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'Coming Attractions'

by Joe Brown, Washington Post - August 20th 1985

Miranda Richardson is not exactly overawed at the idea of becoming an Instant Star.

In fact, Richardson seems a bit peeved with the process and all those people who don't exactly know who she is, but want to be near her anyway, just in case she becomes somebody. Who she is: 27-year-old actress from Lancashire, England, plucked from the provinces for the lead role in the small, film noir-ish "Dance With a Stranger", which opens tomorrow at the Outer Circle.

And this invitation to "Dance" whirled a slightly bewildered Richardson into the British glossies and newspapers, as well as current issues of Vanity Fair, Interview and Details.

"The way I've been explaining it to people, if I had known it was a leading role, I probably would have run a mile," Richardson says, curling up self-protectively on a couch in her Watergate suite. "I thought I might be just one of the team. I really didn't know what I was getting into."

The star-making role: Richardson plays Ruth Ellis, a self-dramatizing, bottle-blond '50s nightclub hostess in London's postwar demimonde -- and the last woman to be hanged in the United Kingdom. "Dance With a Stranger" is a sombre, moody evocation of the events in the sensational 1954 case in which Ellis shot and killed her upper-middle-class racing driver boyfriend David Blakely (played by Rupert Everett), with whom she had formed a mutual -- and mutually destructive -- sexual obsession.

Richardson plays Ellis as a taut, tough, tight-lipped tart, and with her platinum hair, eyebrows penciled into severe angles, Jungle Red lips and nails, the on-screen Richardson looks more than a little like a hard-bitten Marilyn Monroe, a period-perfect '50s re-creation.

So it's a surprise to meet the actress in the '80s -- fine porcelain skin, wide, clear gray-blue eyes and delicate features, sandy blond hair cut short and appealingly mussy.

Trained at the Bristol Old Vic, Richardson was working in the north of England in a repertory production of "The Life of Einstein" when she got the call from her agent, excited about a script he thought "could be written for you."

"He had misremembered something about my background, you see. Not that I'd shot anybody," Richardson says, with a cautioning laugh. "He thought I had come from a similar kind of background, and had bettered myself that way. And that's not the case.

"I think it was probably what I was keeping in rather than what I was giving out that got me the part," Richardson says, hugging a pillow up under her chin. "Because the '50s were a time of repression, with no means for outlet. Ruth's outlets seemed to be sex and dancing, any way to keep herself up high all the time. During the audition I was very tense, felt I was being pinned to the wall. But I must have seemed suitably moody and obnoxious because they kept on asking me back."

And so, with a time-warp make-over and some period study, unknown actress Miranda Richardson became notorious murderer Ruth Ellis.

Or so the British press would have you believe. Richardson isn't buying into it.

"They're trying to say that -- that the part took me over. Of course I'm not a Method actress -- if I was, I'd have had a nervous breakdown, killed someone and have large red marks around my neck, now wouldn't I? In people's eyes you can become the person, but unfortunately then you have to say, 'Yes, but I'm not Ruth Ellis, I can do other things, honestly.' "

Richardson, who wasn't born when Ellis died in 1954, knew little about the Ellis case when she was growing up. "I'd heard about her, and I suppose I thought, 'oh yes, right, neurotic murderess.' Which is probably what a lot people thought. Now I think, oh, human being. In some ways she was very simple. Because I got involved with her character as screenwriter Shelagh Delaney saw her, she's become a complex human being like any of us.

"I don't think [Americans] know about Ruth's story," Richardson says. "And so they may feel frustrated by the film. But Mike Newell the director decided to make the film about obsession, which is something many more people can identify with, rather than a particular period in someone else's history. And as a byproduct, they may have some kind of belief confirmed about capital punishment. I mean, I didn't go into the film for a political reason. But afterwards I came out of the film much more solid in my convictions that capital punishment is not the answer to all our problems."

While researching the part, Richardson read up on the '50s and the trial (Ellis reportedly retouched her roots for her courtroom appearance), watched films and met Ellis' sister. "It's all grist to the mill now," she says. "Meeting her didn't make me change anything in my performance. I think in my head it just made me like the girl more -- seeing her as part of a family, rather than just this name in space. With people who really cared about her. And I mean cared deeply, not like Blakely types."

There are several steamy scenes ("naughty bits," Richardson dubs them) between Richardson and Everett, and working with the British heartthrob was "ah, interesting," Richardson says, choosing her words carefully. "We didn't sort of work with each other; it felt like we were working separately within it. I don't think there was a hostility towards each other, which I'm sure people would like to hear. I think he was hostile to certain things having to do with the project and that just generated an atmosphere. But I think the tension shows up in the film and I think it's probably right, you see, because I don't think those two people had any sort of communication really. And so, unbeknownst to us, it was all for the best."

Richardson says she's "hypercritical" of her own work and claims to be not entirely happy with the way the film turned out. "Bits of it are all right," she says, "but because of my view of it, it keeps my feet very much on the ground."

But what about the critics, the audiences, the glossy magazines? "Okay," she admits. "Not everybody can be wrong."

So, Richardson, who just finished a historical comedy series for BBC-TV called "The Black Adder," in which she plays Queen Elizabeth I, is getting plenty of scripts now, thank you very much. But the scripts she's getting -- she purses her lips, makes a sour face -- are "mostly pornography. Movies with lots of naughty bits. Incest, whatever is the trendy thing at the moment." Then she catches herself playing the world-weary Actress, and brightens.

"I want to carry on doing good work," she says, impressively unimpressed with it all. "I'm not particularly looking for the mansion and the swimming pool. The only luxury I would appreciate is someone to do my tax for me."