"Haven't I met you somewhere before?"
On being ushered into Miranda Richardson's salon for her last appointment of the day, the first question from anyone's lips is, somewhat disconcertingly fired by the actress in the direction of your correspondent. Eschewing the obvious opportunity for a joke about opening gambits, I mumble something about a meeting in the bar of the National Theatre purposely neglecting to tell Richardson that yours truly was attired in button-down white shirt an green bow tie, and our tete-a'-tete involved the passing of liquid refreshment from one side of the counter to the other. Miranda Richardson certainly has a memory for faces. Either that or she likes to get her inquisitor on the back foot tout de suite.
In the latest in a string of remarkable performances, as Vivienne Haigh Wood in director Brian Gilbert's British period film Tom & Viv, Miranda Richardson displays yet again why, at the age of 36, she is one of the most acclaimed and sought after actresses on both sides of the Atlantic.
"It's a great part, agrees Richardson. "I find it very funny, irritating sympathetic... victim and victor. She's a well-rounded character, and I thought it was a story that should be told."
The woman who has fashioned startling successes out of such divergent roles as the smouldering murderess Ruth Ellis in Dance with A Stranger; the lethally schizoid IRA hitwoman in The Crying Game and the Oscar-nomi-nated wronged wife in Louis Malle's otherwise pedestrian Damage now stars alongside chisel-faced American Willem Dafoe - who impersonates T.S. Eliot right down to imitating the Anglophile poet's strange speech patterns ("I didn't have a problem with it at all. I thought it was, and I know this will be misconstrued, a brave decision") - as the literary legend's star-crossed first wife. A vivacious, free-spirited socialite, Viv was accused of "moral insanity" by her doctors and eventually committed to an asylum in 1938 with the complicity of both her brother and her husband.
In reality Vivienne suffered from a chronic hormonal imbalance result-ing in a wildly irregular menstrual cycle that led to stomach cramps, headaches and mental disturbance, a condition only exacerbated by an ill-prescribed cocktail of intoxicating medication. Richardson sees a resonance for contemporary women in Vivienne's tragic fate; "To a certain extent what is wrong with her, she feels, is a failure in herself. It is her body that let her down. It is her fault. I think an awful lot of women can still relate to that. It's like taking the blame first on themselves: 'It must be me.' I think women still do that today very easily."
Though Richardson has now almost cornered the market in strong yet flawed women close to the edge, and in conversation conveys an impres-sion of intelligent seriousness, comedy has also played a very important part in the success of her career to date. Her portrayal of Elizabeth I in Blackadder as a dotty and wilful schoolgirl with a penchant for lopping off heads on a whim provided a superlative comic foil to Rowan Atkinson's world-weary cynicism in the title role. More recently she made a welcome return to small-screen comedy in an episode of the hugely popular Absolutely Fabulous. She confides that her approach to her celebrated characterisations is rather prosaic, avoiding the kind of esoteric introspection or hysterical angst that one has come to expect from the "actor as artist".
"It's text-based, dawn from all kinds of sources," explains Richardson "I haven't explored the Method. I don't work like that. I don't have difficulty shedding a character. In fact, I'm the one who doesn't actually believe I'm in it when I'm on set."
Richardson's replies are all carefully weighed and politely delivered a voice retaining only the faintest traces of her Lancashire lass origins, while her pale but exquisite features - framed by the boyish hairstyle she currently sports - rarely break into any animated emotional display, save for the occasional wrinkling of her brow in moments of concentration. In fact, perhaps the most telling expressions to emanate from Miranda Richardson are the small sighs which occasionally preface her responses, though whether they are born of fatigue, ennui or the effort of studied consideration, its hard to say.
For someone not given to verbosity, however, Richardson shows a gen-erous lack of reticence when it comes to offering the names of other actors she admires. The list includes Ellen Barkin, Holly Hunter, Tom Hanks Robert Duvall, Bruno Ganz and, of course, Willem Dafoe. Mostly American actors, though she maintains that she will not follow the recent trend of the younger crop of British stars and set up shop in Hollywood or New York: "I don't know who they are," she insists.
In fact, the Forest Hill-based actress conveys a great sense of level-headed realism. Her delight in last year's Oscar nomination - which, along with the phenomenal success of The Crying Game, has left her a force to be reckoned with on the international stage - is tempered by a healthy dose of British scepticism.
"You have to keep your feet on the ground. It's a wonderful buzz and a great game. I'm not against it, but you have to have a sense of what it's about also. You have to be your own best critic and hang on to what you like, your own taste, really."
Even so, she is pragmatically aware of the positive aspects of the media circus that is the Oscars, and relishes the idea of future nominations and awards to come.
"It would be a buzz, it would be a tremendous kudos thing, and good for the continuance of a film career, feeling like OK, you've got to that point - what does that mean? A reassessment kind of point."
This kind of success puts Richardson in a luxurious position enjoyed by few actors of being able to remain choosy about her projects, though the much quoted story about her turning down the role in Fatal Attraction that eventually went to Glenn Close may be just a little apocryphal.
"Listen, I can't even remember if it was an offer," sighs Richardson. "I know I read the script and I know I didn't want to do it. If it was an offer - me and whose army, you know? Now it's very fashionable to say, 'Of course, I was offered that ten years ago.' Well, however this comes across, I've always felt that I have had choice. So I'm trying to hang on to that."
Questions of choice may loom large in the immediate future career of Miranda Richardson, but a recent Sunday paper feature intimating that her next personal choice might be one of marriage is vehemently refuted. "Oh it was appalling, it was absolute crap," she fumes. "It made me look like a half-wit, and I couldn't make head nor tail of any of the quotes, quite frankly."
So what is her real position with regard to matters matrirnonial? For the first time in the afternoon, Miranda Richardson assumes a distant, dreamy manner, offering a tangentially cryptic reply which precludes any further ventures down this avenue: "Oh I'm not engaged. No, I'm not engaged..."