Welcome to the age of the antiheroine. On television (from Netflix’s Godless to the BBC breakout Killing Eve) and at the movies (with Unsane, Tully, and Hereditary), psychologically complex and dramatically dynamic female characters have been on the continual rise, along with wider-spread opportunities for women in front of and behind the camera.
It’s an embryonic but profoundly overdue shift in the industry, say writer-director Christina Choe and actress Andrea Riseborough, whose chilly new psychodrama Nancy centers on a sour cipher of a female character, one with whom they expect audiences will both sympathize and struggle.
In the feature, Choe’s first, Riseborough’s title character lives in a bleak, dingy house in the middle of nowhere, lying her way into conversations with strangers online, desperate to be seen by someone outside her dreary orbit. One day, she becomes convinced (or wants to convince others) that she was kidnapped as a child — in a scene EW is exclusively presenting a clip from, above — leading her to reach out to the still-grieving maybe-parents (Steve Buscemi and J. Smith-Cameron) and arrange a visit. But as the three grow closer, the potential lies at the core of their connection blur into a more undefinable truth.
“Originally, the inspiration was to make this morally ambiguous female antiheroine character because I hadn’t really seen that a lot,” says Choe, who first started working on Nancy five years ago. “One of my favorite movies is Taxi Driver, and every TV show now has a male antihero lead. I felt like it was so common for men to be in that space, but not women so much.”
That frustrated Choe, who knew the qualities of such characters had little to do with gender. “It’s not just that they are morally ambiguous or duplicitous, she explains. A great antihero or antiheroine “also has an emotionally complex inner life; [they’re] someone that you can’t completely figure out why they do what they do.”
While earning her MFA in film at Columbia University, Choe watched Wanda, Barbara Loden’s 1970 film about a woman who abandons her husband and family in a search for meaning that ultimately leads her to hitch a ride with an incompetent bank robber. “That’s maybe where it all started,” she says. Though she was culturally inundated by male antiheroes with series like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, Choe recalls that she was surprised by her own instinctive anger toward Wanda. “At first, I really judged her. She was so lost and making the worst decisions. But then I thought again and considered I’d judged her so harshly because I’ve never actually seen a female character acting that way.”
In choosing to build her first feature around an antiheroine, Choe says she found additional inspiration in imposter stories, including the literary deception of JT Leroy, the Rachel Dolezal scandal, and the closer-to-home revelation that one of her favorite writing professors had been a fraud. “It was never like you understood the psychology behind these people, because obviously they’re not doing it for the money,” she says. “That character, I thought, would be a perfect antihero.” In her successful Kickstarter campaign for Nancy, the writer-director pitched a character study about someone “willing to live a lie so deep that they blur the line between performance and real life.”
A cinematic chameleon like Riseborough, says Choe, was ideally suited to such a part. The actress is known for transforming herself into dark and troubled enigmas, with recent roles including an out-of-her-depth murderess on Black Mirror and the manipulative Evangeline on Bloodline. In coming aboard Nancy, which she also produced, the actress relished the opportunity to uncover authenticity beneath the character’s myriad deceptions.
“She’s manipulative, as we all are as human beings to an extent, but the manipulation and the reasoning behind it is so much about her believing the illusion,” Riseborough explains. “And it doesn’t make her guiltless, but it does help you understand her motivation for everything she does.”
Riseborough sees reflected in Nancy — and Nancy — a very contemporary need for real human interaction. “We’re all trying to connect now through social media platforms, and we’re so alienated from one another,” the actress says. “It felt like a modern-day expression of loneliness.”
According to Choe and Riseborough, characters like Nancy move the industry forward by demonstrating that antiheroines can be every bit as compelling as their male counterparts — especially when brought to life by filmmakers who aren’t men. In the midst of the #MeToo movement, the pair say this message is less frequently falling on deaf ears. “Even only in the last six months, I feel a difference,” says Choe. “Reversing something that’s decades-long is not going to happen overnight, but I am so glad it’s starting to shift.”
Adds Riseborough: “It’s so interesting to see a lot of female-centric work being processed by straight white men. It’s almost like this Bambi effect, fledglings popping out of the forest into a previously unexplored section of society which actually makes up the majority of the human population.… And hopefully, the processing of that is having as many diverse effects as possible.”
Nancy is in theaters now.