The Oscar-nominated actor is about to star in both TV comedy-drama Girlfriends, and alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in Stronger, a film about the Boston Marathon bombing. She talks about working with Weinstein and why she'd love to return to SNL.
'I'm not known as a commercial babe,' says Miranda Richardson, matter-of-factly. 'But actually I thought, well, why the hell not do this for a minute, and see if I can hack it?' Richardson is talking about her upcoming primetime ITV comedy-drama Girlfriends, the latest from Kay Mellor, which follows three lifelong friends as they navigate their 50s together. But we're also here to talk about Stronger, a weighty real-life drama about Jeff Bauman (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombings. Richardson is a tour de force as Jeff's mother, Patty, a meddling, needy drunk who struggles to let go of her son. The film is picking up some Oscar buzz.
'Well, everybody's doing everything now, as we know,' she shrugs. 'I've always thought of work like that. And because we don't have a thriving movie industry here, you've got to move about a bit.' To say Richardson, 59, has moved about a bit is an understatement. She's one of the most acclaimed British actors of the past four decades, with extraordinary range. She has been nominated for an Oscar, won two Golden Globes, been in Hollywood blockbusters, daft-as-a-brush British sitcoms, indie films, prestige TV, an avalanche of theatre, hosted Saturday Night Live and found time in between to learn how to train birds of prey, for which she has had a lifelong love.
Today, after sitting down to watch Girlfriends with the cast and a handful of journalists, she's on fine form, chatty and candid, and with her shaggy blonde hair and black patent jacket, she has the look of a 70s rock star, a little Chrissie Hynde, a little Deborah Harry. Her reputation as an interviewee is that she can be frosty, and she certainly has a no-nonsense briskness to her, but it is more charming than evasive. In fact, she is a lot easier to talk to than I had imagined. 'Why?' she snaps, suspiciously. Well, in some interviews I've read, you have come across as a little curt. 'Well, they probably asked me questions I didn't want to answer. I think I'm perfectly friendly!'
Stronger is based on Bauman's memoir of the bombings and his subsequent recovery. Richardson quickly mastered the Boston accent, but didn't get to meet the real Patty until late into filming. 'She kept not quite being able to get there,' she explains, tactfully. It is often said that convincingly acting drunk is difficult, and there isn't a moment in Stronger where Patty is sober. 'I think she's topping up,' she says. How hard is it to pretend to be sloshed? 'I'm going to have to disappoint you, because there wasn't much talk about it. We just did it, and I had to trust that it wasn't too much.'
Stronger's smartest undercurrent hints at how we turn victims into heroes, and even celebrities; Bauman is asked to pose for selfies with admirers, and his discomfort is palpable. 'But if he doesn't do it, does the mob turn?' asks Richardson, who has an uneasy relationship with fame herself, and is not one for selfie requests. 'The moment you say: ‘Actually, not tonight, chum,' you're a mardy bastard.' She smiles. 'I like saying ‘mardy bastard'.' She usually offers a handshake, instead of a picture. 'And they go: ‘Why?' That's a bit weird. For me, it's civilised! I don't want a picture of me with my gob hanging open on Facebook or whatever it is.' I take it you're not on Facebook? 'I am not on Facebook. And I don't tweet. I don't do any of that. I'm probably missing out on worlds of adventure.'
In Girlfriends, Richardson plays the glamorous, self-involved Sue, a woman of a certain age – which was the show's working title – who has dedicated her life to her job on a bridal magazine, only to be cast aside when her boss and lover, played by Anthony Head, decides she's too old to be useful. Part of the show's appeal is that it is led by women and is about women, although she feels that stories about women have become broader on the whole, in recent times. 'And it is relatively recent. Whereas before, somebody who's 50 in a movie, either it would be said they're 50, or they would be the dowager duchess, or the chatelaine ... French cinema has not been as insulting, perhaps. But you either have to have a sexually voracious nymph or a cougar, or the mother looking on to the next generation. Things are much more mixed up now, and I like that.'
We start to talk about 'the conversation' – the one around women in the public eye that has changed so dramatically over the past year. 'It's astonishing that we're only just having the conversation, but then it just shows you how women have just dealt with it themselves, whatever ‘it' is … I'm lucky enough not to have been in a really tricky situation. But there are situations where I've gone, ‘Taxi! I'm out of here. I don't need this.' And that's always a comfort. It may mean that your bank balance isn't good, but if you don't want to be there ... And I realise, talking with girlfriends of my age but also younger, that everybody's different. It's easy to say, when you hear about the situation, ‘I would never have gone up to that room, just common sense would tell me'. But not everybody thinks like that. And it's not because they're stupid. [They] might be infinitely more trusting, or something. Who knows what the individual situation is. But I'm lucky.'
Was it common knowledge about Harvey Weinstein? 'Yes, but not specific knowledge. It's the specifics that are the important thing. So there were rumours of rape. He should have been put away years ago. And still hasn't been put away. But that's a gut feeling, without specifics to back it up.' Will it change the industry? 'I'd love to think it would. There is a way of operating in a climate of safety and relaxation, where you get good work out of everybody. I mean, the turnover in the Weinstein office, of staff, was legendary. And I dealt with girls in their office who were running scared. And God knows what that fear entailed, but they wouldn't be there the next time. I know I went into the New York office to take a phone call, and there was nowhere I wanted to sit in that room. It was a room that reeked, is all I can say, of after-hours sex. I remember I had to do this phone interview and I picked up the phone like this' – she pinches her thumb and finger together, as if disgusted – 'and I held it away from my ear, like this, for 20 minutes. I went into some bathroom and I literally sanitised my hands. Get me out of here. I can only tell you, that is the visceral reaction I had to going into this room. And I don't think I'm making it up.'
Did it make you not want to work with him, with Miramax? 'I only really worked with them when they bought a film and distributed it. I never had to work with them as producers, which I think would have been even worse. Of course, they were huge film enthusiasts, [with] a genuine love of film. And that's why people continued to work with them. They could make or break your film.'
Richardson has occasionally been spoken as if she's accidentally ended up as a character actor or a supporting actor, rather than the A-list leading lady she might have been. But it sounds as if she had her time in that world and didn't particularly care for it. When she hosted SNL, in 1993, she kicked off with a bombastic showtune begging America to love her.
'That's what you have to do to get an award, so it was an eye to that,' she explains. 'It's completely tongue-in-cheek.' It seems as if the idea of Hollywood has, ultimately, never been all that interesting. 'I wasn't hanging on America's every word as a child. Yes, I watched Champion the Wonder Horse, and things like that,' she says, but she never harboured that childhood dream of going where the movie magic was made. 'And when I was asked to do SNL, I went: ‘OK. What's that?'' Nevertheless, she had a blast. 'Oh my God, it was fantastic. I'd like to think it might happen again. But I don't know when.'
Right now, she's working on Good Omens, Neil Gaiman's TV adaptation of the novel he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett, playing Madame Tracy, brilliantly described as 'a psychic medium and a part-time courtesan'. 'Yes!' she laughs. 'Sex worker, I think they call it. They don't gussy it up. She's actually rather sweet. And [the TV adaptation of Gaiman's] American Gods is fantastic, I love it,' she says. But she is looking forward to finishing what has been a 'relentless' year. 'I do like being busy, because then you earn your downtime. I must go out and see some stuff.' For work? 'Work and life. I think everything is grist, otherwise you're just endlessly repeating yourself.' And few could accuse Richardson of that.