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An act of defiance - Miranda Richardson interview

Scotland on Sunday - Published Date: 20 July 2008
By Chitra Ramaswamy

MIRANDA Richardson has played betrayed wives and infantile queens, terrorists and terrorised women. She had long, claw-like nails bonded on to her fingers to become Rita Skeeter in the fourth Harry Potter film, and morphed into Vanessa Bell for Stephen Frears' The Hours, though if there were any justice she would have played Virginia Woolf and wouldn't have needed Nicole Kidman's prosthetic nose to nail it either. As film and theatre director Richard Eyre once pointed out: "She has a capacity being possessed by a character. Even her features change."

There is something about Richardson's uncanny ability to make a mini masterpiece out of just a few lines, a smile or a withering look. She can do English rose, repressed schoolmarm or psychotic shrew. And she is ageless, too, with those high cheekbones, piercing eyes and mouth that can appear full or pinched depending on what's required. Stephen Poliakoff has described her as having the sensuality of Helen Mirren and the formidable quality of Bette Davis, while David Cronenberg claimed she is under-appreciated in America, though "that's part of her being a real actress".

In terms of the breadth of her range – think of Blackadder's Queenie and then the middle-class wife and mother who loses everything in Louise Malle's Damage – she is closest to Meryl Streep, or perhaps Maggie Smith. Even in supporting roles, which is sadly too often where Richardson can be found, she can steal a film.

Yet, for all this, the twice Oscar-nominated actress doesn't much like talking about her craft. "It's a difficult subject to articulate. What people often don't realise is that it can be very boring, very frustrating, and all the things that a day job can be," she says in that unmistakable clipped voice, before firmly adding, "and I don't need any sympathy." I wasn't offering it, but Richardson often pre-empts responses. Or downright disagrees with them.

I'm fascinated by her lukewarm attitude to her profession considering her remarkable on-screen rigour. She seems to show more passion when talking about her love of animals. She has a home full of cats and dogs, and fish in her garden pond; she practises falconry, and when she was growing up in Lancashire wanted to be a vet.

Yes, Richardson is something of an odd fish but this is precisely why she makes such a compelling actress. She does impenetrable unbelievably well (on screen, as well as off), and finds people's obsession with wanting to know everything irritating, alarming even. This is why she dislikes interviews so much, because "we are obsessed with the minutiae of people's lives and destroying any kind of mystery. People are essentially mysterious and I don't think there is anything wrong with that". It is "this notion that we're special" that she finds so distasteful about her profession, which explains her reticence discussing it.

Richardson is a guarded and sometimes defensive interviewee, though she is also a consummate professional. Her directness is refreshing, sometimes intimidating and sometimes very funny. I joke that spending the day talking to the press is probably not her ideal way of passing an afternoon and get a stern, two-word response: "Crack on." She gets exasperated with me as though she is the teacher and I'm the foolish pupil. Asking her who she would pick to play opposite her in a romantic comedy, she moans: "I don't bloody know! You cast it."

She can also seem quite skittish and unsure of herself then, all of a sudden, switches to pull-your-socks-up pragmatism. "What people are looking for is someone who can get to an emotional point," she says of her acting. "Not everyone can do that, or it takes them longer to get there. As far as I'm concerned it's just acting. Some people make more of a song and dance about it than others."

Her latest film is Puffball, the first in 10 years from Nicolas Don't Look Now Roeg. Adapted from a Fay Weldon novel, in many ways it's a companion piece to his most famous film. Following an architect (Kelly Reilly) going to rural Northern Ireland to rebuild an old house, Don't Look Now's star Donald Sutherland even pops up, and there is as much weird sex and bizarre supernatural imagery as you would expect, unfortunately coupled with a complete dearth of atmosphere. Overall it's a mess and, not for the first time, Richardson's performance is by far the best thing in it.

She plays a local farmer's wife who is desperate to get pregnant but has been told she is too old to conceive. "I don't know that she is that troubled, that intense," she says of her character. "I love Nick's work. He's also my neighbour and we've talked about working together on a number of occasions. This was one of the possibilities that came good."

She has a lot of interesting work coming up. "Have I?" she demands. "Tell me." I mention Caitlin, another biopic of Dylan Thomas's relationship with his wife (following The Edge Of Love) in which Richardson has the titular role, with Michael Sheen rumoured to be playing the Welsh poet. "No, it's not going to happen," she says. "I assume it's because another one was being made at the same time. Difficult to get money for both." That must be frustrating? "Not necessarily. Depends how good the script is." She is, however, playing the Duchess of Kent in The Young Victoria, alongside Mark Strong and Jim Broadbent, and recently provided the narration for a touring dance theatre piece.

Richardson has always made interesting, often unconventional choices. Most famously, she turned down Glenn Close's role in Fatal Attraction, pronouncing it "crap" and "regressive in its attitudes". She is sick of this subject, however, and wishes the press would just let it go. "I'm bored, I'm bored!" she sighs. "I think there probably are opportunities that could have been... but I probably don't even know what they are. It's bad enough that after Dance With A Stranger (her first film, in which she played Ruth Ellis, the last woman in Britain to be hanged] suddenly all you were offered was knife wielders and gun wielders. It's just very narrow-minded."

She would love to do a romantic comedy but says it's not likely to happen. "Nobody is writing stonking romantic comedies," she says. "Nothing that isn't Hollywood requiring another 22-year-old."

She is now 50 and is as up for playing varied roles as she ever was. Richardson is an actor with genuine integrity, someone who takes minor roles if they interest her enough, avoids stereotypes "like the plague" and only takes a job if she believes in the script. This has meant that her best work has tended to be outside the mainstream.

"It (Hollywood] is very formulaic," she says. "I think ultimately you find it frustrating. As you get older you maybe get better at challenging it, but there are so many pen pushers who want their two-penny worth. It doesn't really have a great deal to do with an individual's integrity."

Richardson now lives in London full-time, having sold a second country property because she wasn't using it enough. She likes reading, watching superhero action movies and westerns, and walking around the capital.

She lives on her own, notwithstanding the dogs, cats and fish. "Often your schedule is early, or late, or just all over the place," she says, matter of factly, as I try not to make sympathetic noises. "It's quite difficult to organise constantly being with somebody along those lines. They have to be very understanding." So, what's the best part of living alone? "You make your own agenda," she says. Which would do just as well as a maxim for Miranda Richardson the actress.