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Interview by William Leith - Sunday April 4th 1999

People say that Miranda Richardson is a difficult, strange person to interview, and, in the nicest possible way, this is true. In an interview situation, she does not behave like other actresses. For instance, she has no prepared interview banter. She does not have a smooth, contrived persona. She does not play the patronising, distant role of the famous actress. She blurts things out. She doesn't mind admitting that she is a stressed and anxious person. At one point, I asked her if she was happy; she just said 'No'. 

I met her in a café. She arrived, slightly flustered, and talked about her cats and her pet axolotl, her garden, her worries about traffic and global warming. The axolotl is 'blue-grey and mottled, like me in the morning'. If she was not being interviewed, she said, 'I'd be panicking under a pile of paper at home, or thinking, "There's something I should be reading!" or "God, I still haven't got enough bookshelves!" Or gardening.' 

She is beautiful, in a very unobtrusive way. She could wear a hat and get away without being recognised. She said: 'I'm busting for a wee - do you mind?' and darted off. Richardson is a shy person; when you meet her, you can see that she is the type of actress who works by hiding inside other people. Famously, she is capable of burying herself so deeply in characters that she, herself, is almost impossible to see. She was eerily convincing as the murderess Ruth Ellis in Dance with a Stranger, and she was so good as Jeremy Irons's horrified wife in Damage that she showed everybody else up, adding to the film's woes. 

Tonight, you can see her camping it up as Queen Mab, a beady, pale-faced witch in the TV movie Merlin. Back from the loo, she said: 'You immediately get blasted by the hot-air dryer. Before you've even got in there. So, there you go.' She is endearingly cranky. Her life, she told me, had been 'a natural progression, no real dips or troughs that I can boast about, apart from a blood disorder aged 10, which would have been life-threatening if I'd lived in any other century but now, but I'm still here, and I didn't become a vet.' As a girl, she had wanted to become a vet. 'But I'd be hopeless, I'm far too squeamish, far too emotional.' 

She has recently moved from south London to west London. Apart from the cats and the axolotl, which she feeds on chopped-up bits of heart, she lives alone. She tells me about slicing the meat up and dangling it in the tank. The most important relationship in her life is 'probably a relationship that I've had, but I'm not going to talk about'. She has experienced ageism in the film world. She does not like Hollywood and its false values, some of which, she believes, are creeping over here. She said: 'You can have a laugh in Los Angeles, or you can weep in Los Angeles, depending on your attitude towards it.' 

Richardson grew up in Southport, Merseyside, which she remembers without affection. 'I was born there. My parents came from Wiltshire.' Of her school years, she told me: 'Apart from a great English teacher, I don't really have a lot to say about going to school there. It's your formative years, but...' Well, they formed you. 'Did they? It's a mystery to me. It's not a particularly interesting place.' She added, in a rather sinister voice: 'Whenever they ask me to snip a ribbon, I don't go.' What was the problem with Southport? Richardson described her life there: 'The sea was permanently out. I remember a lot of stranded jellyfish, and I remember lugworms. Donkeys on the beach. They have a nature reserve, which is nice. The golf links. It's full of golfing millionaires.' One cannot imagine a person who has less in common with Richardson than a golfing millionaire. But was this all? She was not, she told me, awarded a grant by the local council to go to acting school, so she moved to Bristol, where she trained at the Old Vic theatre school. 

I asked her if she was happy as a child. She said, 'Not really. It sounds ideal, a sort of beach childhood. But it wasn't really. I didn't use the beach very much at all.' At school, she was put in the top stream, which made her feel pressurised. Describing herself as a pre-teen, she said, 'Somebody referred to me as a ringleader, which I wouldn't have classed myself as, but anyway, there you go. Obviously some kind of stirrer. Maybe there was a whiff of anarchy there. Nothing violent or anything like that, but just sort of like, "Is this the only way it can be?" ' She's not in touch with any schoolfriends. 'Sounds a bit spooky, doesn't it?' she said. 'But no, I don't think it is.' I wondered if people thought she was pretty, and she said 'no' quite quickly. Why? 'Big,' she said. 'I was big.' Big? 'Big. Fat. Yes.' This, she said, was 'Not very good. No. Not very good.' She still carries around the complicated baggage of the formerly fat; she still feels like a fat person inside. 'I think I've been through periods of my life where I dress like I haven't deserved to live, even though I've not been particularly huge.' At the age of 15, she 'stopped eating for a while. I just decided I didn't like what I saw and I wanted to change it.' Of her current figure, which is slender, she says: 'I'm not a stick, but I'm OK.' 

Richardson wanted to move the conversation towards work. She was worried, she said, that people might find the details of her life, such as the fact that her father was a marketing manager, boring. She tried to pin down her theories about acting, but they proved elusive. She said: 'It's very difficult to articulate, anyway. Some people do it at the drop of a hat, and I don't, because I've never really had a method. Sometimes I deeply wish I had, you know.' She was, she said, 'randomly gregarious'. 

She likes a drink. She is particular about her vodka, favouring Bison Grass. She said she loved working in the theatre, and had appreciated Robert Altman's direction in Kansas City. 'Altman,' she said, 'communicates this fantastic naughty enthusiasm.' When I asked her what it was like to work with Jeremy Irons, she said: 'Pass.' Why is she not happy? The reason she gave is that she has 'general shit detectors out all the time, really. Too much, probably.' Still, she has recently given up smoking, after being hypnotised. 

Of Merlin, in which she strides around haughtily and shoots lightning bolts from her fingers, she said: 'We're talking about wonderful family telly here. There's nothing wrong with that. Let's not go too deep into it. Don't try and overcomplicate it. It's a huge fancy drama and there are lots of great people in it.' She was, she told me, excited about her garden. 'I think gardening's quite good. It can calm you down.' She is thinking of taking a holiday to India, on her own. 

She has no idea what she is going to do next. Before she left, she said: 'When people talk about a mid-life crisis, they start talking in a certain way, as if nothing's going to change from now on. But I hope that you walk around the corner and you get very surprised.' Then she looked at me and said: 'I'm not relating that to me. All right?' 

Merlin is on Channel 4 tonight at 6pm