[Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike began on July 14, 2023.]
Rebecca Ferguson is ready for a break. She’s finished her A.D.R. (additional dialogue) on “Dune: Part Two,” the promotion chores on “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One” (her third in the series), and is on her way home to hang with her 16-year-old son and still-friendly first husband in Sweden.
She was prepared to go back to England’s Hoddesdon Studios to shoot the second season of “Silo,” the most popular series on AppleTV+, returning her to the lead role of Sheriff. Not necessary, as the day after we spoke, July 13, SAG-AFTRA announced they were going on strike. “The percentage of people fortunate enough to have a good life as actors have to fight for the other percentage,” she said on the phone.
The 39-year-old actress, who grew up in Stockholm, attended a bilingual English school, and trained as a dancer, has steadily built herself into a major star. Who else goes toe-to-toe with Tom Cruise and returns to do it again, twice, without simply being a romantic appendage? It makes perfect sense that her best friend on the set of “Dune” was Charlotte Rampling. “She’s absolutely exquisite,” she said. “I look up to and admire her ridiculously.”
Ferguson shares Rampling’s elegant athleticism, and carries a similar taciturn mystery and danger, whether as former MI6 agent Ilsa Faust in the “Mission: Impossible” movies, Lady Jessica Atreides in “Dune,” or Juliette Nichols, the muscular mechanic-turned-sheriff in “Silo.” Ferguson doesn’t talk much in her movies. It’s a pleasure to watch her move, react, and when the dams break, emote. And you can’t take your eyes off her — especially when Faust turns up in a black eye patch. (Ferguson wasn’t able to close one eye when she was looking down a rifle sight.)
The actress rejects the notion of ever “going up against” Tom Cruise, who wanted her for Ilsa after seeing her in the “War of the Roses” mini-series “The White Queen.” “It’s not a battle,” she said. “You go in with the mission of trying to survive. It is written by the incredible Christopher McQuarrie, and Tom is part of that journey. They want phenomenal characters. It merged beautifully, the character [Ilsa] with me: the time, the place, the relationship with Tom all worked with well. The trajectory of this character is so complex and interesting to work with. I asked for a continuation. The story writes itself.”
The actress does not even try to keep up with Cruise. For one thing, she doesn’t perform all her own stunts. If she has to fall out of a speeding car, she leaves that to her beloved stunt double Lucy Cork.
Ferguson did, however, handle the climactic “Dead Reckoning” fight on the bridge herself, she said. “I tend to be running far behind, but I try. Tom is the movie. He represents ‘Mission,’ everything that’s good, and thankfully nothing bad has come from it. You are offered a palette of knowledge: you learn it and do it and embrace it. You also can choose to say ‘no.’ They will find a solution around it, you’re never forced to do it.”
She gamely tried to master riding a motorcycle, and had to earn a license. “You have to learn quickly,” she said. “I had to be ready to shoot soon. It was a 760 Triumph, a big motorbike. I am very strong, but being on one of these on a road in England going fast — the trainer said I was going too slow. ‘I need to get off; it’s not safe. I don’t trust myself.’ No worries! They had other options: Jennie [Tinmouth], the best motorcycle bike rider in the world.”
This “Mission: Impossible” installment boasts more women than usual including Ferguson, Vanessa Kirby, Pom Klementieff, and Hayley Atwell. “‘Mission’ is probably the one franchise that knows how to write storylines for women,” said Ferguson, who takes the scripts as they come. “They break things down; there’s not a lot of going into detail about what happened. You do not talk about it. There’s always reasons why arcs go a certain way,” she said. I control my own destiny [as Ilsa], there are reasons why things happen.” (A very compelling notation, given what happens to Ilsa in the latest film.)
“Silo” has turned out to be the happiest experience of Ferguson’s career, partly because she is an executive producer, but mostly, she said, because showrunner-creator Graham Yost (“Speed”) runs a non-hierarchical set. “I don’t like it when people are more important than others,” she said. “A happy set becomes creative and a safe set becomes a safe space.”
Based on the series of sci-fi novels by Hugh Howey, the character Juliette Nichols starts out as a mechanic at the bottom of the 144-floor silo, in the depths where the poorest support staff live. She keeps heroically fixing the massive generator that powers the silo, climbing inside its blazing interior with a huge wrench, her muscles gleaming; she almost drowns aiming a firehouse at an overheating vent.
She’s fearless, tenacious, wily, and incredibly strong, which gets her past most of the obstacles heading her way in the silo, which was built to save humans from a destroyed and poisonous earth. But the powers that be keep the population ignorant and unaware of their past history. That’s what Juliette is bent on discovering.
What’s most important with each character for Ferguson, besides building up the right physique, is to “create a silhouette,” she said. “Then you’ve nailed a memorable figure, say, Cruella de Vil, through movement.” Working with movement coach Alexandra Reynolds (“The Theory of Everything”) she expressed the trauma Juliette stores in her body. “She carries a lot of internal grief and internally, and is socially uncomfortable, and is walking away when people touch her. She’s tactile with her own tools and her own world,” Ferguson said. “I often take on powerful characters and portray regal princesses and countesses and concubines, so my agenda was to completely break down and find in myself the capacity to do something else with Juliette.”
At first when the mechanic is named sheriff, she wants to solve the mystery of her lover’s death. “I find Juliette selfish in the beginning, she’s a broken heroine who gradually realizes there are things bigger than herself,” she said. “I love where we are going to in Season 2. She definitely learns new tricks and things get very wet.”
Next up: “Dune: Part Two” (November 3, Warner Bros.) is in the hands of the editors and composer Hans Zimmer. Assuming the strikes are resolved by October, Ferguson will be back on the promo trail.
Returning to Lady Jessica offered a character in transition. “She starts as a powerful, knowledgeable, magical mother and protector on a quest and a journey to make Paul into the leader,” she said. “She’s on a path to see the creation she has made and how is this new Jessica in relation to what her son has become? He’s more forceful, what does she do? She’s a significantly important person to the Fremen.”