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Rebecca Ferguson on Mission Impossible, Dune, and Motherhood

Mar 12, 2023

Starring in two of the year's most anticipated blockbusters will make Rebecca Ferguson a movie theater mainstay. But to get there she had to go around the world—and out of it, too.

No one signs up for a Mission: Impossible movie without expecting to do a few stunts. But back in 2014, when Rebecca Ferguson was filming Rogue Nation, the first of the MI films in which she has starred as the international spy Ilsa Faust, the actress got something of a surprise. In a scene set at the Vienna Opera House, Tom Cruise (who plays the seemingly unkillable covert agent Ethan Hunt) planned for his character to exit the building, alongside Ferguson, via its roof. There was just one hitch: "She never told me—or anyone else—she was uncomfortable with heights," Cruise says. Instead of suggesting the front door, however, Ferguson did what any self-respecting secret agent would. "She trained for it and did it. She confronted it full on," Cruise says. "That is Rebecca. She knew it made the sequence, and she knew that she could trust me, and I could trust her. It is a lovely moment."

The stakes are slightly lower on this rainy Monday morning in West London, but Ferguson's not one to do anything halfway. It's 8:58 a.m., and I’m sitting in a café when I receive a text: She's running late but she's en route: "See you in eight minutes on the dot." True to her word, exactly eight minutes later Ferguson breezes into the café wearing head-to-toe black, with wet hair and a grin on her bare face. She shrugs off her dark overcoat, orders a fruit plate for the table and a latte and an espresso for herself, opens the book I’m reading to the first page, and declaims the opening lines as if she's doing a dramatic reading. Then, when she spots the app on my phone transcribing our conversation in real time, the sly sense of humor I’ve heard about makes its entrance. "Penis! Yep, there it is," Ferguson says, chuckling as the word pops up on the screen. She quickly adds, "Vagina! For equality…"

Warming to Ferguson is effortless. She exhibits an eager inquisitiveness and charming candor, and our discussion careens from marriage ("We live in a society where it's kind of forced on us," says Ferguson, who is married to Rory St. Clair Gainer) to the merits of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ("I just got goosebumps when you said it!"). This openness and wide-ranging interest might explain why she's one of the most exciting, and busiest, actors working in Hollywood right now, with Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One out this summer, Dune: Part Two hitting theaters in late fall, and the acclaimed post-apocalyptic series Silo (on which she's also executive producer) streaming now on Apple TV+.

There's a lot of pressure on movies like the ones Ferguson is starring in this year. After Cruise was credited with saving last year's box office with Top Gun: Maverick, the stakes for this year's blockbusters are higher, farther, and faster than ever before. The pressure for tentpole films to perform is intense, but it also signals a chance for Ferguson, who appears in two of them, to become more visible than she has ever been. She's a screen voyager whose adventurous spirit has led her across various genres, and her upcoming projects have taken her around the world—as well as out of it. For Mission: Impossible alone she has filmed in Italy, the United Arab Emirates, and the UK—and director Christopher McQuarrie was recently Insta­gramming cryptically from the arctic.

It's no wonder Ferguson gravitates toward the peripatetic. Born in Stockholm in 1983, she was raised by a British mother, Rosemary Ferguson, and a Swedish businessman father, Olov Sundström. Rosemary was the daughter of Northern Irish and Scottish academics; she rebelled in her youth by moving to Sweden, where she found herself entangled in such glamorous projects as helping ABBA with the English translation of the lyrics from the 1974 album Waterloo. "She is rather eccentric," Ferguson says with a smile.

Though separated, Ferguson's mother and father both stimulated their daughter's creativity, signing her up to do everything from music and gymnastics to tap dancing, modeling, and card playing. It was her mother who encouraged her to audition, at age 15, for the part of Anna Gripenhielm in the Swedish soap opera Nya Tider, which she landed and played in 1999 and 2000.

More than 20 years later Ferguson boasts a catalog of complex characters whose one similarity is that they hold their own against male leads played by the likes of Hugh Jackman (The Greatest Showman, Reminiscence), Jake Gyllenhaal (Life), and Ewan McGregor (Doctor Sleep). She also has two children to guide—a son, Isac, from her previous relationship with Ludwig Hallberg, and a daughter, Saga, with husband Gainer. Being a parent has, she says, been pivotal to her performance in the Dune films and her understanding of her character, Lady Jessica, the mother of Timothée Chalamet's Paul. "She's a mom protecting and training someone, something," Ferguson explains. "I say something because she knows [she's dealing with] an entity bigger than themselves. When Paul starts going off, she begins losing power, and it puts her on an unpredicted journey to discover who we are in response to other people. That's when we find ourselves again."

Ferguson doesn't seem to have trouble figuring out who it is she is. Dune director Denis Villeneuve says, "Rebecca's a passionate, warm human being who loves to quickly break the ice. She has a huge imagination. She's someone who has no fear to walk into the zone of the unknown. She can make you believe in the extra­terrestrial, in other cultures, in different worlds or dimensions. Some actors are very down to earth, but she's someone who can fly high."

High enough, it seems, that Villeneuve expanded her role in the second installment of Dune, which is adapted from Frank Herbert's beloved novel. "Lady Jessica kind of disappears in the second part of the book, and I made sure as I was writing the screenplay to do the opposite, to make sure that she will be active, to bring her back to the front of the story," he says. "I’m looking forward for the world to see what Rebecca has accomplished. She's not afraid to go very far away. She's a force that I can count on."

Or, at least, she can be counted on to stay surprising. While filming Dune in Jordan, Ferguson and Gainer organized excursions for the cast and crew so they could appreciate the places their work had taken them. "I rented a boat for the stunt team and the actors and took them out in Jordan to a place in the middle of the Dead Sea where you can see four different countries," she says. "Seeing them dive for the first time, I enjoyed that."

Ferguson is an actor who takes her work very seriously, but she believes a happy set is key to great creative collaborations. "She loves to have fun," Villeneuve says. "It's important for her to enjoy the moment and to create a lightness, make jokes and make sure that everybody is comfortable. She wants you to feel secure." But she also wants to be pushed beyond her comfort zone, which has happened frequently on the Mission: Impossible films. "We don't really work with scripts," Ferguson says. "As someone who likes structure, I find it tricky, but it makes me confront the fact that I have zero control. There is method to the madness."

Structure might be appealing, but Cruise says Ferguson does just fine without it. "Her elegance and intelligence jump off the screen. She reminded [McQuarrie] and me of Ingrid Bergman," he says. "We knew when we met her we had found our Ilsa. Rebecca is enormously talented, and when she decides to do something, she makes it happen."

Throughout the Mission: Impossible franchise, Ilsa gives Ethan a run for his covert-ops money—and Ferguson promises that Dead Reckoning will once again up the ante. "I can tell you it is an explosive, dynamic film with incredible stunts you’ve never seen before," she says. But the actor is also cognizant of how being known for characters like Ilsa and Lady Jessica may limit her ability to escape typecasting as an action hero version of the so-called "strong female character".

"I feel frustrated by the pitfall of doing things that are not completely different, from a creative aspect," she says. "People enjoy what I do, but it's recognized in a similar way. It makes me see that I’m trying to put together something that is shaped by other people, and I want to break out of it." Ferguson wouldn't be the first actor to feel boxed in by type, but what would she like to do to free herself from preconceived expectations?

"It changes all the time," she says. "I enjoy real stories and real people, but if I go back in history, whose story am I going to tell?" What she’d rather do is discover a script that grapples with messy humanity, the kind we all live with when we’re not super-spies or in a universe 20,000 years in the future. "That's what I want to do," she says, "but I don't know where to find it." Lucky for Ferguson, that mission is still possible.

Since 1982 the British Pullman, a Belmond Train, has transported globetrotters around southern England using 11 restored carriages made between the 1920s and 1950s. While each is individually designed, the Queen Mother's favorite was the Phoenix: a first class parlor car that she took to Brighton. In 2021 a fellow car, the Cygnus, was given a Wes Anderson makeover as the filmmaker sought to balance the historic interiors with his whimsical color palette and Art Nouveau design. Lately a dining experience in which guests are transported back to 1951 in an attempt to identify a fictional murderer has been calling out to voyagers. What's derailing the participants from pursuing the truth? The five-course meal before them. The fainthearted, however, needn't fret. Afternoon tea or a trip to Blenheim Palace provides a tamer experience.

Photographs by Luc Braquet Styled by Karen Clarkson

Hair by Jillian Halouska for Sisley Paris at the Wall Group. Makeup by Emma Lovell for Dior Capture Totale Le Serum and Dior Forever Foundation at the Wall Group. Nails by Michelle Class for Sally Hansen at LMC Worldwide. Tailoring by Rosie Meres. Production by KO Collective. Location: British Pullman, a Belmond Train, London

In the top image: Marc Jacobs dress ($3,300), gloves, and boots ($2,900); Cartier High Jewelry necklace and bracelet.

Hanna Flint is a London-based critic, author and broadcaster of British-Tunisian heritage. Her debut book Strong Female Character: What Movies Teach Us, is available now.

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