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'I avoid roles where they want you to look like a knackered, sad old bag'

By Daphne Lockyer – The Guardian 26 Dec 2015

Miranda Richardson and I have met in a kooky Notting Hill café whose schtick is Modern Cave Man Food. It’s all activated almonds, probiotic cashew nut cream, mung beans and sprouted buckwheat. Meat eaters need not apply.

Richardson has escaped from the dust and drills and general chaos involved in the basement renovation project she’s commissioned at the house she lives in, just around the corner.

“You can’t pass up the opportunity for a bit of inner equilibrium,” she laughs, knocking back a liquid concoction of carrots, ginger and turmeric that looks, disconcertingly, like ground mealworms, and wrinkling her nose in ways that remind you of Queenie, her brilliant turn in Blackadder. “Although, actually, at the moment, my life is far more about wanting to shake things up a bit.”

Before you jump to the conclusion that Richardson, at the age of 57, is undergoing some kind of mid-life crisis, think again. Age, she says, has nothing to do with it. “It’s more a question of personality and I’ve always been a restless kind of person. I don’t settle easily or like to keep doing the same things if I can help it. Some sort of reinvention is always to be embraced and feels exciting. I like to tinker.”

Richardson has a reputation for spikiness: she has told more than one journalist that she “doesn’t suffer fools” and once terminated a radio interview when she was asked, yet again, why she’d turned down the Glenn Close “bunny-boiler” role in Fatal Attraction. But today she is such good and unguarded company that it would be easy to forget we’re here to talk about her latest project as one of the ensemble cast – along with Aidan Turner, Charles Dance and Anna Maxwell Martin – of the BBC’s glossy, three-part, Christie at Christmas project, And Then There Were None.

The Agatha Christie novel, published in 1939, has sold more than 100 million copies and tells the story of 10 strangers invited to Soldier Island, an isolated rock off the coast of Devon. Cut off, and with their generous hosts Mr and Mrs Own, absent, they are each accused of a terrible crime. When they start dying one by one, it’s clear there is a murderer in their midst.

“It was already a dark story but Sarah Phelps – who adapted it for the screen- has made it even darker,” Richardson says. She plays Emily Brent, a spinster with repressed sexuality who knits copiously while spinning a web of hypocrisy around her. “She’s one of those ghastly people who hides behind religion and Christian morality,” says the actress.

Richardson was the second daughter of middle-class parents, Marian and William, growing up in a four-bedroom detached house Southport, Merseyside. Her mother had trained classically as a singer and her father, a marketing executive, was an alumnus of Balliol College, Oxford. “I think he would have loved his daughters to have gone to university too,” she says. “But that wasn’t for me.”

As a child, she was painfully shy. “But I do remember being able to make people laugh and loving it and then, when I finally auditioned successfully for a place at Bristol Old Vic, a group of us sat around in chairs and we were all meant to deliver the same speech. I couldn’t wait for it to be me. I was sitting there thinking, ‘No, no, no – let me at it!” she says.

After drama school she made her small screen debut in 1985 in Blackadder, and on the big screen the same year in the movie Dance with a Stranger, in which she played Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in Britain. Since then she’s played award-winning parts in Damage, Enchanted April and Fatherland. Most recently she played the eponymous, bucktoothed, Elizabeth Mapp in the BBC adaption of E.F.Benson’s Mapp and Lucia. You would be hard pressed to find anything on her CV that doesn’t meet her own exacting standards.

“Even when I haven’t really been in a position to choose, I’ve always made the choice anyway,” she says. “Going with my gut, is the only way that I know how to work.” This brings us neatly to the bunny-boiling role. When it’s raised, she pushes back her chair and puts her palms to temples in a gesture of despair. “Honestly,” she protests, “when people bring this up it makes me feel I haven’t done anything before or since.”

She is slightly placated by the idea that it wasn’t the turning down of the role but her reason for it that is interesting. “What, the demonising of women? The fact I didn’t approve of it? “ she says. “Yes, that was my reason. I’m sure a lot of people thought turning down that role was crazy and Glenn Close did a fantastic job. But I just didn’t want to go there myself and I don’t have any regrets about that.”

"I’d always have been much more likely to adopt or I’d have been happy in a relationship where children were already present. I suppose I’m just a natural re-homer” The role would doubtless have made her a big Hollywood star, but she can’t imagine having based herself in the US. “Oh, I would have died there,” she says. “This business is lonely enough and in LA it would have been so much worse. It’s a work town and you have to be such a warrior to get by.” She likes her life here and, besides, she is, somehow, quirkily English to her bones. Her hobbies include playing the cello, which she took up a couple of years ago, and being a trustee of the Birds of Prey Centre. She has been obsessed with the latter since she nursed a stricken kestrel at the age of 12. “I was obsessed from that moment and I’m quite a romantic, really,” she says.

She is currently single, but there have been some grand passions in her life. “It might not be happening at the minute,” she says. “But it’s not over. Never say never.” She despairs of modern dating though. “Tinder? What is it? Meeting up with someone with the sole intention of copping off with them. Isn’t that just plain dangerous?” Still, at times it isn’t easy to be single in a world full of couples. “It’s like, ‘You can’t come to dinner on your own. What will we do with you?,’” she says. And being eternally self-sufficient can wear her down too. “I’m not suggesting that being in a couple is the answer to everything,” she says. “But when you are constantly doing everything for yourself it is exhausting.”

As for not having children, she is philosophical. “I do think about it a lot these days, but I don’t regret it. Some women know they want to be mothers from the age of four, but I was never like that. I don’t hate children or anything, I have a goddaughter who I adore, but it always just seemed to me that there were already too many of us in the world. So I’d always have been much more likely to adopt or I’d have been happy in a relationship where children were already present. I suppose I’m just a natural re-homer.” She has likewise taken ageing in her stride, avoiding the cosmetic surgery route, though sympathetic to those who’ve taken it. (“Gravity is so depressing.”) Also depressing is the desire among certain casting directors to age actresses before their time. “There’s an appetite to see you looking a bit like a knackered, sad old bag and I try to avoid those roles’ she says.

She’ll play monsters and comedy sociopaths like Queenie, buck-toothed snobs like Elizabeth Mapp, and now a bible-bashing spinster. “None of these women are glamorous,” she says, “But they all have certain standards, physically and so do I. I don’t do frumpery.”
This she stresses by pulling on a very nice French-cut mac before heading back to the dust and chaos back home.

• And Then There Were None is on BBC One on Boxing Day, 9pm, and continues December 27 and 28