How did you get involved with Rogue Nation?
Well, I was filming [TV mini series] The Red Tent, a biblical drama, in the desert and I was actually on a camel when I found out I got the part [laughs]. But to back up, I was in London and I did an audition tape with a casting agent and then went back to riding camels in the desert. After that I had to fly in to meet Tom Cruise.
It was actually the most relaxing meeting I have ever had. Because I was working, I was in the mindset of filming and working and then, I had just 24 hours in London to do the meeting with Tom. I arrived at this beautiful house and Tom Cruise was there with [director] Chris McQuarrie and I didn’t really have time to feel nervous because I knew I had to go back on set for The Red Tent so it was straight in. We just ordered coffee, sat down and talked. We talked about life and work and the characters, and two or three hours flew by.
Did you read any scenes together?
We did. I’d done one or two scenes on the casting tape already so they just wanted to see how it would work with Tom, and also to take direction. And even in that first meeting they left it up to me to come up with a couple of ideas; that is not very common – that just doesn’t happen. And then they needed to get me on camera, so Tom would be next to the camera to help out and usually you have a friend to do that. The whole energy in the room was a group of people wanting to get the best out of someone and helping me achieve that.
Because Tom is such a huge movie star did you expect to find him a little intimidating?
Yes, there’s the whole idea of ‘Tom Cruise’ but I think that’s what the media creates, they create a buzz around people. I live in a fishing village in Sweden and I love it there; it’s small and calm, and I don’t judge people. But I love meeting people and so even if people have their opinions about someone – no matter who it is – I try to be neutral. So when I went into that room the only nerves I had were not about meeting Tom but the fact that I knew I would love to do the role and be a part of the film. It was ‘I hope we work well together and I hope he likes me and I like him…’ And I did like him, very much, because he was just Tom and there was no shield, he was just who he is. And he was there with me, as was Chris, and the producers and the cinematographer, so it was like being brought into a team that know each other very well.
Tell us about your character and how she fits into the story..
Ilsa Faust I would say, is root-less. She was born in Sweden and has a strong survival instinct. She has been trained by British intelligence undercover. She meets Ethan Hunt in a tight spot and they realise that they have met each other’s match. I think they know of each other but they never met until a scene where Tom as Ethan is being held captive. And it’s all about who you can trust and who is on which side.
So we don’t quite know her agenda?
No we don’t know her agenda and she is very mysterious. What we do know is that she is highly intelligent and equally as trained as Ethan, which is interesting and fascinating because the audience never knows when the turn will come and where the story will go. When somebody works undercover it’s like the famous Stockholm Syndrome, and we never quite know her reasons and her purpose. So her story and her history are not as interesting as to her choices and where she is actually going. But she is brought in to help eradicate the so-called Syndicate team, which wants to take down the IMF team. So we start out thinking Ilsa is one thing and then we start to wonder if she is something else. Or is she? [laughs].
What’s that like to play? You, as the actor, have to keep things hidden from us, the audience…
I loved playing her because I like playing mysterious characters. I like it when it’s not black and white because that’s what life is like for all of us. We never quite know where she is or what her agenda is. We would discuss the reason why we were doing certain scenes and the motives behind them and then it was like ‘Shall we flip it? And have the complete opposite motive?’ just to create a new dynamic for that scene. So it left a lot of space for different interpretations and that is so much fun.
Did you know the previous Mission films before you won the role?
Oh yes. I love action movies and I love Mission: Impossible films. I absolutely love them. I love action films when they are intelligent and I love well-choreographed fight scenes. I used to watch a lot of Jet Li films. I love movement and dance and a beautifully choreographed fight scene is all movement and rhythm.
Are you trained in dance?
No. I danced when I was little and tried out different things and then I found Argentinian tango and I started teaching with a wonderful teacher who had a studio in Sweden and somebody wrote on some website that I owned that studio – but I didn’t, I just worked there for a bit. And one of the things I learnt there was control of the body and that fit in beautifully with this dynamic on Mission: Impossible.
Wade Eastwood [stunt choreographer] and his team are incredible. My next film [Florence Foster Jenkins] is with Meryl Streep and I’ve seen many of her films but there’s one, Julie & Julia, where she’s cooking and the way she moves around in the kitchen, the way she closes a cupboard with her foot, grabs a saucepan with her left hand and a spoon with her right, it’s just a feast for the eyes. And a fight sequence can be equally as beautiful. And that’s something that we were working hard on.
What kind of training did you have to do?
When I got the part I had a few days off and as soon as I got to Heathrow they took me to the gym to start training. We had a month and a half to prepare before filming started and it was six hours a day, six days a week, which was incredibly intense but also organised and scheduled, and within that schedule it would be diverse, too. So I would have Pilates, I would have martial arts training, I would do general fitness. It was tough but essential because you have to prepare and you have to be in the best possible condition to survive on a film like this.
Was it a specific form of martial arts?
A mixture. Tom has his fighting style and it was about creating a style for me as Ilsa. We wanted to make her quite animalistic. Even though she is smaller than most of her opponents she is very quick. So it’s about coming in quick, jumping up and using her whole body to fight the other person. She may not have great strength, but she has speed, she’s light, she’s very quick and up on her feet and around their necks and ‘boom!’ they don’t know what happened.
It was hard work and Tom does this all of the time. I’m in awe of him because not only does he act, he produces, he edits, he does it all, and I only did about 1 percent of what he does every day. And I was very tired after eight months of it. But because I love movement I did enjoy it. And it’s about not stopping – of course there are days when you are so tired but there is no choice, you have to do it. I wanted to physically challenge myself and see what I am capable of – and we are capable of so much.
I held my breath on nitrox air for six minutes. I’ve learnt the technique of holding my breath without nitrox for four and a half minutes. I suffered from vertigo before making this film and I did freefalls from 120 feet! I wouldn’t go in an elevator before – I wouldn’t have jumped from two metres – but I overcame that fear of heights. It’s because you are part of a team and you know what’s needed and also I knew that if I couldn’t do it there was always Lucy Cork my stunt double who would jump in. But Tom does all of his stunts, so I sort of said to myself, ‘Come on, you only live once, and this is happening right now…’ I trusted the equipment and I trusted the people, I double-checked security, I’ve seen how Tom is working and I just had to go for it. And I did. But for me to watch footage from the film is something else because it takes me back to when we did all these incredible things and I think ‘Wow, I did that!’ It may be a two-minute action sequence but it took me months of training to get to that point.
I loved it! I absolutely loved it. The man is the fastest runner I’ve ever seen. He loves it. And for me the key was to wake up and think that I didn’t have a choice about training – you have to do it. We all think, ‘Oh I should have gone for that walk’ or ‘Oh God, I had that chocolate bar..’ But when you are part of a film like this you really don’t have a choice. Well, you could choose not to do enough training or to eat something that’s not part of the diet but then you won’t be able to do the action that is required.
Did you feel the benefit?
Oh completely. I felt fantastic. And diet was a huge part of it and we would have these cooler bags with the exact calorie counted amount of food that I would need each day. So every day I had a well-balanced diet matching what I was doing that day. For example, when I was doing the underwater sequences I needed a different kind of diet than when I was doing regular scenes. It was scientifically tailored to exactly what we were doing each day.
What was it like joining the Mission team?
Simon brings so much humour to it; Ving [Rhames], Jeremy [Renner], they have found their roles off and on screen and how they work together and how they balance together. To come into that is intimidating because you have to establish your place and find out who you are in relation to these great people. But they are incredibly welcoming – Tom, Chris, Simon, all of them – and their attitude is ‘we want you to feel right at home and we want to help you do your best’ and that is a great attitude and it helps you settle in immediately. And that was what it was like from day one.
Tom and Simon are hilarious together. I was peeing myself with laughter. I literally couldn’t stop laughing in some scenes. There was a scene where I had a monologue and I was laughing so much I hardly knew what I was saying because they were making me laugh so much – they’re boys!
They are a great team and they clearly know each other really well and have such a shared approach to the work, they would even complete each other’s sentences.
Ilsa is clearly a strong woman and you’ve played a lot of strong women in the past – in The White Queen, in Hercules – is that essential for what you look for in a role?
No. We need more strong female roles and I have been blessed because all of my roles have been strong women and the reason for that? I don’t know. But they’ve come along at a good time in my life and I look forward to doing other things, too. For me, the criteria is ‘Do I enjoy the script? Is it a good character in relation to the story?’ That’s what I look for. And this fit the bill perfectly.
Yes, talk about a strong female character – Meryl Streep. I haven’t met her yet but I’m looking forward to it and I’m looking forward to working with [director] Stephen Frears. And what a wonderful contrast, jumping from this high concept action film to this 1940s film about an opera singer who couldn’t sing – a real story.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is released on Blu-ray and DVD on December 7th, and is now available on digital download.