In her new films Miranda Richardson plays a tart, a saintly housewife,a psychopathic housekeeper and Virginia Woolf's sister. No wonder there's talk of an Oscar nomination. Daisy Garnett meets the actress in New York
What the hell happened to Miranda Richardson? She was often - always - acclaimed as the best, most interesting actress of her generation.
She became famous all at once in 1985 for her astonishing performance as Ruth Ellis in Mike Newell's Dance With a Stranger, which she made when she was just 25 (after seeing it Steven Spielberg immediately hired her for his next film, Empire of the Sun). And of course she is well known and much loved for her inspired comic performances, most notably as Queenie in Blackadder II. She has been nominated for two Oscars: one for her role as Jeremy Irons's wife in Damage (1992) - a film in which she was the only true thing - and the second for her performance as TS Eliot's wife Vivien in Tom and Viv (1994).
In the year that Damage came out Richardson also starred in Neil Jordan's The Crying Game and Mike Newell's Enchanted April. In one she played a lying, cheating, anger-fuelled, sexually predatory IRA terrorist, and in the other she played dear Rose Arbuthnot, who was none of those things at all. At the time, defending her choice to make quality work (back in the late 1980s she turned down the Glenn Close role in Fatal Attraction, and has had to account for it in interviews ever since), she said, 'The most important thing to me is that people love my work. I have nothing against being in films that make money. If I can combine doing the work I like with making enough money to have a nice lifestyle, that's the best possible thing. And to tell you the truth, I think I've got that combination right now. These films were satisfying to do, and they're doing well at the box office.'
Why couldn't Miranda Richardson have been able to say that every year since the early 1990s? Over the past decade she has made respectable choices, appearing in films of great quality and working with people such as Robert Altman, Tim Burton, Mike Nichols, Wallace Shawn, Robert Duvall, Shirley MacLaine, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jim Broadbent. But she has been in a lot of films - some of them potentially good ones that didn't quite get it right: Kansas City (1996) for example, and Sleepy Hollow (1999) - that not too many people saw, and more's the pity.
Now, at long last, she is again in a film that an awful lot of people will want to see: The Hours. The dream team that made it (Stephen Daldry directing a screenplay by David Hare, adapted from a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham that was inspired by Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and is partly about Woolf herself) guarantees an audience, never mind the quality of the finished product. In case that isn't enough, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman star, and the supporting cast includes Ed Harris, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, Jeff Daniels, Stephen Dillane and Eileen Atkins. Richardson plays Woolf's sister, the painter Vanessa Bell.
I speak to Richardson in New York, where she is busy doing television and press interviews to promote The Hours, while on her way to Canada to begin making a smaller film, Falling Angels. We meet, however, on Richardson's own time in her hotel room high over Central Park. We are to talk not only about The Hours but also about Spider, David Cronenberg's adaptation of Patrick McGrath's novel about murder, paranoia and memory.
In the film Richardson plays three characters, all recalled, often in confusion, by Ralph Fiennes's lone and unstable Spider, who spends his days writing down fractured recollections while marooned in a London halfway house. Richardson is, as always, remarkable in Spider, which is a difficult film, and unlikely to be a mainstream hit. Still, Richardson is proud of it, and justly so. Word is she will be nominated again for an Oscar. Wouldn't it be fabulous if she won? 'I did enjoy doing it. I really did,' she says brightly. 'You know, you feel like you are flexing your muscles. Stuff to do. Plus, David is a lovely director because he is so calm. He doesn't like rehearsal, he's just excited to see what you are going to do.' That must be stimulating for someone like her, I say, a blank canvas. 'It is,' she says. 'From the age of four I've always thought I was supposed to know everything. I was always shy about asking questions. So I suppose his way of working felt very normal for me.' She pauses. 'I'm learning to ask more questions.'
This is typical of Miranda Richardson. She speaks in clipped sentences, cutting herself off short, not minding about making herself clear or simplifying her statements. I had read that she practises the art of biting the heads off journalists when they come to interview her, but she is not ratty or cross with me. On the one hand, she is relaxed: dressed in black trousers and trainers, she sits with her feet up on the sofa, and immediately asks me about myself with an easy and curious intimacy. Nor does she have any nervous twitches, at least not physically. No, she sits languidly, leaning back, radiantly beautiful and blond, with that famous skin, those cheekbones and those intense pale blue eyes. But on the other, there are her answers: always concise, sometimes to the point of being meaningless and incomplete, sometimes searingly honest - and also incomplete. Many of her answers are accompanied by laughter, which is high-pitched, frequent and disconcerting.
For example: I ask her how she came to play Queenie in Blackadder II. Was it simply a matter of wowing Ben Elton and Richard Curtis, the show's writers, at an audition? 'Two times in my life people have made connections and I've no idea why,' she says. 'But I'm incredibly grateful to them. I had just done Dance With a Stranger, and somebody called me to audition for Queen Elizabeth. Why? Weird. So that's that.' That's that? That's all I get? I try for more. Did she come up with Queenie's high-pitched, infantile voice of steel in the audition, I ask her, or was it something she worked out with her collaborators on set? 'I remember feeling a little wacky in the audition, so I probably tried something,' she says, trying to be helpful. 'I also added a line and I remember Richard Curtis sitting there saying, "I don't remember that." And that was sort of that.'
See: it is information all right, but it is not very informative information. But she can be candid if she tries. She tells me about the second 'connection' straightforwardly enough, which was when the American sketch show Saturday Night Live asked her to host one of its episodes, after seeing her work in Damage. 'I thought, "Sorry? I don't get the connection" - but what a relief. They pitch skits to you and they gave me a song and I went, "OK," and then you realise just how much you've got to achieve in three days rehearsal and one night of live filming. Still,' she says, 'it was a pretty classy episode. It was when Mike Myers was working there and Adam Sandler.' Is it hard in general, I ask her, finding people to work with who are up to her speed? 'I think I'm always worried that I'm going to come across as stupid or ill equipped,' she says. Really? 'Yes, yes,' she says briskly, and as an afterthought adds, 'Maybe that's what you have to do to make yourself better or something.' Well, I say, her standards are very high. 'Yeah,' she says. 'Yeah.'
It is, of course, not so easy to have and retain high standards if you are a female actor of any age, but particularly if you are over 40. Richardson is 44. I ask her how she deals with the work being so limiting, the offers less and less enticing or forthcoming the older and more experienced she becomes. Because, after all, she can do pretty much anything, and is well known for being something of a chameleon. One critic described her face as being like an 'English sky' because of the way it could express so many mood shifts, and as Richard Eyre - who directed Richardson a number of times at the National Theatre - once put it, 'she has a capacity for being possessed by a character. Even her features change.'
'It is something that affects me, yes, certainly,' she says about the general lack of good roles for women. 'That's why, though I don't want to make a habit of it, I'm more likely to take a smaller role, as long as it is incredibly high quality and the rest of the actors are good.' Like accepting the part of Bell in The Hours? It must be hard to watch Nicole Kidman, a brazen, redheaded Australian playing Virginia Woolf, if she knows that the part should be hers. 'It would have been nice to have been approached, at least, for one of the leads,' Richardson says ruefully. 'I didn't manage to feel settled on that set, really. I was on the back foot for it. I told Stephen how frustrated I was by that. I felt uneasy on the shoot and I wish I'd been on it for three weeks [she was hired for eight days], because it felt pressurised and a bit strange. It wasn't Stephen's fault, because he was cheery on set. It's just I felt not-connected.'
Richardson, though, is a working actor, and her job, to hear her talk about it, does not seem glamorous. When asked about working on location, for example, she laughs. 'It can be very isolating doing this business,' she says. 'I'm not moaning about it, but it is a fact. You swap stories of times spent in ghastly little apartments in parts of the globe going, "Where am I?" It's quite tragic really,' she says cheerfully. 'Like trying to open a can of soup with a penknife. I don't know. That's just one story. But you have not to dwell on it. You have to make the best of it.'
Richardson grew up in southport, Lancashire. Her father was a marketing executive, her mother a housewife and she has a sister eight years her senior. As a child she wanted to be a farmer or a vet, but she knew she'd only cry at an animal's distress, rather than being able to husband it calmly or help it.
Later, when she was 14, a good English teacher encouraged her in her reading and writing, and that led her to study drama at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, but until then she did not burn to act. She nearly went to university to study English, is still a voracious reader and 'dabbles' in writing herself. Is acting enough? Will it sustain her for another ten, 20, 30 years? 'I think so now,' she replies. 'But I was very, very restless a few years ago.' Why? 'I think because I always want more, or something. I don't know. I'm on a quest somehow. Something more and different.' Did something change to make her less restless? 'I just sort of gradually realised that I'm lucky to be doing what I'm doing. It came to me. It's coming to me. That you can change having a negative attitude towards yourself, and the way you do that is by changing your position - shifting the molecules. It's as simple as that.'
Perhaps I am making Richardson sound too gloomy. She is not. She is so luminous she couldn't be. Nothing she says is delivered with self-pity. She doesn't act in an interview at all, doesn't turn on any charm. She is thoughtful and interesting and often funny and she doesn't assume a thing. We are strangers and so when talk gets personal she is perhaps spiky, but when she is on other subjects she is warm and responsive and generous. 'Oh look,' she says, jumping up from the sofa and running to the window. 'These might be peregrines.' A bird of prey is swooping over Central Park. 'I think it is a falcon,' she says. 'Though it feels a bit loose, its flight. They are incredibly muscular, peregrines. Oh please come back,' she begs, before sitting down again. Richardson practises falconry and loves birds and animals of all kinds. 'If I wasn't acting,' she says, 'I would want to be involved in wildlife of some shape or form.' She has a house in the West Country, where her parents are originally from, to which she goes when she is not in London, and where she lives with her two cats, her dog and an axolotl, which is an animal a bit like a big newt, and which is kept in a cold-water tank. She lives alone. I ask her whether she'd like to have children. 'I'm just now getting the point of it all,' she says. 'Completely behind!' Well, I say, it's not like there is a timetable. 'Well,' she says, 'there is. There is.' And of course she is right. She is 44. 'Still, it is getting better now,' she adds with more cheer, though it is not entirely clear to what she is referring.
It is getting better now. After the past few restless years, with luck we will see more of Richardson in the next many. She can be seen in The Hours, playing the sunniest character in the film: 'One in the eye,' she says laughing, 'for everyone who says, "Oh, you're so dark."' And she can be seen three times over in Spider, as a platinum-blond black-toothed tart, as an angelic, victimised wife and mother, and as a Mrs Danvers-type housekeeper.
She is mesmerising as all. What would she like to do next? 'A stomping, big, fabulously written romantic comedy,' she says with conviction. 'Let's put that out into the ether.' Let's.