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SKETCHING MIRANDA

Thu Dec 19,12:12 PM ET
By Simon Houpt

She's an intense actress both on screen and off, but playing Virginia Woolf's sister in the new film The Hours at last lets Miranda Richardson lighten up, SIMON HOUPT discovers

NEW YORK -- In the realm of supporting film roles, some are more supportive than others.

The new star-studded adaptation of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours boasts a cast so thick with talent that the word is some of the leading ladies may be bumped to the supporting category in the coming Oscar race to relieve the pressure in the main female acting rank.

It's unlikely, then, that Miranda Richardson will be nominated for an Academy Award, though her character is certainly one of the most supportive in the film. She plays the painter Vanessa Bell, the older sister of Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) who, in the straits of frequent depression, casts shadows over all who foolishly stray into her atmosphere. When Vanessa visits Virginia at her house outside London she is unnerved by her sister's brittle, alienating behaviour. For Richardson, who is usually the one playing alienation, Vanessa represented the chance to offer something a little more relaxed on screen.

"The brief, if you like, was to be sunshine and light," says Richardson, 44, leaning on a hotel boardroom table and doodling to pass the time. "To be 'blissful mother, free spirit,' with the same independence of spirit as Virginia but trying to bring a shaft of sunlight into this rather dank life. Checking up on her and then being glad to get away. Sort of like: There but for the grace of God go we . . . because it's impossible to fulfill what Virginia needs."

In the film, Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway reaches down through the 20th century to affect a frustrated housewife (Julianne Moore) in the 1950s and a successful editor (Meryl Streep) in the late 1990s.

"I think the brilliance of Virginia Woolf's writing," begins Richardson, pausing to consider her answer, "is that actually what you're relating to is a human condition, the difficulty of existence, which on any given day can strike you, more or less. Today we maybe feel fairly good about ourselves, and that we're doing something which we think is important, and in a flash it can be undermined by -- who knows what? Failed synapse in the brain or in [Woolf's] case running depression, clinical depression."

A conversation with Richardson is a live illustration of that tentative nature of existence. One moment, she is happily distracted from the present as she describes the gardens she maintains, a small one at her home in London and a much larger, rambling landscape at her rural home. Then in a flash she seems beset by self-doubt, as if she has just caught sight of herself in a mirror and can't believe others might care about anything she has to say.

With a smudge of envy, she speaks of the controlled, minimalist performance by the child actor who plays Julianne Moore's young son in The Hours. "He seems to know more about acting than the rest of us!" she cries suddenly. "He's got the Zen of acting, how not to do anything. He doesn't do nothing, but he's got tremendous restraint. He's just effortless. It's what you're aiming for, and it takes a lifetime!" She laughs nervously.

Then there's that odd fact of her slippery accent. Born in Lancashire and trained in Bristol, Richardson has been itinerant much of her life, moving not just from role to role but place to place, including many spots in Canada to shoot films such as Swann, the creepy new Cronenberg pic Spider and Fallen Angels, which is currently shooting in Regina from a script based on the Barbara Gowdy novel. She slides sideways from one accent to another like Madonna with a hangover.

Richardson's uncertainty means she comes across as tight, insecure and fatally unable to laugh at herself. When it is lightheartedly suggested that her doodles might be sold on eBay if they were left behind for the hotel staff or stray reporters to pick up, Richardson snaps, "No," as she rips a sheet off the pad and stuffs it into her purse. She doesn't seem to realize it's a joke.

At one point, she takes personal offence to the suggestion that she sometimes plays characters who could be seen as psychologically unbalanced, such as her blazing feature debut 17 years ago as the murderer Ruth Ellis in Dance with a Stranger, or Vivienne Haigh-Wood in Tom and Viv, the wife of T.S. Eliot whose hormonal imbalance caused her to be moody and often cruel toward her husband. Are they "mad?" The question is met with stony silence and more doodling.

Want to see the difficulty of existence in action? Richardson is talking about her belief in the collective unconscious as a source of inspiration for her acting. "It means getting into a state of relaxation where you allow thoughts to occur, where your imagination can fly and you can empathize with any given character in any situation," she explains, now drawing horses asses on her doodle pad. "If you're in someone's brain, if they're being given expression, I think it is possible for them to exist. From the time we've been on the planet, all human experience should filter through. I think we all contain everybody."

Her shoulders fall slightly. She is already deflated. "It's just my naive belief," she says without sounding like she believes it any more.

A moment later, Richardson is packing up her doodles when she turns around, half apologetically, with a faint hope of offering an uplifting close to the conversation. "I hope you got something halfway decent," she says.