I think the other way you do that is through the character work. Emma, in particular, exists in this notoriously male-dominated space. From her boyish hairstyle, to her toned-down wardrobe, it feels like you developed her to blend in. Is that a correct assumption?
Riseborough: Yeah. Well, one of the really liberating things about playing Emma was that she didn't use sexual currency. I think so often, and sadly and reductively, characters can be delineated into two groups: a villain or a hero. And what I love about Emma is she's not using sexual currency, manipulatively or villainous, as it were. Which is something, I think, we've seen a lot of. There are so many male bodies that occupy that space already.
She's also not in any way apologizing for who she is, what she needs to get done. What I really liked about playing Emma -- because this is her biggest flaw and it's very interesting to play and, from the outside, it's very hard to accept -- is she's not willing to look at the fact that they're cocaine traders. I felt like I really had the opportunity to, along with the team, to create this external character in a somewhat real environment with the facts that we had from Roberto. She's a character who [hopefully] transcends our preconceived stereotypes that we always expect from cinema and from episodic television. And she sort of exists in a space where she was able to live in a world and negotiate without feeling the consequences of her sex. She really was raised as the older brother in the family.
That family dynamic feels authentic to the point that, within the first five minutes of seeing your scenes with Dane DeHaan and Gabriel Byrne, I sort of forgot that you were actors and not actually related.
Riseborough: We worked a lot on that, we talked a lot about it and we had the great privilege, which is so rare to have, to explore it in the few weeks we had in New Orleans. So we established the relationship between Gabriel, Dane, and myself. It was very natural, right off the bat. It really established this sort of dry, cynical, tense, relaxed, tiresome relationship with one another which felt very familial. It felt believable to be inside of so I hope that it reads that way.
Between the global scope of the show, and the cinematography -- which made me feel like I was watching "Sicario: The TV Show" -- the familial dysfunction just fills in the spaces so organically.
Riseborough: I'm so enthusiastic about it! It's such a wonderful thing to be a part of. You rarely have those really special projects in life, you know? Birdman was one, for me. Mandy was another, for me.
If you can imagine being in that many places internationally and so steeped in the culture when you're in them as you are in others, then that's the only thing that I can think to liken it to in its scope. Because it is just epic. I mean, it was astounding to watch it because even though I was there when they were making it, I had no idea how the cinematography would reflect the vastness of the cocaine trade. And I thought that was real genius.
Was there something that shocked you over everything else you explored, whether it was in your character work, the book, or the research you did on your own?
Riseborough: One of the things that surprised me most was the Lynwood family's ability to detach themselves from what they're trading. And that's probably been the case since the dawn of their "shipping company." So that was a bit of the potentially dark history and certainly informed the way that I played Emma.
And aside from that, reading Roberto's book, which I did, because I was about to embark upon this, but thank God I did it anyway. It's just an eye opener! And there really is nothing sensational or glamorous about this trade. The thought that we're going to perhaps make it and it's not going to tell the story about the white powder that you consume on a night out in a major city. Instead, you're going to track that white powder all the way back around the world, essentially, to its origin and see how many lives it touched on the way -- I just could never have anticipated the vastness of it. So that was really heartbreaking to learn all of that. But also, it felt important, and not self important. I couldn't believe I didn't know it.
If ZeroZeroZero got another season, what would you want to see happen for Emma?
Riseborough: I really would love to see Emma go on to become the Don that lives inside of her. I think that would be a fascinating journey. I mean, there are so many phenomenal performances. There's so much longevity in all of these storylines, because these people are probably going to be doing this until the day that they die the way that Don Minu (Adriano Chiaramida) is still doing it as an 80-year-old man in Calabria.
Also, what's interesting about that journey is the question of respect and how the more one is given it, the more one needs it, essentially. It doesn't work the other way around. And I think that's the interesting thing about power and respect being more important than anything else. It's more important than sexual dominance. It's more important than financial dominance. Power and respect are the things that every character in this series relies on, basically.
This interview has been edited for clarity.