Miranda Richardson could be forgiven for not knowing who she is these days. In her new films - Spider which opens at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle tomorrow and The Hours which is set for release on February 14 - she plays a tart, a saintly housewife, a Mrs Danvers-style psychopathic housekeeper and Virginia Woolf's sister.
She is also set to play Queen Mary in the new BBC One drama, The Lost Prince, which starts on Sunday. This royal is a world away from her other portrayals of famous monarchs, most notably the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland and Elizabeth I - better known as Queenie - in Blackadder II. Where the latter were loopy and infantile, Queen Mary is inhibited and emotionally repressed.
Miranda laughs when this is pointed out. "I've played a lot of queens in my time. They're probably all bonkers, but there is no other common link. They're all totally different characters."
Characters are something Miranda does well. One critic once described her face as being like an `English sky' because of the way it can express so many mood shifts. And Richard Eyre - who has directed Miranda a number of times at the National Theatre - has said, "she has the capacity for being possessed by a character. Even her features change."
The 44-year-old actress became famous in 1985 for her portrayal of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, in Mike Newell's Dance With a Stranger. Since then she has gained a towering reputation, playing a lying, cheating, anger-fuelled and sexually predatory IRA operative in the Crying Game, closely followed by dear Rose Arbuthnot in Enchanted April. And in the early 1990s she earned two Oscar nominations, first as Jeremy Irons's wife in Damage in 1992 and then as the clinically insane spouse of poet TS Eliot in Tom and Viv two years later.
But Spider, which was chosen as the Official Selection at Cannes last year, is probably one of her most taxing projects. The film, which also stars Ralph Fiennes, is the story of a schizophrenic and the world as seen through his eyes. Although Miranda is not eager to give away too many details of the three characters she plays - who may or may not be figments of Spider's imagination - she will say: "I did enjoy doing it, I really did. You know, you feel like you are flexing your muscles. "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."
It was this excitement which drew a young Miranda to acting. It is often wrongly assumed that Miranda is related to the Redgraves - that the director Tony Richardson, who was married to Vanessa Redgrave, was her father. But she was born in Southport, Lancashire, in 1958, and is the youngest of two daughters of a marketing executive and his homemaker wife. Hers was a traditional, middle-class upbringing with no particular bent towards the theatre. Indeed, as a child she recalls she wanted to work with animals and favoured becoming a farmer or a vet.
But when she was 14, her English teacher at Southport High School for Girls encouraged her in reading and writing and the young Miranda found herself drawn towards drama.
"She was a wonderful person," Miranda recalls. "I am not particularly academic, but this teacher encouraged me dramatically, and when we read plays in class she would always give me the great roles. "I used to make people laugh a lot when I was about five, and liked that feeling, so perhaps that was an early indication of where I was going. From about the age of 10, I would go to see anything at the corner cinema near where we lived. "I loved John Wayne films, Richard Harris films, and anything with Glenda Jackson ... but it didn't matter what the film was. I'd go anyway."
At 17 Miranda enrolled at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and made her London West End debut in 1981 in the drama Moving, and her first TV appearance in the comedy series Agony. The actress with the famously high cheekbones, commanding drama-trained voice and fine blond hair, has not stopped working since.
The Lost Prince, which also stars Sunderland-born actress Gina McKee, Tom Hollander as King George V and Michael Gambon as Edward VII, looks set to be another memorable role for her. As always, she immersed herself in research for the part of the often-maligned Queen Mary for the Stephen Poliakoff drama which tells the little- known story of Prince John, whose short life spanned one of the most momentous periods in history - the political build-up to the First World War and the machinations of European royalty in the early part of the 20th century. Miranda heaps praise on writer-director Poliakoff.
And she says she emerged with a more sympathetic idea about Queen Mary. "When people hear I'm playing Mary, they say, `Wasn't she a dragon?' But I've learnt from my research that she wasn't just a crabby old bag. "She may never have laughed in public, but that was because she was shy. She felt she wasn't able to express her emotions in public."
Miranda too, has a reputation, for being famously private. Opening up on screen is one thing, seeing her inner most thoughts printed is another. She practises a sport of kings - falconry - and loves birds and animals of all kind. She has a house in the West Country and one in London, where she spends most of her time and lives with 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.
Miranda travels extensively for her work, and has never publicly referred to a romantic partner. "It's hard," she says. "It's difficult to keep in touch with someone when you're moving around all the time. "I've decided that you can have it all, but you can't have it all, all of the time. And sometimes you have to cut your cloth according to what you have."