In her first scene in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, Rebecca Ferguson does something many women have been waiting to see in the movies all summer, if not all their lives.
She takes off her shoes.
They're a tasteful but towering pair, and her character, secret agent Ilsa Faust, is about to fight a room full of tough guys in order to come to the aid of Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt, so she's only planning ahead. But on the heels (sorry) of Jurassic World, in which Bryce Dallas Howard trekked through the mud and ran from a T. rex in her nude pumps, it's a moment in which a female character acknowledges that the fashionable footwear that's de rigueur in most studio productions can also be insanely confining, especially in an action sequence.
And Ferguson credits Cruise with first coming up with the idea. "We were doing a stunt move, and he said, 'I love the shoes, but why wouldn't you want to kick them off?'" she recalled in a recent phone interview with BuzzFeed News. "I looked at him and I went, 'That's why we love you. But — I'm taking them with me.'" Ilsa, Ferguson explained, would see that as pragmatic. "Everything has purpose. She might need them later."
That combination of secret agent competence and elegance is what makes Ilsa a particularly delightful discovery, both for the ongoing Mission: Impossible franchise and this blockbuster movie season. She's capable of outracing baddies on a motorcycle and slipping into the opera with a sniper rifle, but she also has the glamorous aura of a vintage Hollywood star. The effect is rewardingly like watching Ingrid Bergman pull out a blade and jump into a knife fight.
Ferguson is, like Bergman, from Sweden (that's Swedish she's speaking with co-star Jens Hultén during the aforementioned knife battle — "We were laughing so much because we have the most incredible fighting sequence in a Mission: Impossible movie where we're dancing around in between takes," Ferguson said). The 31-year-old actor got a Golden Globe nomination last year for playing Elizabeth Woodville in The White Queen, a historical drama based on a set of Philippa Gregory novels that had a 10-episode run on BBC One and Starz. She was also in Hercules (the one with The Rock) and Lifetime's miniseries The Red Tent, but for most people, Rogue Nation is the first they've seen of her.
And it won't be the last. Ferguson just wrapped her next film after her star-making action debut — she'll appear alongside Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in Stephen Frears' biopic about Florence Foster Jenkins, a turn-of-the-century socialite who refused to let her lack of talent get in the way of her singing career. In the meanwhile, she's managed to be measured and thoughtful and generally un-ingenue-like in the face of Rogue Nation's multi-continent press tour. "When I threw myself into it, it was very hard to see the situation at a distance — all the people involved and the large scale of a film production becomes quite domestic — it becomes your home," Ferguson said. "It's more when you step out of it and you go, god, that was massive."
There's nothing ingenue-like about Ilsa either, which is key to her appeal. In the midst of a movie that moves from insane set piece to insane set piece, she projects a sense of history, depth, and vulnerability even though we get little of her actual backstory.
"We know there's something that she's carrying with her, because she's questioning her position within the organization — when she asks Ethan if he wants to go away with her," Ferguson observed. "What I loved is, when we introduced Ilsa, we've never seen her before, we don't know who she is, and we learn that Ethan and Ilsa are pretty similar. They are quite lonely undercover agents."
Ilsa was described to Ferguson as "Ethan will meet his match," not as his romantic interest — and that's an aspect of the character that she highlights. "They meet each other and realize they can move like they've never done anything else, and they can communicate without really speaking. That's a beautiful relationship, and not necessarily a relationship you have to take to a romantic level. They have, I think, more than that — their connection is stronger, the understanding of each other's situation."
That understanding seems to have seeped into the production, with Ferguson following in Cruise's footsteps in terms of doing some of her own stunts. On the first day of shooting, she joined her co-star in jumping off the roof of the opera house despite offers of stunt doubles and the fact that she has vertigo.
"They gradually worked me up to what became 75 feet," she said of the training. "And it did help that I was with Tom when we did the jump. I think we did the jump eight times. I got used to it by the sixth jump. When we were on the eighth, I was like, Let's do it again." What are high heels when you have a rooftop to leap from?