Rebecca Ferguson is drinking tea in the restaurant of a London hotel. In a dark blue jacket festooned with tiny gold stars, her brunette hair scraped back from her face, she looks perkier than anyone who gave birth six weeks ago has any right to.
The 34-year-old Swedish-British actor has been perfectly decent in decent films (such as Florence Foster Jenkins), better than necessary in trashy ones (The Girl on the Train, Life) and has even emerged unscathed from a bomb (The Snowman). But it is her performance as Ilsa Faust, a daredevil secret agent in the new Mission: Impossible film and its predecessor, that has nudged her from the ranks of the interesting to the brink of stardom.
Her compelling coolness threatens to outshine her costar, Tom Cruise. Indeed, her opening scenes in the latest instalment, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, and the 2015 Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, both show her saving his bacon.
“Oh my gosh. You’re right!” she gasps. “I save him both times. I didn’t realise. Though I do remember Chris [McQuarrie, the writer-director] and Tom saying throughout Rogue Nation that every entrance for Ilsa needed to be significant and important. Tom wanted to create an equal for his character, Ethan. He’s bloody cool and strong, but also vulnerable. Ilsa has those qualities, too.” It’s notable that their relationship, while dramatically charged, is powered by mutual fascination and respect, rather than romance. “These are people with a genuine equality between them.”
She can remember the first time she noticed her character’s name, with its baggage. “Faust I understood. But Ilsa looked like a spelling mistake. I thought it was meant to say ‘Lisa’.” She promised herself she would bring it up with McQuarrie. “Then one day, Chris said to me, ‘You know, it’s like Ilsa in Casablanca, right?’ And I said, ‘Yes! I knew that. Of course I knew that.’”
Ferguson isn’t big on theories about why the Mission: Impossible films chime with our times. Their trademark deceptions and switcheroos — where a trusted confidante may at any moment peel off her latex mask to reveal a foe underneath — depict a world in flux. “But if we’d made it 10 years ago, there would have been the financial crisis,” she says. “There’s always chaos of some sort.” Besides, she tends not to focus on anything beyond her involvement or control. “Tom always says he makes the film for the audience, but I don’t. That may be really selfish. I just don’t go in thinking: ‘How will the audience take this?’ I hope they enjoy it, but I do it for myself and the ride — and to make something that I would like to see. I have watched this one three times now.”
Her stillness and composure are a gift to the franchise. Most of the stunts, fights and chases end up playing second fiddle to her bone structure or her wry, unimpressed stare. Did this knack for minimalism come from the modelling she did in her teens? “No, I hated all that. They took us into the audition with little number plates in front of us — cattling us into a prison of prettiness,” she says of her very first modelling job. “After the first shoot, I turned down every job. Even now, I hate being photographed. I laugh my way along the red carpet. Posing makes me stiff and uncomfortable. I look like Bambi on ice.”
The modelling was partly down to her mother, an adventurous sort with a try-anything attitude. “She once hitchhiked with Sean Connery. He could’ve been my dad! Not that I’m unhappy with my real one.”
She credits McQuarrie with encouraging her to embrace stillness. “I sometimes find I want to overexplain in my acting. I work a lot with my thought process and I’m always wondering if it’s visible to the viewer. Chris told me a few times: ‘Pull back.’
Understatement doesn’t work in every context. It would have looked perverse amid the kitsch excesses of The Greatest Showman, where Ferguson played the opera singer Jenny Lind. (Her big number, Never Enough, was sung by Loren Allred while Ferguson valiantly lip-synced.) When the bad reviews started coming in for that film at the end of last year, she thought to herself: “Oh, that’s too bad.” She’d had a ball making it. “I never liked musicals before. I always wanted to slap the actors whenever they started singing. Seeing it from the other side changed me.”
And she loved working with Hugh Jackman. But these things happen. Films get panned. You move on.
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Mission: Impossible - Fallout is now showing across the UAE.