Insights from the analytical mind of Miranda Richardson were plentiful as I stroked her sleek, immaculately groomed Siamese cat on 23 January 1997. We talked in an atmosphere of apparent calm in her London home – the opposite from her Oscar nominated performance as Viv in the film Tom and Viv.
Alison Oddey: Can you describe the satisfaction you get from performing. What does it give you?
Miranda Richardson: It’s difficult. Film acting is much more to do with moments – whether you’ve got the moments right – than a whole chunk of something. It’s the feeling of being in character and that you are prepared for whatever work you have to do that day, but you are not so prepared that something else cannot happen. It sounds like a contradiction, but you are not so technically bound that you don’t allow other thoughts to come in, and it is what I call ‘ chasing the moment’. The same is also true on the stage, because you don’t know when something like that is going to happen. Sometimes it’s just a feeling of – ‘I could live here on stage, I feel very comfortable. There happen to be quite a lot of people out there, but oh, it’s a nice space’. Time expands when you are there.
So it’s kind of distillation of love in a moment, with all the trivia of life distilled and only the important bits remaining?
Yes, I think that’s true. That distillation is almost like a sort of poetry, that kind of unexpected moment, where you just go ‘ I get it’. but it’s not only you that’s getting it, it feels like all of them out there are getting it, and that you are all part of that. It all happens at the same moment suddenly, and every audience is different. It’s an extraordinary unit out there, which is prepared to absorb what is going on onstage, and there is all this energy being generated, flowing back and forth. I do find some of it quite mystical. I have quite often said that I would love to see a chart somehow of performers’ energy when they are on stage in performance. I’d love to see what people describe as auras and what the energy field is doing at any given moment in a play. I think that would be rather amusing if somebody is supposed to be giving their all, and in fact, their energy is quite dim and they are just very technically and wonderfully producing the goods, and most of us are taken in by that. What is it that makes you want to watch something? What is it that makes one person believable and another person not?
Equally, what drives you and motivates you to continue performing?
It sounds very trite, but sometimes it’s as simple as it’s something I can do. It is my work – it is just different to a lot of people’s. It’s not a nine to five, it doesn’t have the same sort of rules, as well as being kind of random. The other part of it is if you are lucky enough to be engaged on the right project, then it is a sort of need to tell that story, and probably not just you. It’s the team, or whoever is making this film, play or television series. You want to do it to the best of your ability, because you understand and want to convey something about human nature, and it’s trying to be truthful. Those moments are to do with the truth… almost holy, and it’s embarrassing to say that. It’s inspiration, it’s what people on other media have to sit and wait for; for example, a writer may be writing, but not necessarily getting what they want out of it, until a connection is made.
What attracted you to performing?
Well, it was something I could do. When I was quite young I could make people laugh, which was nice and I enjoyed that. It was something that had an effect and I didn’t know what I’d do, some sort of academe probably. It was a bit thoughtless really. I happen to have had quite a good education and so that next step was university, not necessarily thinking about what would happen after that. I had a very good English teacher and I began to enjoy language. It’s a feeling that something worked through you, and that you have a facility for.
So you weren’t preoccupied with thoughts of wanting to be an actress?
No, I wanted to go and do English, and it was a really gradual turning around. I thought I’d do English and then I thought I’d do English and drama, and then just drama. I was gradually whittling it down, and then in the end I went to Bristol Old Vic Drama School instead.
What do you think drama school training gave you?
I’ve no idea. What you want when you come out of drama school is to be utilised. The idea is that you are some finely honed tool and somebody is going to see exactly what you can achieve, using you in all these great productions, and of course it’s not like that. It’s very dissatisfying most of the time. You sometimes get that tiny role and see people bursting with energy and enthusiasm, whilst a lot of the time you feel like you are throwing back on yourself. There are some terrific directors out there, and everybody needs to be directed. Even the really big wigs want to be directed, including the ones with the reputation for being somewhat tartar. It’s exactly what they want, someone to stand up to them, saying, ‘ that’s not right…do it this way…let’s try this.’ That’s the big nightmare: somebody, not out of laziness, but out of perverted respect, thinks that they don’t know how to direct you.
Would you ever turn down if you thought the director wasn’t going to challenge you, or provide you with some kind of learning experience?
I might. It absolutely depends. If it’s a piece I didn’t know (if it’s new, wonderful writing, with experienced actors attached), then you might be able to do it between you. However, if it’s a film, then it’s also got to be the director who has a visual appreciation and knows what they want to do. It’s very hard to know a lot of the time, and it’s a question of trust.
How important is the working process for you?
The process is what you remember, and if the film is good then that’s great as well. If the process is bad, it doesn’t really matter if the film is a deep success, because it’s like that was a sweat, and unfriendly.
It sounds like it’s very important to have a team of people, and a sense of working together.
Yes, I don’t go as far as to call it family, I’m not unrealistic like that. I wish I could in a way – I might get more out of it. For a lot of people, particularly on films, they see it as a sort of surrogate family for seven or eight weeks, chatting to everyone in trailers all the time, but I’ve never really achieved that. I might achieve it with one or two people on location…
Where would you say your performance actually comes from?
I’m humbly grateful to the collective unconscious. I absolutely believe in it, and it’s kind of a fusion of text study and the imagination that is sparked off hopefully by the writing. It can actually be sparked off by anything. I think for that to happen the writing does have to be good, because that is what engages you and then sparks you off so that anything can fire. Sometimes, you just get a mental image of what somebody might look like in one particular shot, and the shot might not be built up like that, but it just gives you a feeling of that person in your head, and you build on that. It feels like a very truthful image of what that person is, and somehow suggests a whole person.
When you are performing, how do you see the audience?
I like not to see them if I possibly can avoid it, not clearly anyway. I don’t mind being aware of bulbs, but I don’t really want to see them clearly. I feel them as a unit, unless I’m shocked out of that by a particular section of the audience being very noisy, or getting up and moving. It’s like breaking a web when that happens. It feels as if it’s a kind of two-way hypnosis. When I first start rehearsing something, I feel that I am in some sort of physical net, which I have to expand, if not break through. It’s not a net in the sense of something negative, just a very slight fold that you can cushion. I certainly feel in film as if I’m being drawn into the camera. On stage, I assume that the audience is willing to be entertained. With my first job in Manchester, I felt very negative towards the audience, I don’t know why. I don’t think that it was that I felt superior. I can remember shouting at them in the wings before I went on.
You were angry with them – for being there?
That implies that you didn’t really want to go on and do it then.
It does. It seems like that, but I don’t know why that was – maybe I wasn’t happy with the process. I think that the audience was fine, so maybe I didn’t like what I was doing and I despised them for wanting to watch it. I look back on the first seven or eight years and it’s still all a blur. It feels like I’m a very different person in a very different life, that I was on another planet somewhere. Not really engaged in anything. I don’t know whether that’s partly due to just youth, or it feels like not being very well looking back at it now. I was not a very well person. It wasn’t the nature of the work I was doing, because it was quite diverse then, but not very satisfactory work. There were a couple of productions that I really enjoyed, which were both at Bristol, where I felt like something was happening and I was progressing. The rest of the time, it felt like just marking time.
When did you leave drama school?
In 1979. I did five years of repertory and stuff, before I did the Ruth Ellis film.
There were lots of promises and expectations around. That didn’t really happen and I don’t know if I would have been able to cope with it, but I carried on with both – film and theatre.
Was doing the film about Ruth Ellis some kind of turning point?
Only in that I hadn’t done a feature film before, and that it was a leading role and all that. I was working very instinctively again, with not much time to concentrate on anything else. I didn’t find it easy to chat around with people on that. I feel that I have to serious about my craft, and yet, should also be light about it. A lot of the time, I don’t manage to be light about it.
You take your work very seriously and you are very committed.
But am I? I don’t know. You talked about research, and I don’t always feel it’s necessary. I feel that the audience is doing 50 per cent of the work as well; they’re willingly suspending their disbelief. Perhaps one of the most obviously researchable people would have been someone like Viv in Tom and Viv. I didn’t spend a lot of time studying medically what might or might not be possible, and I sometimes regret that now. It’s just like… use your imagination. So I am in a sort of fear state really. When I work on something, I am torn between wanting not to be caught out and not wanting to do too much.
What kind of performance challenge did those parts give you?
I had no reference points for Ruth Ellis at all. I was exhausted at the end of that. I was doing everything wrong in terms of looking after myself. With Tom and Viv, I was much more objective about it. It felt like a wonderful work-out really. It wasn’t exhausting or upsetting, because she was the one who was actually expressing what she felt at the time and not keeping it in. Everybody else was being repressed in stuffed shirts, and she was seemingly the healthiest of the lot of them in a way. I took a lot of enjoyment from what she did, forcing people to confront themselves to be truthful. I just felt it was something where I could show colours. It doesn’t have to be somebody who is very active; it can be very subtle and small. Some of the things that I’ve enjoyed seeing have been about tiny journeys in people’s lives that completely absorb you, because of the way that they’re portrayed.
Is performing an extension of your self or selves?
I think everybody is everybody. Everybody has the potential and that’s why something can work; there has got to be some universality there. Your particular circumstances might help you to understand one character better than another in a situation, because of something in your childhood, but you’ve got to be able to produce more than one thing. You’ve got to be athletic, and you’ve got to encourage your capabilities to show as many different facets as possible of existence. I think that I make instinctive choices about work, which hopefully move me on in some way. There have been roles where I have had absolutely no idea how I could do this, but I thought I should – for example in the film Damage. She’s supposed to be x number of years older, and she’s this type of person, or is she? She has to do this, she has to get to this point, and I thought that was something I could tackle. I can’t say exactly how it moved me on, except it probably gave me some more confidence to do the next thing.
Earlier on you said that you likes making people laugh as a child. Did you enjoy playing the queen in the television series Blackadder?
Yes, I did. I think most of what I do has some comic element in it. I do think that if you can do comedy, you can do most things.
Do you like women stand-ups?
I think some people have a facility for it, and others don’t. If I get any sort of sniff of blokery – someone trying to be like a bloke stand-up- then I’m put right off. It’s personal taste – there are people I am very happy to watch and others I just can’t watch. I think we get the best of American television comedy shows. I like French and Saunders. I’ve not seen many people live, and that would make a lot of difference. I wouldn’t want to perform stand-up at all.
What about performing a one-woman show, like Orlando at Edinburgh?
Orlando was marvellous, and at times during that, I was feeling very comfortable on stage – when time expands and you feel very in charge. It’s also lying back on something – very enjoyable- a lovely moment. It’s about the endurance and sustaining something, and the discipline of verse that is challenging – to be able to tell a story clearly through that. Orlando taught me about endurance, and that is not in blank verse, that’s just two and a half hour on stage.
Are there any future projects that you would like to do?
If Martha Geldman was approachable, I would like somehow to represent her life, but I think the ideal thing would be a wonderful documentary about her. I don’t have any particular hankering to play Hedda Gabler or Cleopatra; somebody would have to interest me in the project from the beginning again. Some actors’ life ambition is to play Hamlet … I don’t seem to be like that. I wasn’t particularly doing the classical stuff. Sometimes I felt like I was on a runaway horse. I’ve hardly done any – The Changeling is one. I didn’t join the RSC.
Why was that?
They asked one time, and I was very aware of this trawler net attitude. They weren’t parts that I particularly thought were right for me, so I felt dragged in and I chose not to. Also, I thought that I wouldn’t get any help from the directors. I’m going on an instinct – it may be a misguided one.
Can you identify any key moments in your life as a performing woman, such as the winning or awards?
The trend is not to be churlish about them. It goes back to the attitude about this gift and you shouldn’t kick it in the face. What can awards mean, particularly when you see so many unrecognised talented people? It sets off resentment and competitiveness, with the whole thing feeling contrived.
I can’t help noticing an award there on your shelf
It’s a BAFTA for Damage, which are the equivalent of the Oscars, but I’ve never thought of them like that. Oscars get all the attention. We are allowing ourselves more and more to become Americanised and influenced by all that, but now the BAFTAs have got their act together a bit more, so the staging is a bit grander. I remember feeling more familiar about the BAFTAs than the Oscars, because they are so huge and so ridiculous. The funniest thing is that everything stops for the commercial break. It’s bizarre; the whole thing is a facade in that it all stops for the commercial, and then they have to have everybody back. It’s all show. Key-moments though, I don’t know what to say about them. Certainly, when it comes to awards, I often find it a great downer, because it’s all about nothing. What the hell is all that hoo-ha about?
Having said that, didn’t the theatre critic Michael Coveney give you some incredible accolade?
Yes he did. It was extraordinary and completely unexpected, which was very nice having just come back into theatre and knowing why I wanted to do it. It wasn’t to win awards; I really wanted to work with Robert Wilson. I wanted to explore this other dimension of theatre and I wanted to feel engaged, using every bit of me. Then for him to say that…
Did he say, ‘the most stunning actress of our time’…
It was something like that, ‘ in any medium’, which I thought was coming it a bit really. I hadn’t been on stage forever, and then suddenly it was theatre, film or television. It was there in print, but it didn’t mean anything. It probably put a lot of people’s backs up. You can’t make a statement like that.