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Miranda’s Singular Life – an audience with an acting great

Sunday Telegraph - Stella Magazine - May 2009
by Marianne MacDonald

As well as being the finest actress of her generation, Miranda Richardson is also jolly good fun, despite reports to the contrary. So why is she on her own? She mulls the issue – and more besides – with Marianne Macdonald.
Miranda Richardson is supposed to be spiky, tense, guarded, aloof – an introverted child grown up and got brilliant, the Oscar-nominated star of Dance with a Stranger, The Crying Game, Sleepy Hollow, The Hours and, most recently, The Young Victoria, in which she plays the queen’s conniving, fragile mother. This is how she is mostly portrayed in a sheaf of interviews spanning 20 years. Which is weird, because the Richardson I meet is great company and not difficult at all. Down-to-earth, unselfconsciously helping herself to my wasabi and drily teasing me, the woman who is arguably the country’s best actress is mostly just very funny. ‘Mmm?’ she asks when I tell her everyone I’ve spoken to in the past three hours has been impressed I’m about to meet her. ‘Who’s that, then? Are they married? Would they like to make themselves known?’ She sits back with a whiff of amusement.

At 51, she is pretty and young-looking, with her gleaming, unlined cream skin, wide blue eyes, and plump lips covered in pale pink lipstick. She is not, I should say, a member of the Richardson tribe; not a sister of the late Natasha. ‘Though I have been mixed up with them in the past,’ she concedes with a trace of boredom, ‘by people who haven’t done their research.’

You can see how the actress’s honesty and dry defensiveness could be misinterpreted. Her humour is imperceptible on the page; it comes out of her matter-of-fact delivery. ‘Don’t push your luck,’ she observes, making me giggle, when I urge her not to sit way opposite me at the huge table in the bar of the Royal Court Theatre in London. When I remark that it’s nice that acting is so clubby, she cries: ‘Well, those are the things I don’t like!’ She genuinely has no idea if she is famous. ‘It’s a shifty, turny thing, to quote Stephen Fry,’ she says. ‘You can be in a supermarket, and 18 people will do a double-take, and you’re like this‘ – she puts up a hand to shield her face. ‘Or you go for weeks and nobody bats an eyelid.’

Richardson is at the Royal Court to rehearse Grasses of a thousand Colours, a new play by the American actor/playwright Wallace Shawn. It traces a man’s inner journey as he recalls the significant people in his life. Richardson play one of his exes, and the lead is played by Shawn. ‘Don’t expect too much elucidation!’ Richardson warns when I ask what it is about. ‘And that’s not to be mysterious and it’s not to be withholding, or any of the things that people might think. This play is like a dreamscape, and at times very, very poetic. It deals frankly with a load of subjects – human nature, nature itself – and asks if you can ever really know somebody.
‘There are significant people in his life who come through, and the report of these people may not marry up with how they actually are, and we all know that one! And a lot of it’s very funny, which is what I like, too.’

Richardson is known for her ability to portray a vast range of characters, including her comic turn as execution-happy, infantile Queenie in the television series Blackadder. In films she has often played neurotics – Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain in Dance with a Stranger (1985), TS Eliot’s wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood in Tom & Viv (1994) and the outrages betrayed wife Ingrid Fleming in Damage (1992). The latter two performances won her Oscar nominations. One critic observed that she did breakdowns better than the AA. ‘Well, I don’t know,’ she says in her dry way. ‘You’re telling me I’ve done lots of angsty roles. I don’t feel like the roles were the same at all. I think you might be called upon because you have access to certain things in a certain way that seems right for … I just think I’m a working actor. Bristol Old Vic, where I went, had a workmanlike attitude. It wasn’t a star vehicle, it didn’t turn out anyone too cocky.’
I tell her I liked The Young Victoria. ‘It rattles along,’ she concedes. ‘I got turned into a villainess, which wasn’t the brief. That annoyed me, because I think people are always more complicated than that. This is a real person we are dealing with, and I feel somewhat of a responsibility to this person. And she may not have been the best mother in the world but there will have been reasons for her doing what she did.’

Childless herself, though she talks fondly of her goddaughter, Richardson has never been married. Indeed, she has been single for long periods in her life and almost never mentions her relationships in interviews. She was linked, aged 27, to writer Richard Curtis, but says he was just a friend. She said once that whenever she had been in love it had felt more akin to illness, ‘the cold water down the spine anticipating what might go wrong.’ Although guarded on the subject of boyfriends (she is also rarely photographed socially), she has said more than once that she is open to marriage and never ruled out having a family. ‘I’m single at the moment,’ she says. ‘But I’m always on the lookout! It gets trickier and trickier as you get older. Because you either perceive yourself as being set in your ways, or the timing is hideous, or you’re available or somebody else isn’t.’

Does she mind being on her own? She smiles. ‘Sometimes, yes!’ I tell her about a girlfriend of mine in a long-distance relationship. ‘I’ve done geography,’ she muses. ‘How many years is it? Three? That’s a good test.’ I tell her that when they first met, they talked for five hours straight. ‘Oh, lovely!’ she cries warmly. ‘That’s like a fantasy!’ But she must meet a lot of people, travelling all the time? ‘No,’ she says. ‘You meet actors! Wouldn’t touch them with a bargepole!’ Why not? ‘That’s obvious! They’re travelling around and meeting people all the time! They’re a lot less stable than female actors, so, no, that’s a bad idea. I think it would have to be less conventional. I don’t have time to be with somebody all the time, 24 hours a day.’
But she seems happy. ‘I’ve got no mortgage, so that’s quite helpful,’ she says. ‘I think this is a nice place to be in my life. I don’t have to travel for a bit, I’m discovering this play, it’s a playwright who I love and admire, it’s a building where I’ve had happy theatrical experiences, and it’s spring!’ What was the worst time of her life? ‘The worst time of my life? Everything passes, so …’ She thinks. ‘I’m quite philosophical, really. We were performing to Mike Nichols because he came in to watch a rehearsal the other day, and for some reason the subject of being in your twenties came up. I said, “I don’t remember having any fun in my twenties.” He said, “Me neither.” Someone else said, “Me neither!” It’s that old thing of not knowing what you have when you have it. In my twenties I remember being terribly fraught and beating myself up all the time.’

She helps herself to a nut. ‘I was talking to Wally [Shawn] about mad trust today – talking about being known, not in a professional sense, but being known in one’s life, one’s relationships. The mad trust that the person you’re relating to could be feeling something the same as you’re feeling. And there’s the mad trust of being in a production and it’s a new play and trusting that people are going to go on the journey with you, and not come at you with cudgels. You’re allowed to play and find things and every time you do that you risk looking like an idiot, but you have to do it, if you’re in a rehearsal room. And someone will say – in the gentlest way possible, hopefully – if they don’t like what you’re doing and why.’
Is she good at exposing herself? ‘Not really! But I think I do it all the time.’

I ask what she would do if she had a sunny spare day. She considers this good-humouredly. ‘I have my dependants: my dogs to walk. I have two dogs, two cats and a lot of outside fish. Yeah! I would probably not go out for breakfast, I’d quite enjoy sitting in the garden in Notting Hill pottering. If I move that there or that there – painting my garden, as it were. And time spent in bookshops is never wasted. It’s trance space, like meditation. I think the trick is not to feel guilty. Try not to feel – if you’re not doing anything – that you’re wasting time. I’m the one who always goes, “Fallow time, fallow time, it’s very important!” Some days I’m good at it and some days I’m beset with anxiety and guilt.’

Does she worry about the next part? ‘Not enough, probably! That’s probably a blessing. I worry about all sorts of things. I think I must be used to that element of risk!’

Growing up, she was an isolated child, with a sister, Lesley, eight years older, who is now a chiropodist. Their mother, Marian, had left school at 14 to work in her father’s bakery; she wanted to be a singer but remained a housewife. Their father, Alan, who had won a scholarship from his state school to Balliol, Oxford, worked in marketing in Liverpool. Richardson would get up at 5am to go walking on the marshes near their home in Southport and watch the birds of prey.
She didn’t make friends, but befriended the animals in the area – the milkman’s horse, the neighbour’s Alsatian – and today is ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund for the Protection of Animals.

She always knew she would leave Southport. ‘God, no!’ she cries when I ask if she keeps in touch with school friends. ‘I’m not one of those people who stay in touch.’ Even if she likes the people? ‘Now or then?’ She shrugs. ‘It was another life; I sort of knew I wasn’t going to stay there. And maybe quite a lot of people have stayed there. Some people get their big world in a different way. They stay in the same place. I think about that a lot. Tiny journeys, But just as full. Or, possibly, fuller because we’re all dashing around.’

We talk about sharing a private emotional journey with someone in a relationship. ‘I think that’s a primal need,’ she says. ‘And some people get it some of the time and some people get it for all of their life and some people get it for none.’

She spoke many years ago of how she merged with her characters, following that lonely childhood spent in a vivid private world. At school there was a girl called Judith she tried to become, because she admired her so much. ‘She was the class favourite,’ Richardson says, ‘and I thought, “What’s that all about? Why are they all gloming on to her”’ Maybe because she had self-esteem? ‘Yeah, maybe she was at ease in her skin; that’s a very attractive feature.’ I say she’s probably a housewife now, while Richardson is world-famous. ‘I’ve no idea,’ she says.

I ask if she still has that ability to merge when she acts? ‘I don’t know. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything, that’s what I feel about it,’ she says in her straightforward way. ‘And then I beat myself up because I don’t feel like I’m doing anything and so nothing can be happening, can it? But then people go, “Oh, it’s happening, it’s happening.”’

She looks up. By now the bar is full and noisy and a good-looking man with grey hair, trailed by his son, has come up to say hello. He sits down. She smiles with pleasure and I pick up my tape recorder. For all her supposed spikiness – which I didn’t see – I think she is probably soft-centred. It may be the secret she’s worked so hard to hide.