Rebecca Ferguson Is A Badass Goddess In Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Photo: REX USA.
Warning: The following story contains spoilers.

There’s a lot to love in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, which hits theaters today. There’s the clever blend of spy-movie-meets-comedy. (A fun game: How many times does someone say, “But that’s exactly what Lane wants!” or deliver a dramatic pronunciation of the word “impossible?”) There’s Ving Rhames, ever the coolest of customers. And now, there’s Rebecca Ferguson, whose performance is among the fiercest of the year.

Ferguson, the 31-year-old Swedish actress you've seen in Hercules and The White Queen, plays Ilsa, a former British Intelligence special agent working under deep cover in The Syndicate. (THE SYNDICATE IS REAL, GUYS.) Don’t get it twisted though, unlike some of the MI gals who came before her, Ilsa is no damsel in distress — nor is she a love interest. Nope. Ilsa is just a badass unto herself. She's every bit as skilled as Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and has her own story line, her own battles, and her own special set of skills.

Ilsa regularly opens cans of whoop-ass on anyone who crosses her. She is smarter than the crew she’s forced to work with. Watching her in action made me wonder if she’s the missing fourth member of Rihanna’s #BBHMM girl gang.

“I think it’s a very good time to be a woman in film right now,” Ferguson said via phone this week. “There are a lot of strong female roles coming up more and more.” This summer alone we've seen the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road's Furiosa, a new Sarah Connor, and a hilariously tough Melissa McCarthy in Spy. And of course in November, we'll have our final encounter with Katniss Everdeen.

Though quite serious on film, Ferguson is the complete opposite in person. When we first spoke about her role in April, we laughed about our shared love for peanut M&Ms, and the smell and feel of old books in between questions about training for stunt work. Back then, she was still in shock that she had landed the part of Ilsa at all.

In Rogue Nation (which was directed by Christopher McQuarrie), the gendered dynamics we typically see in action movies are flipped. Ilsa saves Ethan’s life not once, but twice. When Ethan does help her escape assassination in the end, it feels less like she needs him and more like he owes her a favor. Even when she does need his help, she’s hardly tied up on the train tracks while the villain twirls his mustache. It’s a joint battle where she and Ethan shut down their enemies in a nice little shoot ‘em up — together.

And she does it while rocking her femininity; girlfriend makes her lady devices double as weapons. (Think: a hairpin that’s also a dagger, a lipstick that’s also a flash drive.) She knows how to wear a dress and heels — and how to gracefully take off those heels before annihilating her enemy. It turns out that particular trick was Cruise’s idea. “I did [a move] a couple of times and Tom looked at me and went, ‘Why doesn’t she just take them off?’” Ferguson said. “And I thought, ‘That is exactly why we love you.’ She’s a very practical undercover agent, and you move better in bare feet, I can tell you.”

It’s just one example of how Ferguson brought to life a three-dimensional character and it's so awesome to see in a summer action blockbuster. For Ferguson, it doesn't seem like such a big leap. “We are human beings and we have it all in us,” she said. “This woman knows what to take out in the right situation and which cylinders to play.”
Photo: REX USA.
The one cylinder Isla doesn’t play — despite the path nearly every woman in an action film has laid before her — is using her body or sexuality to get what she needs. There’s no moment where she must unzip her blouse to get the job done. She is never hyper-sexualized. Ilsa and Ethan remain equals throughout the film in every sense of the word: equally trained, equally skilled, equally not in it for the nookie.

A level playing field for the two characters was important to both actors. “It’s a changed dynamic from the previous [films],” she says. “I like that we created a character where Ethan meets his match, as does she.”

Indeed, the one scene that earned applause from the audience during the screening I attended was Ilsa’s final knife battle with a Syndicate crony.

When Lane, the brain behind The Syndicate, is finally put out of commission for good, Ethan asks Isla where she’ll go now. “I don’t know,” she says. She hugs him, then gets into her car and drives away. There is no kiss. There is no sexual tension between them. There is no hint that maybe an attraction was brewing but fizzled out when they betrayed each other’s trust too many times.

“I do love the idea that we didn’t fall into the romance category,” Ferguson said. In her mind, Isla and Hunt share a much stronger and more important connection: two lonely undercover agents who instantly click, even without speaking, and know exactly how and when to move in battle.

“I also love that when I met Tom and Chris the first time, they didn’t mention these words like ‘femme fatale’ or ‘strong woman,’” Ferguson added. “They’d say, ‘She’s an independent undercover agent, and she’s vulnerable, and she’s Ethan Hunt’s equal.’ I think that sort of set this incredible balance to the entire film for her and for me.”

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