Joely Richardson is frowning. Are we about to witness a diva fit? In the flesh she looks amazing: so tanned and blonde that everyone else in the photographer's studio seems washed out. But even the most level-headed actress can go a bit bonkers on a photo shoot. She studies the digital images of herself with a critical eye. "My features are quite pointy," she laughs. "It's my Cleopatra-esque nose. There are moments in Nip/Tuck where there's a side shot of me and I think, 'Look at the size of that nose!'"
With her strange, arresting beauty Richardson is a genuine one-off. At 5ft 9in, she is Amazonian compared with the average Hollywood waif. "I don't go along with this theory of the sanitised version of women, that we all have to be moulded to look like people we see in magazines," she insists. "This obsession with the Stepford Wives' look is frightening." Which makes her latest role as the wife of a Hollywood plastic surgeon in the adult TV drama, Nip/Tuck, deliciously ironic casting.
Significantly, she agreed to do Nip/Tuck not just because of the satirical strength of the scripts, but because she saw the show as a drama "about flawed human beings who are desperately searching for something. The director sees plastic surgery as the externalisation of self-hatred."
For a time Richardson seemed overshadowed by the achievements of her illustrious family: grandparents (Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson), parents (Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson), uncle and aunt (Corin and Lynn Redgrave), and older sister (Natasha Richardson). But now the success of Nip/Tuck - she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama in 2004 - has placed her in a new league.
Today her dressing room is piled high with samples from Balenciaga and Chloé (a year ago she was the face of mumsy high-street chain Principles). But more importantly Nip/Tuck has kick-started her film career, which faltered slightly at the end of the 1990s. Her last British film, Shoreditch, in which she starred opposite EastEnders' Shane Richie, disappeared without trace.
While her relatives win plaudits for their roles in Ibsen and Strindberg, Joely is still best known for her boyfriends and her love of catwalk fashion - unfair when she spent the 1980s in edgy, director-driven work from David Hare's Wetherby to Peter Greenaway's Drowning By Numbers. But somehow the frivolous image has persisted. Even when she was a judge on the Whitbread Book Awards in 2002, eyebrows were raised - serious English actresses aren't supposed to dress up.
But now, aged 40, Richardson has thrown off the ingénue tag. In Nip/Tuck, she plays a desperate housewife with a 17-year-old son ("I don't see her as a victim. She's someone who pretends she's a victim"). And next week she's on our screens as Wallis Simpson in a lavish TV film about the American socialite's love affair with Edward VIII, which led to his abdication.
"I was never a good ingénue. It didn't work for me because I was always too tall. I didn't in any way come into my looks, if there is such a thing, until my late thirties. I wasn't that sweet, pretty thing ever. So I think that's why people say 'Things seem to be going well for you at an age when it's usually harder for women.' But then my mum or Glenn Close, their film careers didn't start until their late thirties... Going back to the 'famous family' thing, there's always the idea that if you come from a theatre/film background then it's easier for you, but in my twenties it was very, very difficult to find jobs."
Richardson is almost unrecognisable as Wallis. "I loved creating the look for her: the dark wig, white mask face, bright red lipstick. Quite a lot of the costumes were made for me because I don't really fit the 1930s styles. In many ways I'm not obvious casting at all," she hoots. "I was like, 'Who would think of me as Wallis Simpson?' Maybe that was why I was so intrigued."
Wallis, a famous clothes horse, was 5ft 2in with choir-boy hips "something I couldn't get round" says Richardson apologetically. "I tried to stay as skinny as I could, which wasn't easy because for years I smoked and so I could eat whatever I wanted. But then I gave up a month or two before we started, which made those girdles a nightmare. That bloody wedding dress she wore was so unforgiving. When I walked down the aisle, I was very aware of my bottom. Thank God she was flat-chested, it's the first time in my life that the producer wasn't asking me to wear a padded bra."
Richardson is self-deprecating about her image. "The entertainment industry is pretty mad in the first place, and people jumping out of the bushes to take your photo is just part of what's strange about it. I'm not anyone special, so what it's like for the J-Los of this world... A few years ago, I was filming The Patriot, and we were checking out of the hotel, and the hotel owner said to me, 'Would you sign this picture?', and offered me these naked images from Lady Chatterley off the internet! All that stuff's out there and I simply cannot bear to look at it."
Today she still regards London's Bayswater as home, but spends six months of the year in Los Angeles (when she's filming Nip/Tuck, her 12-year-old daughter, Daisy, lives with her ex-husband, the film producer Tim Bevan). It takes clever juggling. She admits she has already given most people their Christmas presents. "I'm a bit frightened of myself. I'm turning into Monica from Friends."
In fact she never intended to become an actress. As a tomboyish child she imagined a career in gymnastics, but grew too tall. She was educated at St Paul's School in London until the age of 14, then moved to boarding school in Florida on a tennis scholarship (her father had settled in the US after the divorce), hence her flawless US accent.
Richardson has had a chameleon-like career to date. She started out on stage with the RSC and the Old Vic, then moved into independent films. She won critical acclaim for her superb performance in Nancy Meckler's Sister My Sister opposite Jodhi May (1995). Then came the BBC's Lady Chatterley's Lover, where she was magnificently sensuous, despite filming nude scenes just months after having a baby.
The big budget films that followed - 101 Dalmatians, Event Horizon, Loch Ness, The Patriot - never really stretched her. Then when she turned up for the premiere of 2000's Maybe Baby in a Julien Macdonald backless gold lamé dress, it repositioned her as a desirable single woman but ultimately trivialised her career. And when the tabloids found out she was dating the TV presenter Jamie Theakston, all hell broke loose.
After splitting with Theakston in 2001, Richardson, moved to New York to appear in a Broadway production of Madame Melville with Macaulay Culkin. It was a deliberate strategy to escape her party-girl image. "Getting out of Britain was my way of saying, 'Sorry, this is not me.'" America may also have given her relative anonymity. The British have an endless appetite (omega) for the Redgrave family dramas - from her mother's politics to her father's bisexuality (he died from Aids in 1991).
In 2003 she was offered Nip/Tuck. It was a risk for a film actress to stake everything on an unknown cable TV show. And one senses that her co-stars may not have welcomed an English thesp with open arms. She jokes that her Nip/Tuck co-star Julian McMahon couldn't remember her name for the first year, calling her "honey", "sweetie", "female thingy", although they are now firm friends.
For 18 months she was rumoured to be dating John Hensley, who plays her son in Nip/Tuck (and is 12 years her junior). But now she seems to be solo, enjoying what she calls "my second stab at a certain kind of adult life". The image of single women as Bridget Jones-types, sitting by the phone and counting calories and cigarettes infuriates her.
"I feel far freer and so much more comfortable than I did in my twenties, partly because I was so tall for my age that I could never really play a young girl."
And Wallis is a plum role. Richardson brings a warmth and vulnerability to a public hate figure (the parallels with Charles and Camilla are clear). "She was an enigma. There are so many rumours surrounding her, including her sexuality. Was she nice? Probably not. But I think the myth of her as an evil temptress was partly press invented, and it's not the most interesting part of the story. At 39, a twice-divorced American, she married the king of England - even today it's a good story."
The Duchess of Windsor certainly remains a controversial figure in British history (in 1937, she and the Duke visited Germany as guests of Hitler). "People say, "Weren't they Nazis?", and I have no idea. If they were it was horrendous, but my gut reaction is they went along because, after being exiled, they were looking for any ins, any official duties, that might raise their profile."
For Richardson, the heart of the story lies in the danger of giving up everything for love. "At the end Edward got everything he wanted, but did she? It started out as this great romantic, passionate love but I think that later on she was quite unhappy and incredibly claustrophobic. He was co-dependent, I think he relied on her for everything after he gave up the throne."
Her own marriage to Bevan, co-founder of the Working Title film production company, ended after six years in 1997, when he became involved with the artist Amy Gadney. It was a painful period, but today she says simply, "I've got enormous respect and love for him, he's a great father."
Meanwhile her bedroom scenes in Nip/Tuck have sent a new generation of male pulses racing. No one does sexy gender-bending drama better. Series creator, Ryan Murphy has called it a Brothers Grimm fairy tale every week. Murphy is openly gay and I tell Richardson how much I like the fact that even the male characters constantly have to question their sexuality.
"To be honest I've felt, at times, frustrated by the representation of women in Nip/Tuck," she says. "I think that's perhaps because I'm never on the inside. It's basically a show about men. I think in series three, it's starting to change, the women are becoming stronger, and I thought, 'thank God' because it did annoy me the way every woman is portrayed as weak or angry or psycho and the men seem to be these very well-adjusted individuals, which isn't how I see it.
"I've said all of this to them, I'm not talking out of school or whatever. Everyone gets to say their piece and that's the working environment. The writers do get a lot of stuff from us and they quite like it. That's why the character of Kimber on the show has gone from being a porn star to a successful director of erotic films, and why Julia is suddenly running a spa. I think they realised that the women couldn't all be victims."
In season two, she was joined on-screen by her real-life mother, Vanessa Redgrave, playing Julia's hyper-critical and condescending mother. In a daring plot twist, Vanessa had an affair with Joely's ex-lover, a man 25 years younger. Did she feel protective of her mother during filming? "I was really nervous for her in the second season. But the third season has been a blast. In the scene where we smoke drugs, I swear to God neither of us knew how to use the bong. We've never used one before, so the props guy had to show us. She was much better at it than I was. I started gagging, then I had a simultaneous fit of laughter, and they kept the cameras rolling."
Redgrave is back again for a dramatic new twist this series. "We had a really grim episode to do. It was the first time I actually lost my sense of humour about her, and the blurring of lines between personal and acting stuff. I thought, 'I wish I hadn't asked her to do it.' I won't say what happens but there's a plane crash that she's in and it was just too much for me. I know that she's my mother and this is a TV show, and we're just acting, but she is flying over, and it is just too, too close. It was unpleasant."
They first acted together as mother and daughter in Peter Hall's stage production of Lady Windemere's Fan (2001). At the time Joely was clearly apprehensive about their working relationship. But she says now, "It was very easy and smooth. She blew me away. Even someone as close as your mother, you think you know them so well, but then there are bits of them that you find out about only in a work environment. I suddenly realised, 'This is almost more real for her than moments in real life.' She's so present, whereas normally she can seem distracted. And her work ethic was phenomenal."
On first meeting, Richardson can also seem distracted, brittle even. She asks constant questions, so you have to think on your feet. But as she warms up, and conversation is punctuated by that wonderful throaty laugh, you sense here is a real person. People assume she's a man's woman, I'd say she is anything but. She falls over herself to praise female contemporaries. And, yes, she has an entourage but Team Richardson, from her agent to her regular make-up artist, appear sane.
Later, I watch her in action at the press conference for Wallis and Edward, where male tabloid journalists are obsessed by her weight and her diet tips. She handles it beautifully, resorting to dry one-liners when pushed too far. "What do I want for Christmas? Why, are you going to buy it for me?"
In the film, Wallis is hounded by the paparazzi, a parallel not lost on Richardson. Does she dread returning to England? "I get homesick when I'm away so to be back is great. Also getting older means you don't think about it in the same way as you did when you were 25, when it might ruin your day." What about the obsession with her love life? "You have to try not to buy into it. And," she adds archly, "things have been quite quiet on that front for a long time. So I've had a nice respite, thank you."
'Wallis and Edward' is on ITV, Sunday 18 December. 'Nip/Tuck' is on Sky One tonight at 10pmReuse content