Most body-swapping movies are played for fun, mining comedy from the contrast of an actor assuming another actor’s mannerism and personality. Think about the various versions of Freaky Friday, or that one episode of Community where Troy and Abed pretended to switch consciousnesses, or even those episodes of Orphan Black where Tatiana Maslany played one clone impersonating another and goofed on her own performance(s).
Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, which had its Canadian premiere at the 2020 Vancouver International Film Festival and opens theatrically today (October 2), takes that concept and turns it into a squeamish, unmoored nightmare: what would it really be like to be taken over by another person?
Andrea Riseborough (Birdman, The Death Of Stalin) plays Vos, an assassin who uses an especially invasive technology to jump into the bodies of ordinary people and use them to commit murder remotely. Christopher Abbott (James White, Sweet Virginia) plays Colin Tate, an office drone unwillingly enlisted in her latest assignment to take out a corporate magnate (Sean Bean). But something glitches, leaving Vos fighting for control of Colin—who doesn’t understand what’s happening, but knows he doesn’t like it.
Naturally, Riseborough and Abbott are doing the film’s press tour as a double act. So we asked them the obvious question: did Riseborough and Abbott build this performance together, or was that something accomplished through editing in post-production?
“If we’d both answered at exactly the same time that would have been really good,” Riseborough says, laughing. “We talked about this for a long time before we actually shot, Chris and I and Brandon, about how the two of us would essentially play the same person and who that person was. Because somebody is inhabiting Colin’s body—but we know very little of Colin, and we know very little of Vos. She’s become so untethered to her own real life."
“The character of Vos is so good at her job,” Abbott adds. “It’s important for her to be good at being somebody else. So there’s a lot of layers to sift through that we don’t even know.”
“Some of the things were more specific,” Riseborough says, “especially the part where we’re mirroring each other. And then with other things it was almost eerie looking back at the rushes and realizing we did a lot of the same stuff. I don’t know whether that’s because of the strength of Brandon’s story or the world that he created. It wasn’t for lack of trying, you know?” she laughs.
Riseborough says she found the sci-fi conceit surprisingly relatable, since so much of any actor’s work involves switching personalities on a moment’s notice.
“Certainly it’s my job to be lots of different people, and then come home and try and find some sort of semblance of what I identify as myself, and then hold onto that for a second and then go off and go into somebody else’s psychology again,” she says.
In its midsection, when Colin reasserts himself and runs around Toronto trying to shake Vos out of his head, Possessor becomes a nifty meditation on personality and identity, and the ways we all adjust our performances of ourselves depending on who else is in the space with us.
“I found it one of the more intriguing things to experiment with,” he says. “It’s just a challenge to kind of pick and choose what seeps through and when, and who’s kind of at the forefront in each moment. That battle in itself, as an actor, it’s something you just jump into whenever you get the chance.”
Watch the entire interview with Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott here: