It is said she has a face like an English sky - turning from spring rain to summer sunshine to leaden grey in no time at all. And Miranda Richardson has certainly made the most of her intensity during a career that has seen her master comedy, terror and tragedy. On screen she has a remarkable way of channelling intensity and eccentricity into her characters, usually women walking a fine line between despair and control.
No-one is better than this 39-year old Lancashire-born actress at delving into the emotions that can unhinge people, then playing with them in front of the cameras. She did it so well depicting the edgy murderess Ruth Ellis in Dance With A Stranger, the betrayed woman in Louis Malle's Damage, the tragic Vivienne Haigh-Wood in Tom And Viv, and last year in Robert Altman's Kansas City she played a woman escaping alonely marriage in a bottle of dope. And yet it is for her wickedly infantile Queen Elizabeth in Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder TV comedy series that she is still best known in Britain. In Robert Duvall's The Apostle, in cinemas from June 12, Richardson has one of her most low key roles in years. She plays a secretary who has a gentle romance with Duvall's guilt-ridden Pentecostal preacher.
A very private person away from the film set or stage, the actress is remarkably pale and unassuming in person. Her eyes give away that characteristic flicker if she finds a question awkward. There's no mistaking that a very able brain is busying itself behind those blue eyes. "I mean, it's constantly busy up here," she says, pointing to her forehead. "But I can't answer how I come across to other people really."
Richardson has consistently done good work, and part of the reason must be that she likes to surprise audiences. "The old definition of a star is someone who is comforting. You know exactly what you're going to get from them. I don't know if people ever know what they're going to get from me."
She is usually sent any half-decent scripts going because of her reputation as one of the finest actresses around. "I've been working long enough now to have some choice, which is fabulous. Working mainly in England I'm used to working between genres so I don't feel any stigma. "I also love comedy because everything is a challenge," she adds. "Comedy, if you get it right, feels really satisfying. I think if you can do comedy well you can do just about anything."
Richardson had a middle class upbringing in Southport, the daughter of an Oxford-educated businessman. She established an early name for herself in theatre and television before breaking through into films in 1985 with Dance With A Stranger. She isn't sure how she came to be an actress. "Perhaps a lack of good judgement," she smiles. "I had a hell of a start with Dance With A Stranger, it was a fantastic part to be able to begin with." "I like the vagaries of filming. You can try a scene again and again. In theatre you have to wait another night to be able to have another go at it. I do like the sort of immediacy of film."
For many people, her most visible role was as an eccentric Queen Elizabeth I in the television series Blackadder. "It was her infantilism that I so enjoyed," she says. The wickedly unhinged quality of that character only fed into a public image that the actress has been battling with ever since.
The Hollywood studios appear to be a little unsure what to do with her talent for playing women walking the difficult line between scorn and edgy sensuality. Not wanting to feed too much into this, she turned down the sinister role taken by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. "I know some people think I'm difficult, sort of distant and cold. Sometimes I'm simply scared, so I'm misunderstood. I'm actually shy, like most people, but I'm willing to take chances."
She likes to keep a relatively low personal profile, carefully guarding her privacy, living as she does quietly in South London with her two cats. "To relax I do some gardening and read a lot. I don't watch a great deal of television. That's probably it. I also sporadically run and use this thing that was set up to help injured dancers. Instead of using weights you use this frame that makes you resilient. * It's a kind of fusion of mind and body. I also do yoga."
She now says that writing is a possible new direction for the future, but adding - characteristically modestly: "I'd love to think so, but thinking about it is one thing and doing it is another. I would love to have a really passionate idea, but it hasn't quite happened yet."