July 25, 2015 / Written by Benji Wilson
Tom Cruise was so certain that Rebecca Ferguson was perfect for the female lead in his new Mission: Impossible movie that she didn’t even have to audition. Benji Wilson meets the actress and BBC drama star who is more than a match for Hollywood’s top actor.
Some bits of news are so momentous that you never forget where you were when you heard them. So when Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson was told that she had been summoned to London to meet none other than Tom Cruise, with a view to playing the female lead in the new Mission: Impossible film Rogue Nation, she remembers precisely where she was: ‘In Morocco, on a camel called Barbie.’
Rebecca was filming a biblical TV epic called The Red Tent (based on the bestselling novel by Anita Diamant) when she got word that Tom wanted to meet her. The producers granted her permission to fly to London and go straight to a hotel for what can only be described as an audience.
‘I remember thinking, “This is ridiculous. Why am I doing this? I’m not going to get it. It’s Mission: Impossible!” I felt that I didn’t have enough stature to be able to carry such a role. I was nervous. The assistant director walked me into the hotel, down some stairs and then – bam! – there was Tom in a black Tshirt, jeans and sunglasses. I remember looking at him thinking, “I’m not really here.”’ She needn’t have been nervous. According to director Christopher McQuarrie, when Rebecca met Tom, they just clicked. ‘Rebecca walked into the room and she and Tom started chatting. I was asked if I wanted to audition her and I said, “It’s OK, she’s already got the job.”’
A lead role in a Hollywood blockbuster would have been big news for any actress, but for Rebecca this was a huge coup. The 31-year- old was born in Sweden to an English mother and a Swedish father and grew up in Stockholm. She went to music school as a child – she plays down her talents at the piano but she has perfect pitch and is obviously a fine player and singer. At 15, however, she was spotted giving a performance and asked to audition f or a smalltime Swedish romantic soap called Nya Tider (New Times), something closer to Home and Away than Hollywood. The first time she stood in front of the camera she was terrified, but she got the bug.
‘I felt hidden, weirdly enough; it’s a paradox. And then I was in the soap for two and a half years. That was my training – you can judge soaps as much as you want but there is no better school for learning lines, technique and jumping into character.’
Jump into character was precisely what she had to do when a role in a Swedish film – A One-Way Trip to Antibes, which did well outside Sweden – got her a London agent. She was put up for the lead role of Elizabeth Woodville in the BBC’s The White Queen two years ago – and she got that too. Now she’ll have to jump into another character, this time literally, when she takes on the role of Ilsa Faust in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.
It’s the fifth in the series of highoctane spy films starring Tom Cruise as agent Ethan Hunt, saving the world once again, this time from the Syndicate, a near-mythical and deadly organisation of assassins and rogue spies. ‘Ilsa is an undercover agent, and we never really know whose side she’s on,’ says Rebecca. ‘She’s a mysterious woman – but she is Ethan Hunt’s equal, and she helps him try to bring the Syndicate down.’
Rebecca has the luxury of knowing that she was specially chosen. ‘ We couldn’t define the role until we had the right actor,’ says McQuarrie. ‘And we met a lot of women. Rebecca was a last-minute discovery – we happened upon a five-minute tape she’d done and said, “That’s her.”’
Cruise then watched The White Queen and in it, we may assume, he saw that Rebecca is an actress who physically and mentally can take on any challenge. Five days after the meeting, back in Morocco, she got a call. ‘They said, “We need to see how you move, so we’re sending Wade Eastwood, who is one of the world’s best stunt coordinators, to the desert with his team to choreograph a sequence.”’
Luckily Rebecca is physical. She has danced from a young age, she lives in a fishing village in the south of Sweden (‘I love jumping off the rocks’) with her boyfriend Ludwig and their eight-year- old son Isac, and she is a trained scuba diver. ‘But I’ve never fought. I know I can kick ass but that’s just because I think I’m cool! I’ve studied dancing but not professionally. Anyway, we just did this collaboration: I’ve never had so much fun.’
Which is not to say that there was no further physical training required to play Tom Cruise’s equal. ‘Before we started filming, we went to the gym six hours a day, six days a week. I didn’t want to bulk up. I wanted to be lean, but my body, apparently, reacted quite quickly. It’s a bit corny, but Tom would say, “You’re very athletic,” and I’d go, “No, I’m lean – ready for yoga!” I don’t look in the mirror much. I mean, you’ll see it…’
And I have seen it, in clips from the film, and Rebecca, not to put too fine a point on it, is in stupendous shape. Like Tom, she did most of her own stunts. Many of these i nvolved heights. Yet she has, in her own words, ‘crazy vertigo’. Even being five feet off the ground, she says, can induce that spinning feeling. So what was her first day of filming? A jump off a Viennese rooftop, with Tom Cruise by her side.
‘There’s a jump where we’re up on a roof and we’re sliding down and then he nearly falls off. My legs are wrapped around him, and then he jumps and we slide down. That’s 75 feet. We were working ourselves up gradually, which I didn’t know, to another freefall that I had to do from 125 feet. I did it. I realised there’s so much more that I can do – you don’t know you have the capability.’ But it does help, she says, having Tom Cruise next to you. ‘Oh my gosh, I probably wouldn’t have done it unless I’d seen him do it. He’d always go before me. I figured out how he checks his harness.
‘We all have people who do it for us – the professionals – but he double checks; he takes responsibility if anything happens.This action film series is his baby, so he’s learnt the whole process. He tutored me through those scenes.’
I point out that in the scene that she has just described, she actually saves his character, not the other way round. ‘I saved him about three times in the film – that was satisfying!’
On top of all-action fights and vertiginous drops, the new Mission: Impossible contains, naturally, car chases, i ncluding a scene with Rebecca on a motorbike in head-totoe leathers. (‘If I could choose a dress or leathers, it would be leathers every time.’)
She loves motor racing and says that, at one point, filming in Casablanca, there was a vintage racing Ferrari on set for a chase scene. ‘I remember hearing the sound and I was, like, “What’s happening? Is Tom filming?” And I was told, “No, Tom’s just taken the car for a spin.” I said, “I want to get in that car!” I remember running out and Tom stopped and said, “Do you want to jump in?” We whizzed around – he was phenomenal.’
She also went in Tom’s plane – naturally, he has a plane – and his helicopter. ‘I was like a child. He took my phone and said, “We need a picture for you.” I sat there saying, “This is your life, babes. Do you get used to this? Are you still excited?” I could see him smiling, looking at me because he’s seeing my reaction. He said, “I still love this.”’
Which is all very impressive but, hang on – ‘babes’? ‘Yeah, I do call him babes, or I call him Yank. He calls me Swede. I sent him an email asking something about a scene and I wrote “X, Swede”. He wrote back and signed off “Yank”. When I was on set I’d say, “Where’s my Yank?” And I would hear, “Oi, Swede! Are you ready?”’
This all stands in stark contrast to the reports from a few years ago that cast and crew weren’t even allowed to look at Tom Cruise on set. ‘I don’t know where that comes f rom. There’s no one who has more connection. He’s a people person.
‘I mean, I’m insecure and I question myself every time I do a scene, but with Tom you feel like an actress who is working alongside him. He’s interested and he’s present.’
Rebecca would have been a teenager when Tom Cruise was a pin-up (although he still is to many). Was he a heart-throb to her? ‘Yes, he was definitely a heart-throb when I was young. I remember saying to one of my friends, “I can’t believe I’m working with Tom. My younger self is ecstatic!”’
The older Rebecca also has every reason to be pretty chuffed. Not only is she about to be catapulted to major stardom in this summer’s blockbuster, but when we meet in London she is in the middle of filming Florence Foster Jenkins, the true story of an opera singer who couldn’t actually sing, with Meryl Streep in the lead.
She plays the girlfriend of Florence’s manager, played by Hugh Grant. ‘I stay on set even when I’m not in scene, just to see [Meryl] work because I want to see what she’s like. It’s a complete masterclass, and the way she respects people and how she manoeuvres off-set as well is amazing.’
Yet, while her film career could scarcely be going any better, Rebecca has no plans to leave Sweden. Even though her mother is English, she doesn’t call Britain home and her roots there have been exaggerated – press reports that she is related to Sarah Ferguson are unfounded. ‘They probably think that I’m the sister of the X Factor singer Rebecca Ferguson, too! Actually, I wrote to her a few years ago because I had a website page and I used to get all her fan mail. ‘I said, “Although you probably already know this, people love you. I’m receiving all your fan mail!”’ She didn’t hear back.
Ten years ago Rebecca moved from Stockholm to her current home. She lives about ten minutes from the water and she and Ludwig, who is a dance teacher, are currently renovating a windmill.
Quite how a home renovation, a burgeoning global movie career and an eight-year-old son go together, I have no idea. ‘You make it work. Since I’ve become a mum I have become a problem-solver. I was nervous when I first met Tom, but these days I solve situations rather than panicking.
‘When I got that call in Morocco to go and meet Tom I was thinking, “OK. What we need to do is…” I had my son with me, so it was more a case of, “Do I bring him with me or not? How do I solve this situation?”, rather than freaking out and saying, “Tom Cruise! OMG!”’
And if the problem is how you go from small-town Sweden to working with Hollywood’s biggest stars while still staying grounded and being a good mum to boot, Rebecca Ferguson has it solved.
© 2015 Irish Daily Mail