Once a Redgrave: Joely Richardson on playing the role made famous by her mother and sister

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Joely Richardson is a scion of England's grandest theatrical family, with a glittering career to match. But recent years have brought the deaths of the actress's sister, uncle and aunt. Arifa Akbar finds her in a pensive mood on the eve of her return to the London stage.

Joely Richardson has managed to walk into Carluccio's in Kingston upon Thames at the height of the lunch buzz and sit at a window seat, her voice raised above the hum, without causing fans to clamber or heads to turn. No one has rushed over with a camera phone or a napkin to sign. Perhaps they're being very English and taking furtive glances over their menus instead, though you get the feeling that her low-key presence is a carefully learnt skill which must be perfected if you are a scion of Britain's biggest acting dynasty and want to nip out for a bite to eat.

Still, it's odd to see Richardson – striking, her platinum blond hair falling on a chic black outfit – pecking at a plate of pumpkin risotto with Kingston's lunching ladies as her backdrop. Richardson's here because her theatre gene has kicked in, swinging her anti-clockwise in a career that might have begun on the boards but which has been defined on screen (Peter Greenaway's Drowning by Numbers; The Patriot, opposite Mel Gibson; 101 Dalmations, opposite Glenn Close) and more so on the small screen, from her pitch-perfect Lady Chatterley in the BBC's 1993 production to the plastic surgeon's wife in Nip/Tuck that found her Hollywood fame, and as Henry VIII's last wife, Catherine Parr, in Showtime's costume drama series, The Tudors.

This month, she's back on stage, at the Rose Theatre in Kingston. She has had a 10-year hiatus which only came to an end in 2011, when she signed up for an angsty off-Broadway marital drama, Side Effects. New York's critics waxed lyrical about Lindy Metz, her bipolar wife. She chose it, she says, for the same reason she chose to come to Kingston – because she wanted to start small and ease her way into the great classics of the stage.

So how it is that she has found herself warming up for the lead role in Henrik Ibsen's classic The Lady from the Sea, to be directed by a diehard Ibsenite, Stephen Unwin, who has translated his own version of the play for this production? And can it really be easing back in, to play a central character that both her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, and her late sister, Natasha Richardson, have played in critically acclaimed performances?

"If I'm completely honest, of course I was aware when Stephen offered me the role, that it probably wasn't a super-intelligent choice. People will say my mother did it, my sister did it. Individually you don't want to attract obvious comparisons, but it's a little bit more complicated. There's the level on which I thought it wasn't necessarily a smart move because it invites comparison. On the other hand, I feel really excited that I get a crack at a really great role that happens to be a role they also played. Thirdly – and this is the big one – I'm not a 24-year-old just coming into the business, struggling to find my way. I've got some idea of self. You can only make artistic or career decisions on what you would like to do next based on the love of it, and not on what people might say, or might think."

There's a small pause, and what looks like a quiet steeliness. "I'm really excited about it at the moment, and strangely fearless. You go up in flames, you go up in flames."

As has been tirelessly documented, Richardson is from pedigree acting stock. Daughter of director Tony Richardson, granddaughter of actors Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, sister-in-law of Liam Neeson. It goes on. Richardson had her first outing on screen at the age of three, as an extra in the 1968 version of The Charge of the Light Brigade, directed by her father. Just as her achievements have been closely followed by the media, so have her losses, and in the past two years, she has had more than her fair share. In March 2009, Richardson's sister Natasha died following a head injury while skiing in Quebec. She was 45; two years younger than Richardson is now. Then her actor uncle, Corin Redgrave, succumbed to prostate cancer in April 2010, and her actress aunt, Lynn Redgrave, died of breast cancer less than a month after his death. It must have been excruciating, to mourn under intense media glare. It does not appear to have made Richardson hostile to the press, though clear boundaries seem to be drawn in her conversation and she is at ease talking about her work and her views.

Her family resemblance doesn't just announce itself in Richardson's face. The bigger likeness is in the voice. It's a small surprise when she first sits down to talk, because she looks like the kind of ethereal English rose whose sentences might quiver around the edges. But her voice is a full-bodied one with a familiar dynastic timbre, though with an upward-ending American lilt (a remnant of her early stateside education, perhaps).

Richardson appeared to rebel against the family gene as a child, first training in gymnastics and later taken by tennis, but she says this was less a career choice than an early phase of testing out her passions. She has, in the past, talked of the acting gene in relation to her daughter, currently at drama school (whose father is Tim Bevan, co-founder of Working Title). There is a mother's apprehension there in her daughter's choice to follow her in acting.

"It's a mad time now, I think it's desperate for students coming out of drama school. There is no work for them, there really isn't. It's a high, high risk decision and I don't know how guys with families manage, apart from the minuscule number of superstars. When I first started 26 years ago, you got paid more than you do now, so how a man with four kids manages... And women get paid so much less then men. Having said that, it can also be an amazing job... I feel like every other parent on the face of the planet. I just want my child to be happy so whatever she chooses I will be supportive of."

The Lady from the Sea dramatises the inner turmoil of Ellida, an emotionally fragile wife who is torn between her married life and the wilder romance offered by a sailor she met long ago who now returns to carry her away. The fact that Ellida chooses the domestic over the romantic is not a failing or a compromise, says Richardson. It is, as Ibsen intended, a happy ending.

"The only family she has known is her husband. He really loves her and she loves him but it takes the play for her to discover it. [The sailor] is more like a holiday romance, when you are somewhere amazing and you meet this person who you think is your soul-mate and you've found this connection and the answer to the universe. And then you get home...

"I don't believe it's the case in the play but often, your soul mate is not the person you are meant to be with because opposites attract and it's the balance that makes for a very healthy relationship."

The other two Ellidas in the family are a blur to her. She doesn't remember the details of her sister's turn at the Almeida – only that it made an impression on her. She was also there in 1978, for her mother's performance at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, but at 13, she was more interested in the younger character of Hilda. "I don't remember any of it except for an image of mum and an image of [her co-star] Terence Stamp but I really remember Lynsey Baxter [who played Hilda], because when you're very young, you don't really relate to older people. I don't remember how she [Redgrave] did it. Tasha, I really believe, was one of the greatest stage actresses in the world and she was also brilliant in the role but I don't remember how she did it either."

Family comparison is not what's making her nervous right now, anyway. It is her long absence from the West End stage. Her last play in Britain was Lady Windermere's Fan in 2002 at Theatre Royal Haymarket.

"One of the actresses in this play said 'Oh gosh, I'm really nervous, I haven't done theatre for about five years', and I thought 'double that, honey'. That's where I am. It's a huge passage of time. I have such respect for theatre actors because I'm completely aware of how difficult it is and how you have to be so match fit."

To get herself limber again, she's gone into enthusiastic overdrive; she has read the play repeatedly and in several different translations; the historical and cultural context around it has been imbibed, as have 19th-century Norway, Carl Jung's psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious and Ibsen's philosophy on realistic theatre. The night before we meet, she sat down to watch Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, to fine-tune the Scandinavian marital angst for the stage.

The role came about when she met up with Unwin last summer to talk about a Terence Rattigan play. "He'd offered me Variation on a Theme. I liked it but I wasn't sure. We went to have lunch and were in mid-conversation about Rattigan when suddenly Stephen stops and says, 'well, do you know what I'm really passionate about? I'm a total Ibsenite'. I went away, read the play and thought 1) I'm up for this, and 2) Oh my God this play's impossible. I mean how do you play this stuff?"

She lets out a large laugh and continues. The Ibsen, for all its challenges, captivated her the minute she read it. Unwin, for his part, thought she was made for the role. And though she's not a planner, she had found herself wanting to move in a different direction two years ago. "I don't believe in game plans because I think life surprises us constantly in a good way and a bad way, but I really wanted to do theatre again. When Nip/Tuck finished, my plan was to do more theatre and work in films again with interesting directors. Amazingly, it has worked out that I have in the last couple of years."

Does she worry that she has become too synonymous with her long-standing role as Julia McNamara, the unhappy Florida wife of a rich plastic surgeon in Nip/Tuck? The show was a stratospheric success, lasting six seasons until 2010, and winning an Emmy and Golden Globe. No, she says. "I don't know if everyone feels this but I feel that when your experience is over [of a character] you almost delete the file. You can remember it, but vaguely. I got really addicted to Mad Men and to True Blood, which I'm slightly embarrassed to admit I got addicted to. I love those shows. They're brilliant and you really feel you get to know the characters, and if I went to see Jon Hamm in a play, I'd be thinking of him in Mad Men before the play. I don't think that's a bad thing, it's just completely natural because that's how we've been exposed to people."

Though it has been easy enough to delete Julia McNamara from her mind, it's quite another thing transferring the skills required for television to theatre. "I'm not at all a snob about it," she says. "I just think they require very different techniques. TV is much more immediate. It's about the truth of that absolute second, whereas with a piece like this, you've got to build a whole structure that's going to hold for a couple of hours. Television schedules are lightning fast. No rehearsal. Here are the pages. Now do it. When I first started working in TV, someone said that it's the best kept secret for an actor. It almost bridges the gap between film and theatre. The speed you have to do it in makes your brain work really fast."

Given that she played a cosmetic surgeon's wife for as long as she did, she found herself having to work out her own views on whether she would ever go under the knife. "When I accepted the job, I didn't realise, therefore, for the next five years, every question was going to be about plastic surgery – stupid on my part. I had to develop what I thought about it, so I said 'I'm middle of the road. I think we have a right, as long as we're doing it for ourselves.' What I find funny is that those people who take really firm stances are the first people, when they hit the age of 40, to go running off. I never wanted to be a hypocrite about that."

Among a run of recent films (the soon-to-be-released Thanks for Sharing, a comedy about sex addiction with Tim Robbins and Gwyneth Paltrow; Red Lights, a psychic thriller with Robert De Niro, and the recently released The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), is last year's Anonymous, a pseudo-historical drama about Shakespeare's identity, in which she plays the younger Queen Elizabeth alongside her mother as the older Queen. The make-up department turned some clever tricks to get her from a young-looking 47 to a 25-year-old. "We had to use every trick in the book to try to take some years off me, so they did all that pulling up [of the face] under the wig."

As a general principle, she is unequivocal about ageing on screen. "As an actress, you have to look your age. You can look good for your age, but you have to look your age. That's my one take on it: I'm here, this entity, telling stories about women my age. I must be what I am."

Actresses like Meryl Streep, and Judi Dench, and Maggie Smith, and of course her own mother, haven't shied away from playing women across the ages: "They say it's all meant to end, or it used to be that it ended at 35 or 40 but actually for those women, and for me..." Anyway, she reflects, "some people peak at 20, others at 50. Thank God beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

There's another big laugh. But seriously. She is meeting early middle age with equanimity. Perhaps the recent family losses have made her reflective about the prospect of getting old. "People always say 'I want to grow old gracefully'. And I say 'Yeah, in my dreams, in my highest aspirations, I would love to grow old gracefully'.

"But the fact is, you don't have the choice. You can get Alzheimer's, you can get anything, we might not be given the choice to age gracefully. We can't afford to be down on our age. We have got to be proud of every single year. We all get to be young, we all get to be middle-aged, and some of us get to be old."

'The Lady from the Sea', Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames (www.rosetheatrekingston.org) 23 February to 17 March

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