February 12, 2006|If people know Natasha Richardson at all it seems it's as the titular gun-toting, Stockholm-struck heiress in Paul Schrader's Patty Hearst--a film that came closer to making her a star than the one that was supposed to two years later, The Handmaid's Tale. I myself was vaguely aware that she hailed from a long and storied English industry family, what with her father being director Tony Richardson and mother and aunt being acclaimed actresses Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, respectively; and I knew that she'd married Liam Neeson somewhere along the line, with whom she has two children. But it wasn't until very recently that I started becoming aware of Ms. Richardson more as an actress than as something like a faint suggestion of foreign royalty. The act of freeing herself from her past began with a move from the UK to Manhattan, a few celebrated turns on the Great White Way (most notably her Tony-winning stint as Sally Bowles in Sam Mendes's revival of Cabaret), and now a couple of films (Asylum and The White Countess) that find Richardson's screen work maturing along with her actualization. Yeah, I'm smitten.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: So many of your characters begin in a state of suspension.
NATASHA RICHARDSON: Yeah, that's interesting that you've seen it like that. I'm not saying that you're wrong, just that I've never really thought of it in that way exactly. I am aware that the women that I feel an empathy for, or feel a connection to, are women who are in a painful situation like that--that have difficult straits to navigate through or that have, you know, something like a self-destruct button that sends them howling into the abyss. Women enduring situations that require every ounce of resolve just to survive... I dunno, I am attracted to the darker places than I am to the lighter, frothier stuff and I'm not sure why that is.
Have you given it a lot of thought?
(laughs) I try not to. I do think that it's certainly more challenging to play the dark places. But it's the part, primarily, and on the whole I'd rather play a wonderful part in a movie that few people see rather than a sort of cosmetic role in a blockbuster. Not that I've been offered many of those.
Maid in Manhattan.
(laughs) Yes--you'll have to blame Ralph [Fiennes] for that one. He's the most wonderful actor, a good friend, we thought we'd have a laugh. And no, I didn't get to know Jennifer Lopez very well.
(laughs) Well, I should hope not. Tell me about working with Patrick Marber on the London stage with his Closer.
Well, I was very attracted to the idea of doing a modern play and Marber's stuff was so visceral, really a punch right in the gut. Full-bodied, adventurous, raw--and funny enough, there was the added incentive that I actually did Closer in part so that Patrick would write the script for Asylum for me.
This is right after your run in Cabaret, right?
Yes, and I think that playing Sally Bowles really gave me the courage to take on Marber. After you do Bowles, you feel like you can do anything. She's got to be one of the darkest, more complicated heroines in that kind of theatre, or any kind really. So I had courage and I said to him, "Patrick, you do Asylum and I'll do that part."
Are there as few great modern roles for women on stage as in film?
Well, I tell you that just the great playwrights who write wonderful parts for women are so few and far between, now as they've ever been, I suppose, but I am drawn back again and again to the stage because there are so many older playwrights'--the masters, you'd call them--that are being revived and that, apart from the wonderful actors and directors there, is hard to resist.
Why aren't there more great roles for women being written now?
I don't know. I don't know if it's the nature of a popular medium to be cyclical or if it's something of a deeper problem that has to do with the proliferation of fast culture that makes it less fashionable to grapple with the, what do you call the Big Issues of the time that you had like Chekhov and the like grappling with. The problem, too, is the perception that the major--maybe the only--market for movies now is the young male demographic and that they're not the slightest bit interested in films about "women in extremis." I don't know.
Other than statisticians, who before the '80s even knew what the word "demographic" meant?
Exactly right, but now it's so much a part of the common vernacular of the entertainment industry that you can't imagine a conversation about the direction we're going or our successes or shortcomings without it.
How do you see the paucity of women filmmakers in the United States as part of the problem?
I'm ambivalent about that, right, I mean what you say is true and maybe I should think that way, but I only really think in terms of good director or bad director. People always say that there's never been a woman president, either, and I say be careful what you wish for because you might get Margaret Thatcher. Woman does not necessarily equate to quality.
Yet you're often quoted about the subject of control--and you're instrumental in bringing the Asylum project to fruition. Why not you as a director?
I have so much respect for directors and directing--enough to know that it's a task that might be beyond me right now. I don't know if I'd be any good at it, I'm a very impatient person. I think I'd probably be quite good at the production aspect of it: I'm very good at organizing things, of putting people together and scheduling things and taking care of the practical aspects of complicated projects. But there're a lot of things about directing that would be totally foreign to me. Never say never, right--maybe it's just a matter again of thinking in those terms.
You've expressed your preference for the stage over film--does something feel lost in the translation in the movie-making process?
I don't feel lost in translation so much anymore, especially recently with the parts that I've gotten to do in White Countess and Asylum just in the last couple of years, but I remember feeling that way and I do think that there's a good deal less control for an actor in film than there is on the stage. I have been given opportunities as I've gotten more proactive, perhaps, about the types of films that I'd like--the last several years had been hard in terms of finding roles that I really wanted nor as many as I would have liked. I don't know whether it's luck or circumstances, or just that on the whole people don't come to me first because I don't have a box office name.
|"My parents were the least patriotic people in the world...it's an alien notion to me in my background."||
Richardson with Ralph Fiennes in The White Countess
You confess that you read your critics. What do you think of modern film criticism?
It's a part of the industry now, isn't it? So much of it out there is plot, plot, plot and then a sort of go or don't go, there's no real analysis provided or required and so the movies fall in line. There are a few out there that I find myself to fall in line with more than others, of course, and so I don't condemn the entire professions, just that it doesn't seem to be about a conversation as much as a consumer report. I mean, I don't mind saying that Woody Allen's Match Point is what it is and whatever, but it has nothing to do with British society--not even vaguely in the realm of how anyone in Britain thinks or talks. Culturally, it's completely wrong. I think that criticism can be terrific when it illuminates something like that--puts something in the perspective of articulating what we can't put in terms. And certainly for the smaller films, critics are often the only hope that anyone will see the films. The quickness, the facileness of so much of it, though, is very disheartening. I don't mind the bad review--but I do mind the glib ones.
Theatre criticism is much different, yes?
Yes. Oh yes. It's different in that with the movie, you've done it, you've finished it and there're so many different reviews--but in terms of theatre in New York, not London, that's where I really have a hard time and I don't know how quickly I'll be returning to the stage in New York as a consequence. One review, one person has so much weight, and if it's bad, you still have to carry on doing it... it can be really, really, really tough. In a town like New York where it's just the Times, if they don't like you, it's a failure.
Hard on the adventurous and the little guy, I imagine.
Quite right. I read this article about why there aren't new playwrights and new work being produced. I'm really going to get in trouble now, but where's the NEW YORK TIMES' responsibility in all that? You wonder why there's not new, daring stuff, but it's not a right-to-fail town because when a theatre goes up, or a show, and a writer knows that he's going to live or die by this crapshoot of whether or not one person likes your work, well, that really doesn't foster a positive environment for creative experimentation, does it? It's horribly unwelcoming to risk-taking because, in essence, you live or die by how well you can predict how this one person will like and, thus, support your work. This is your whole career in this guy's pen.
From Stella to another Stella's sister in a stage production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
(laughs) Yes, Blanche is the better character. I love, love Williams in particular. He wrote better for women, maybe because he was really writing for gay men--but he writes characters that I really understand. Understand more than the women characters probably in any other work that I've ever read. The pain and the contradiction; the light and flesh and blood--yeah, and marvelously funny, too, such wit in his plays that is lost a lot now because they take it too seriously as part of the "canon" of serious culture. But he's so bawdy and earthy, you know, so wonderfully self-effacing and funny, too.
You've done a few films based on books by British writers, directed by U.K. talent--is that a conscious effort to support that industry?
No, no, I think a lot of it has to do with being at the front of English awareness a lot more than I am here and so they come looking for me a little bit more. It's all about business, really, isn't it on so many of these decisions at least on some level, but Asylum aside, I'm not really a part of the British film industry and I can't claim any particular allegiance to it.
And yet you moved from England to establish residence in the United States. Were you trying to escape that legacy to some extent?
Yes, I think so. In England they think of me as the product of something where here, to whatever extent that I am, I'm just who I am. When I moved, definitely, I felt a sense in New York an appreciation of who I am and not who my family is--my parents were not the most interesting thing about me. They might have been a footnote here, but it wasn't of primary interest where in England you know, I'm still not able to be free of the Redgrave tag; I'm still dogged by it. That being said, Asylum, I was proud of the fact that it was an Irish director and an English novel and that it took seven years of hard, dedicated work to get made: an English/Irish crew.
Pride in what sense?
Hmm, interesting. Let me answer by saying that my parents were the least patriotic people in the world. They instilled in me no sense whatsoever of patriotism--it's an alien notion to me in my background. I think in terms of the golden mean, of who's doing the best work. I want to work with directors whether they're Chinese or Brazilian or American rather than being concerned about flying the flag for England.
Is that tied in with your choice of characters that try to escape their labels, their "tags" if you will, and often to little or tragic success?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I tell you that I hadn't actually ever taken a moment to try to see if my roles were leading somewhere or not in a grander scheme, you know, to assess how much of myself was in each of the women I played. I thought the opposite, really, that I chose the roles because they appealed to me, not that I brought something to them that was so personal as to change their substance.
Perhaps you didn't. It's possible that the roles appealed because they were, at that moment, insights into yourself. The heiress Patty Hearst, for instance, or the Handmaid, or poor Zelda Fitzgerald, or your Tennessee Williams heroines...
And it all leads up to Asylum, doesn't it, with her sexual awakening and her desire to move away from her legacy and what's expected of her, consequences be damned. I love Stella, you know, that character became so personal to me in, I suppose, just the way that you suggest she was, but I will say this about myself that I don't have that self-destruct button primed and at the ready. I understand why some people do say "fuck it" and throw themselves off the parapet, but here's this woman in a very class-constricting, socially-constricting society with no room for expression of any kind. And the nature of all repression is that it leads to explosions.