There she was, just a few seasons of rep behind her, hailed at 26 as a new star who would join the acting greats. It was heady and overwhelming and after it she needed to come back down to earth.
Treading the boards of a half empty theatre on a chilly winter night in the north of England is guaranteed to remove any traces of false pride.
Miranda Richardson is back in the theatre for the first time since she gathered the critics’ superlatives for her portrayal of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to hang in Britain, in the film Dance With a Stranger. Her vehicle is Edmond, by the American writer David Mamet, which has just finished a season at the Newcastle Playhouse on its way to London. Newcastle audiences were shocked by the language and the theme. Mamet, author of American Buffalo, is running true to form.
Backstage, Miranda Richardson takes off her make-up and tries to unwind. She has been playing a highly charged scene as an hysterical waitress attracted by violence.
She is slight and seems frail with a pale, finely featured face. She looks at you intently. Her hair still suffers from the peroxide bleach for the blonde Ruth Ellis and is now a light shade of ginger. She laughs a lot and occasionally sighs. She is nervous about her return to the stage but the chance of working with the director, Richard Eyre, on a new Mamet play was not to be missed.
“What is so comforting is that everyone is equally important. We are all responsible for holding the play together. It is different in films. I felt very alone when I was making Dance With a Stranger. I was quite ill afterwards. Your body goes into overdrive during the time you have to concentrate and then it collapses.”
Yes, the role of Ruth Ellis has haunted her. “What affected me most was reading the post mortem. The discolouration and the internal injuries were apparently normal in a death by hanging, but it was horrific to read. I think it was important to know.”
The part provided a pass key to other films. “A lot of scripts came in about a harlot who turns into a panther, which I turned down, and eventually I got a part in The Innocent, a film about an epileptic boy growing up in a small village in Yorkshire in the 1930s”.
There were also two television adaptations of books by Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart, which is to be shown on ITV on December 22, and The Demon Lover, and a horror film, shortly to be released, called Underworld.
She remembers wanting to act from the age of four, though other ambitions intervened, like being a vet or a film director. “I know that the responsibility a film director has is not something I want. I chose acting because it is something I could do. I was introduced to Shakespeare at school and I couldn’t get enough of it. I love words and I had a creative writing phase from the age of 15 to 19. I wanted to write and illustrate children’s books, and I may still do so one day.”
After leaving the girls’ grammar school at Southport, Lancashire, she applied to Bristol University to read English Literature. She had slipped in an application to train at the Bristol Old Vic. If the drama school accepted her, would she go there? asked the university. She replied that she would and she did, so that was the end of her university place.
“I got my Equity card as assistant stage manager at the Manchester Library Theatre, and then moved to London where I had a fairly bleak summer doing telly adverts. I had six months in the West End in a play called Moving, then went back to rep in Derby, Lancashire, Leicester and Bristol.
“There were some good parts - Hazel in Savage Amusement, Honey in Whos’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and the Actress in Insignificance. I was playing Bertrand Russell, of all people , in The Life of Einstein in Lancashire when I got a call from my agent to audition for Ruth Ellis.
The director, Mike Newell, was looking for an unknown so that for the audience it would be Ruth Ellis rather than a familiar face on the screen. In Miranda, he sensed a wired-up quality, a feeling for danger.
The film has greatly changed her life, though she has just become a first time owner of a maisonette in Forest Hill where she lives with her Siamese cat. Her only exotic pastime is falconry. “I know it sounds very posey, but I love falcons. I’ve done a couple of training courses, but I don’t keep one. It wouldn’t get on with the cat.”
In Edmond she has two small parts, that of a fortune teller and a peep show girl, and the larger one of Glenna, a waitress Edmond picks up at a café. Connie Booth plays the parts of Edmond’s wife and the manager of a massage parlour. Mamet, one of America’s leading young playwrights, deals with restless and rootless people, who are motivated not so much out of a dream of winning as a fear of losing.
“There is tremendous music in the play and such economy of words. The characters’ roles are mainly symbolic. It’s like a Pilgrim’s Progress. Edmond is Mr Ordinary - except that he rebels from his ordinary life of marriage and discussions of light fittings over the dinner table.”
Colin Stinton, who earlier that day had been throttling Miranda on a bed, popped his head around her dressing room door and said it was time for dinner. They were celebrating the birthday of one of the cast at a posh Newcastle restaurant.
When the meal was over, Miranda Richardson started building a column of wine glasses, one balanced on top of another. It looked dangerous but was perfectly thought out. Just like her acting
Edmond opens at the Royal Court Theatre (01-730 1745) on Tuesday.