're doing most of your sightseeing on camera -- with three weeks, you probably didn't have time to explore the city on your own -- but looking back, do you have a standout memory from your time there?
I believe that I went there to meet Karim. Through this insane alchemy, Zeina put these two people together in this place, and we've been together ever since. It was just a life-changing experience on so many levels. And then all the harder to have to leave and spend months in Toronto. There's nothing that compares to taking a nice little boat over the Nile to work every morning. Just the simplicity of being there and the connection to early civilization and the spirituality of early civilization as unfathomable and vast as it was and as little as I understood, it was overwhelmingly peaceful.
I've heard actors say projects were "meant to be" before, but that you happened to fit this into your schedule, that it came together in an impossible timeframe and that you then found your partner through this experience. It does feel like this was kismet or touched by something above.
Absolutely. And actually, from the project's inception, Zeina had that experience within herself. She was trying to make this other film for 10 years, I think, and it wasn't working out. And she had a dream about being in Luxor -- she was there as a child with a family -- and she wrote it down the next day. She said to our DP, Zelmira [Gainza], who's extraordinary, "Do you want to come and make this films with sort of no money in Luxor?" I don't know what the timeframe was between Zel saying yes and me saying yes, but it sort of started to make itself.
You premiered at Sundance earlier this year. The world is a completely different place since then. What do you think this movie means coming out now?
I think in a way that none of us could anticipate, this movie parallels an experience a lot of us are having, where what we knew to be true is dissolving, and all of us are redefining what we want life to look like -- who we want to share it with, how we want to connect. That's very much what this film is about. It's about a doctor who has helped so many people but maybe put herself aside for quite some time. She's forgotten who that person was who went out there with a university degree and wanted to do something meaningful. But in all of the chaos and the political turmoil and bloodshed -- the fallout of war in which the people who are most injured are the people whose war it's not -- she comes to this beautiful place to regain a sense of purpose. I think this time has done that for a lot of us. I really feel like it's been a very changing time.
Luxor is available digitally and on demand Dec. 4.