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'Spider' star tries new spin

NY Daily News, February 26th 2003
by Nancy Millsl

Miranda Richardson, who has made more than three dozen films and received two Oscar nominations, has a mission:
"I have to change people's perceptions of me," she says. "I'd like to attack the mainstream."

At home, the British actress moves easily among film, TV and radio, with a range from Queen Elizabeth I on the cult TV comedy "Blackadder" to Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf's sister, in the Oscar-nominated drama "The Hours."

But big Hollywood parts have eluded her.

"Miranda is underappreciated in America," director David Cronenberg says.
"Not too many people know her. A face doesn't come up to match the name. That's part of her being a real actress. Ralph Fiennes is the same way. Without 'The English Patient', he'd be in the same boat."

'Spider', Cronenberg's movie opening Friday, could provide Richardson, who turns 45 on Monday, with a similar jolt. Richardson takes on three roles in the drama about a mental patient, played by Fiennes, trying to come to grips with his past.

"My character is primarily a mother, but as the film develops she becomes aspects of the female," she says, trying not to give away the story's twists.
"These aspects are seen through Spider's mind - the boy's mind and the grown-up Spider's mind. He reacts in a very particular way to the discovery of his parents' sexuality. ... He feels betrayed and angry and excluded and abandoned emotionally."

It's a showy performance. "'Spider' exhibits Miranda's range to a tremendous degree," says Ella Taylor, film critic for L.A. Weekly. "She plays to all aspects of her personality. She seems to be able to transform herself into anything."

That chameleon quality is part of Richardson's image problem.

"This past year I really wanted to work hard," she says, "so I did two funny films ['The Actors' with Michael Caine, and 'The Rage in Placid Lake', with an unknown Australian cast], a two-part historical drama for TV ['The Lost Prince'] where I play a real battle-axe, Queen Mary, and a drama ['Falling Angels'] where I play the mother to a very dysfunctional family. None of them are mainstream.
"Now I'd like to do some romantic comedies, but it's a matter of whether or not someone sees me as capable of doing them."

Richardson's Oscar nominations came for playing betrayed wives - in "Damage" (1992) and "Tom and Viv" (1994). In her 1985 debut film, "Dance With a Stranger', she played Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England.

"That's when I first noticed Miranda," Taylor says. "She was spectacular. She has a way of not making her characters too nice. She doesn't rush for the humanity of them immediately. She tends to get cast as super-bitches. She has that feline face. There clearly is something aloof in her."

Richardson is doing her best to dispel that notion.
"I'm not as tough on myself as I used to be," she says. "I used to be a rigorous and marginally unhappy person all the time about what I was doing and what I looked like. I'm softening up a bit. It's taken me a long time to relax and enjoy what I do."

So here she is, trying to open up. Richardson, who is single and won't talk about who she dates, is slender, blond and 5-feet-5, with pale skin and blue eyes. She grew up in the north of England and is not related to Vanessa Redgrave, whose actress daughters are Natasha and Joely Richardson.

Richardson's parents had nothing to do with show business - her father is a marketing executive - but she chose to study at the Bristol Old Vic Drama School before starting at a repertory theater company.

Throughout her career, Richardson has made a particular effort to do comedy, although mostly it's been for British TV. She provided the voice for Mrs. Tweedy in "Chicken Run"

If Richardson likes you enough, there's no telling what she'll do. "I waited for my mother once for half an hour in the guise of an owl sitting on a sideboard - just to get a reaction," she says. "It involved a very long, sloppy sweater, a pair of gloves and a peaked cap.
"That's the kind of focus that makes me do what I do - that I can be bothered to wait that long to get a reaction. And it was a good reaction. She screamed."