Natasha Richardson: Pursuit of passion

Natasha Richardson tells James Mottram about escaping unwanted attention and finding fulfilment at 42
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"I know the pressures of being the daughter of a great actress," Richardson says. "But it's inspiring. You learn so much that other people don't get to learn until later on. My father being a director, I learnt a real work ethic. You think: 'One day, I'd like to be as good as that.' But when I was starting out professionally, I had a level of attention put on me that I didn't deserve or wasn't ready for. And it was hard, particularly in England, to make my way. That's partly why I moved to New York, where you can be who you are for your work and not so much to do with family baggage."

Richardson began her career in earnest after winning a bit-part as a "young whore" in the 1984 TV series Ellis Island - where she first encountered actor Liam Neeson, the man she would eventually marry a decade later. Her breakthrough came two years later, when she played Mary Shelley for Ken Russell in Gothic. "It was in at the deep end," she recalls, describing working with the maverick director as "an insane experience". It led Paul Schrader to cast her as the lead in 1988's Patty Hearst, his story of the infamous kidnap victim. They reunited on his Ian McEwan adaptation The Comfort of Strangers in 1990, the same year Richardson took the lead in a Harold Pinter-adapted version of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

These were fruitful times. But Hollywood being what it is, executives soon sought out fresher faces. While she has appeared in the odd hit (the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap) and the odd arty venture (Ethan Hawke's directorial effort Chelsea Walls), Richardson has found greater success on stage. From her 1993 Tony-nominated title role performance in Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie to her Tony-winning performance as Sally Bowles in Sam Mendes's Cabaret five years later, Richardson appears happier out of the full glare of the limelight.

Hollywood is not a happy hunting ground for her. While Joely grabs the headlines, Liam the critical acclaim, Natasha has been left to play two-dimensional support parts, such as her lady of leisure in the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Maid in Manhattan.

This might explain why she clung on to Asylum as if it were a life buoy. The adaptation of Patrick McGrath's novel has been some eight years in the making, and Richardson has been there from the beginning. Stars, studios, scripts, directors and financiers have come and gone, but Richardson was determined to get it made.

"I was sent the book when it was pre-US publication," she says. "I couldn't put it down. I just loved the story and I just had to play the part. I couldn't let anyone else do this. It was sheer burning passion and determination. I just couldn't let it go."

Wisely so: the character of Stella is as juicy a role as Richardson has had on screen in years. Set in 1950s England, against the backdrop of an institution for the criminally insane, Asylum sees Stella stray from her repressed psychiatrist husband (Hugh Bonneville) to begin an affair with a violent patient named Edgar (Martin Csokas).

"I was influenced by the fact that this is very much a story of its time," says Richardson. "I don't think this story could happen outside 1950s class-ridden suffocating 'gin-and-tonic and tea-on-the-lawn' England. Here is this woman living in a very constricted society, with no outlet for her intelligence or her unfulfilled sexuality. She has no job - no way out. And then it's like a bomb exploding."

After leaving her family to follow her passions, Stella finds herself trapped with Edgar. "I understand why Stella stays with him, despite his beating her," says Richardson. "I think she loves him and I think women are often in the caretaker role. I think she believes she can help him and make a difference."

Aware that "a couple of more years and I would've been too old for it", the 42-year-old Richardson knew that shepherding the film into production was the only way she'd get the role. "I thought: 'Nobody is going to offer me this.' It's a miracle that they let me do this, a miracle. It's so difficult to get a film financed and I'm not a huge name. I'm not Nicole Kidman. The chances of this coming my way were very slim."

After numerous changes, Richardson eventually managed to rope in Patrick Marber, for whom she had just acted in the Broadway version of his play Closer, to adapt the novel. Then David Mackenzie, the up-and-coming director of Young Adam, was hired. Even then, it wasn't plain sailing. "The film got shut down in the middle, and I nearly fell apart," admits Richardson.

Credited as an executive producer on the film, she denies this allowed her to dictate proceedings - even when it came to the numerous sex scenes. "I'm an actress and I'm working for the director," she sniffs. "David Mackenzie wanted them to be as real as possible. I thought it was really intrinsic to the story; that it shouldn't be glamorised." Stella's first sexual encounter with Edgar is on a greenhouse floor, strewn with broken glass. "What can I tell you?" she shrugs. "It was 90 per cent real, including my back, which was cut to ribbons."

The role of Edgar was originally meant for Neeson, until he dropped out to make Kinsey. Did it cause any friction between them? "I think it's just how it was meant to be," she says, stiffening a little. "You can say it would have been a different film. As it is, this is the movie we made and the past is the past."

For the most part, Richardson paints a rosy picture of life with Neeson. Work is not strictly left in the office, she says. "I'm in bed and he'll say: 'Do you want me to go over your lines with you?' Or he'll say: 'Will you read a script I've been offered?'"

How would she react if he vehemently opposed her taking a role? "If I was absolutely set on something, I don't think he would shake me. But I don't think it would occur to that degree, as we're on the same page. There have been moments when he's read something and said: 'I don't think this is any good. I don't think you should do this.'"

After their brief encounter on Ellis Island, it was Richardson who sought out Neeson to star with her in Anna Christie. Richardson soon left her producer-husband of nine years, Robert Fox, for the actor, something of a cause célèbre at the time. While the press had a field day, Neeson and Richardson had their revenge in October 1998, when they successfully sued two Fleet Street papers for suggesting their marriage was on the rocks - donating the libel damages to the victims of that year's bombing in Omagh, Northern Ireland.

Living outside New York, on a huge ranch, near the town of Millbrook, they have two sons, 10-year-old Michael and eight-year-old Jack. Richardson admits there are "little twinklings" of the acting gene in one of her sons, "but I'll try to stamp it out!" She is dead set against her children being seduced by acting. "They'd be the sons of a great actor," she says. "And that's quite a gorilla to carry on your back. This profession is very tough and not many people make it , and even if you do, then you can still get slapped in the face constantly. So I hope they do something else - but if they're determined, so be it."

Richardson knows what it is like to be an acting hopeful and the offspring of famous parents. Her parents divorced when she was four. When she was 11, she found out that her father was bisexual. At the time, she was upset "because of the social stigma", but it soon ceased to be a problem. Richardson died in 1991 of Aids-related complications, but not without a fight. "My father would get on his tennis court every day and hit balls, come rain or shine, even when he was practically hobbled because his feet were so swollen and so covered in Kaposi's," she says.

As she is now a supporter of Aids charity amfAR, I wonder how her mother's staunch socialist views, campaigning on behalf of the Worker's Revolutionary Party and so on, impacted upon her social conscience. "As I grew up in that world and saw how much it affected her world and how much it affected our childhood, it made me very aware of politics," she says. "Of course, I'm a citizen and I have my own private feelings and thoughts, but I don't care to share them."

Despite living in the US, Richardson remains close to her family. As if to prove it, she recently completed work on The White Countess, the last Merchant/Ivory production to roll before the death of producer Ismail Merchant, alongside her mother and aunt.

The film is set in 1930s Shanghai, and Richardson plays a Russian countess who is drawn towards Ralph Fiennes's blind former US diplomat. "It's a huge, romantic epic, very David Lean-Casablanca-esque," she says. "Basically, it's about two completely dispossessed people, who have lost other things in their lives, and eventually find each other. My mother plays my aunt, confusingly! And my aunt plays my mother-in-law!"

The only previous time Richardson worked with her mother was in a 1986 stage production of The Seagull, where she garnered an award for most promising newcomer. "I was intimidated then," she says, "but doing this movie, it was great to be together."

After years of spending time in the shadows of the Redgrave clan, it seems as if Natasha Richardson is finally staking a claim to be remembered as one of the family's great actresses.

'Asylum' opens on 9 September; 'The White Countess' is released on 25 November