This weekend, Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson delivers a scene-stealing turn in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation as Ilsa, a lithe and lethal double agent who saves IMF spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) only to confound him, time and again, as he hunts down a global network of shadowy spooks-turned-terrorists.
Earlier this week, hours ahead of the biggest premiere of her life, Ferguson gazed out of a window on the 35th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper flashing back to the sandy deserts of Morocco.
Just last year in Ouarzazate, “the Door to the Desert” just north of the Sahara, the 31-year-old stunner had been filming Lifetime’s femme-centric Biblical saga The Red Tent when fate planted its first seed.
“I remember thinking, ‘I am enjoying this, but I’d like to try out for an independent movie with a super cool part where I get to kick ass and see if I can maneuver around,’” she told The Daily Beast via phone in a Swedish-inflected English lilt, the product of a childhood raised in Stockholm with a British mother.
An actor since her teens, Ferguson had notched her first Golden Globe nomination a year prior for starring in the Starz costume drama The White Queen. “I’d been working quite nonstop,” she explained. “I played the Queen of England and I played a princess. I’ve been very lucky to have strong women characters to play.”She was on location playing the Old Testament heroine Dinah when her agent rang with just the “indie” part to scratch Ferguson’s itch. “He said, ‘Well, they are casting for Mission: Impossible,’” Ferguson chuckles. “I remember laughing. Yeah, right. As if.’”
Well, why not? On a trip back to London, Ferguson put herself on tape and sent it in, expecting nothing to come of it. She returned to Morocco and back to set. While mounted astride a camel named Barbie, Ferguson got the news: Mission: Impossible’s producer-star Tom Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie wanted to meet her. Tomorrow.
Several frantic hours later, Ferguson was en route to England for a whirlwind first meeting with the M:I gang.
“I remember just thinking, okay—I had my son with me, do I bring him? What do I do?” she recalled. Driving through London with less than 24 hours’ leave from The Red Tent, her destination felt oddly familiar.
“We drive up this beautiful alley with trees,” she said, her voice dripping with playful melodrama, “and it’s the mansion where they shot Eyes Wide Shut. It was like I’d left off one set and was walking into something else. That’s when my heart started beating.”
“Then, bam! There was Tom walking around the corner with Chris, and he smiles and walks up and gives me a hug and thanks me for coming. I stood there thinking, ‘This is unreal.’ I think my first comment was, ‘Can we have a coffee before we start talking? Because I’m mentally still on a camel.’”
Talking through the character and playing out scenes with Cruise and McQuarrie, Ferguson found her Ilsa, a captivatingly enigmatic action heroine who’s part Bergman, part Bacall, and more badass than any Bond girl.
“Tom and Chris talked a lot about old Hitchcock films, and we talked a lot about Ingrid Bergman and Greta Garbo,” said Ferguson. “That kind of grace, but also in the photography that Robert Elswit brought into the film. A lot of beautiful shadows and lighting. And then you just—sorry, but you fuck it up, you take the hair of that perfect old Hollywood starlet and put your hands through it to mess it up.”
Once she landed the role, Cruise and co. sent a stunt trainer to visit Ferguson in Morocco to make sure she could nail the extreme stunts of the role, despite never having trained in the motorbiking, knife-wielding, gun-battling, acrobatic spy skills she pulls off in the film.
She relished in the physicality, particularly fond of her woman-on-man knife fight and one badass grappling move in which Ilsa nimbly uses her thighs to twist grown men to the ground. “I thought it was never gonna happen, then I nailed it,” she exclaimed. “I remember the excitement and the kick that it gave me. I asked them, ‘Can I do it more?’ It’s such a good move.”
Her toughest stunt came on the first day of shooting, when she had to rappel off of the Vienna State Opera from 100 feet up. “I remember saying, ‘That’s brilliant, but I am very afraid of heights,’ and I remember Tom and Chris laughing,” she said. “But you get to a point where you step over your threshold of fear, realizing that if you have that safety net of incredible people around you, you can take that extra step if you want to.”
Plus: “Jumping off a rooftop is one thing, but having your legs wrapped around Tom Cruise makes it a bit easier,” Ferguson laughed.
The restraint with which McQuarrie pushes Cruise’s wary Ethan Hunt and Ferguson’s conflicted Ilsa Faust toward one another is mirrored in recurring nods to Puccini’s Turandot, about a smitten hero’s dangerous obsession with an ice cold princess.
“This is why Chris is so brilliant,” raved Ferguson. “I’ve seen that scene from The Usual Suspects ten times and I see something new every time. There’s a reason she’s called Ilsa Faust. There’s Ingrid Bergman’s character in Casablanca; Casablanca is where we shot much of the film. The relationship in Turandot. The composer also created that music for Ilsa any time she enters a scene. It’s so beautifully and smartly maneuvered.”
Unlike most action movie femme fatales, Ilsa is allowed to be Ethan Hunt’s equal, not just a notch on his bedpost. “We live in a society where we have to create order and understand everything,” Ferguson said. “It’s as if romance has to be shown by sex, or a big snog, or what we would define as romance. I think these characters are past that. They meet, and they move like they’ve never moved with anyone else. They can communicate without talking. And if you want to talk about romance, that can be beautiful, just having someone connect to you. It doesn’t have to be in a relationship. It can be far beyond that.”
Ferguson, who lives in a quiet village in Sweden with her partner and 8-year-old son, next appears alongside Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins—but she’s trying not to think too far ahead, aside from returning home after the glitz and madness of her Mission: Impossible press tour.
“I have my roots,” she said, appreciatively. “I get to kick off these gorgeous heels, which I love running around in, and jump into big socks and read books with my son and go for walks on the beach. I have a premiere this evening in New York and when I walk down that carpet I’m not looking down at all the interviews I’m doing, because that could scare me shitless. I’m taking it one step at a time.”