Rebecca Ferguson is the star of Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. Considering this is the fifth installment of the series starring Tom Cruise, you might assume he's the star. You would be wrong.
The fresh-faced Swedish actress, who looks a bit like Katharine Hepburn by way of Carey Mulligan, plays Ilsa Faust. She's a double-crossing agent — well, by the end, more like a quintuple-crossing agent — with motives as slick as her fighting style. She's a rogue nation of her own, in it for herself. But her greatest heist isn't in the plot of the movie, it's stealing the movie away from Cruise and his cohort of bros with aplomb. The movie is all the better for it.
In Rogue Nation, Ilsa is an agent working with a terrorist group called the Syndicate. Despite her allegiance to them, she can't bring herself to kill a captive Ethan Hunt (Cruise), instead helping him escape. Throughout the movie as Hunt pursues the Syndicate, Ilsa alternates between working with and against the Impossible Mission Force.
"We never really know what her choices or decisions are going to be," Ferguson told Mic. "Sometimes I would be quite confused myself. ... It's very intelligent, and an incredibly intense plot. But I just really liked the idea of jumping back and forth because you think she'd go one way because of emotional attachment."
Ilsa isn't emotional about other people, though. She's all about self-preservation, to the point where she'll "turn her back" on the protagonists and antagonists in equal measure. But she's not a 2004-John Kerry-esque flip-flopper: She's a complicated female character, and the star of an action movie. Imagine that.
Of course, Mission: Impossible will always tell Hunt's story, even when he's the least interesting part of the movie. Luckily, director/writer Christopher McQuarrie linked the two inextricably — not with a sexual connection, but with something much stronger.
"They know how to maneuver around a room and kick ass with each other. It's kind of romantic," Ferguson told Mic. "You meet someone, and you realize you're moving like you've met this person before. ... You have to find a way to dance together, and it does make something beautiful."
Boldly, the two characters never kiss. "Romance does not have to be shown with sex and kisses and snogs," she said. "Romance can be something stronger, just in a silent connection with someone."
"They know how to maneuver around a room and kick ass with each other," Ferguson said. "It's kind of romantic."
Making Ilsa the co-lead, but not a love interest, is just one part of how the movie avoids sticking her in the Action Girlfriend trope. She's not condescendingly referred to as a "femme fatale" — her life goes beyond what it means to Hunt.
2015 has been a decent year for women in action movies — think Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road. But to stand out in a genre that too often favors men means an actress like Ferguson has to make an impression.
"I stand my ground," she said. "I think it's a very good time to be a woman now, because they are building strong characters. We're not even half the way to equality as we should be, but I never walk into a set feeling like a lonely woman cast aside. I take my place, and I always felt very welcome into this group. Yes, they are men, but I never felt like the only woman."
Rogue Nation isn't perfect in this way, though. For one, Paula Patton's Jane Carter, a member of the IMF in the series' previous entry Ghost Protocol, is absent without any explanation. (The male members of the IMF, Simon Pegg's Benji and Jeremy Renner's Brandt, do return.) Ilsa may be one of the leads, but she's also the only female character with any significant amount of screen time.
But for her part, Ferguson is making one hell of a stand for women in action. Her turn in Rogue Nation is unforgettable. It's unclear if she'll be returning for the next Mission: Impossible. The movie leaves her character in an open position, and Ferguson doesn't know whether she'll be returning.
Whether she does or doesn't, however, Ferguson will have an amazing career after this. In a year full of breakout female stars, she's fully fit to kick Hollywood's ass right along with them.
Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation hits theaters Friday. Watch a trailer for the movie below.