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Miranda Richardson: Age is a moveable feast now. We're not invisible

Sunday Telegraph Kate Bussmann, Associate Editor, 13 January 2018

If anyone embodies generation ageless, it's Miranda Richardson. From Queenie to Rita Skeeter via The Crying Game, she has always been there, and always been fabulous. She talks about fame (or lack of it), regrets (or lack of them) – and why she doesn't give a damn about age.

On Saturday 20 March, 1993, Miranda Richardson was on the brink of true stardom. It was nine days before the Oscars, a few days before voting closed. She was nominated for her role as a betrayed woman in Damage, one of three wildly different characters she'd played in major Oscar films that year, including an IRA terrorist in The Crying Game, and a muted, unfulfilled wife in Enchanted April, for which she'd already won a Golden Globe. If ever there was a moment when worldwide recognition as the next Meryl Streep was in reach, this was it.

But that night, she had another honour too: hosting the hugely popular US sketch show Saturday Night Live. And, very deliberately, she decided to shoot herself in the foot. Instead of simply showcasing her comedic talents (as seen in everything from Blackadder to Ab Fab to Harry Potter), she used it to ridicule the charm offensive required by the Hollywood establishment, and performed a song as a hammy, desperate starlet. 'I want America to take me, to make me a big star,' she sang. 'I wanna be a bigger star than Sharon Stone.'

Hollywood took the not-so-subtle hint: she missed out on the Oscar, came home to the UK, and largely, that's where her career has stayed. But just to be clear: the twinkly eyed woman sitting opposite me drinking neat vodka over lunch at a Notting Hill restaurant near the home she shares with two German pointers, a cat and 'lots of outside fish' has no regrets.

To say that Miranda Richardson doesn't care what Hollywood thinks of her is a massive understatement: she doesn't seem to care what anyone thinks about her. And with her 60th birthday looming in a few weeks, that's hardly about to change.

'I've never been a celebrity,' she says, drawing out the word, nose wrinkling in distaste. 'I'm not that material. It's not in my make-up.' For the same reason, she has studiously guarded her romantic life – not one of her relationships has ever been public.

As for that big birthday, she's feeling just fine. 'The way I see it is that it's a year of celebration: maybe trying something new. I don't have a plan yet, but travel will be part of it.' Discussing the phrase coined by this magazine, 'the ageless generation', she is thrilled. 'Definitely! It really is a moveable feast now,' she says, before reeling off 'silly phrases': ''60 is the new 40,' '60 is the new black'...' (She's certainly dressed to reflect that idea, in a Pringle sweater, cropped white-denim Rejina Pyo trousers and lace-up boots bought at a market, with punky Vivienne Westwood earrings framing those cheekbones.)

'More of us are getting to that point and going past it,' she continues. 'And we're saying, 'We're still here! Not invisible!' The demographic is changing: there are more inclusive dramas being made. It feels like we're moving to a different place.'

Case in point: her current ITV series Girlfriends, the latest comedy-drama from award-winning writer Kay Mellor. In possibly a big- and small-screen first, it focuses on the lives of three women in late middle age and all the associated issues, from the menopause ('Have you forgotten to change your HRT patch?' jokes one character) to the pressures of four-generational family life (taking care of ageing parents and grandchildren) to casual but endemic ageism.

Miranda plays Sue, an editor on a wedding magazine who is being sidelined in favour of a younger woman by her boss and lover ('You're no longer relevant,' he tells her bluntly in episode one).

She reunites with two old friends, played by Phyllis Logan and Zoë Wanamaker, when the former's husband goes missing, presumed dead – leaving her in dire financial straits. It's dark and funny, with a definite air of Thelma and Louise about it, and a hint of Big Little Lies. 'I think the more you watch this show, the more you get out of it – there are a lot of layers going on,' she says.

If you're perceived as a viable vixen, and if you're in someone's face all the time, then you might be more likely to be thought of for a role

Her character, she admits, 'is flawed, shall we say' – a polite way of saying vain and quite self-centred: we first see her on a beautician's couch, wrapped in towels, with electrodes on her face. 'Oh, I've done that, absolutely,' Miranda admits, but she draws a line at anything more dramatic. 'I'm too much of a wuss, I'm not into pain. I'm not judging people – that pressure is still around. People end up having facelifts and this, that, and the other, to make them more viable for more things.'

Girlfriends is one of a trio of roles that perhaps represent something of a career resurgence for Miranda. Before Christmas, she starred alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in Stronger, the true story of a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombings. She plays Gyllenhaal's mother; sometimes teetering precariously on the edge of comedy, it's a role that required a broad accent and the ability to play drunk pretty much continuously, all of which she delivered to perfection.

When we meet, she's between shoot days on a third high-profile project: Good Omens, a joint BBC-Amazon adaptation of the darkly comic apocalyptic fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, which also stars Jon Hamm. 'Oh, he is so handsome!' she exclaims, losing all cool. 'You just end up shrugging him off, really, because he's too handsome. I can't even look at him. He probably thought a lot of people were very rude because we just sort of went, 'Oh hi, Jon. Anyway, erm...' He's a very nice person too.'

It's impossible to define a Miranda Richardson role – it's hard even to find two similar roles on her CV, right from her big break, 1985's Dance With a Stranger. She turned down the slew of murderous roles that followed that one (including Fatal Attraction). She was beautiful, yes, but rarely benign: it was Blackadder's Queenie that came next, perfectly showcasing her ability to switch from goofy to terrifying on a hair trigger.

'I would be bored doing the same thing. I've always been ducking and diving, going, 'Oh, you thought I was this? No, I'm doing this now.'' She must be the only British actor alive never to have done Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens or Forster: 'I don't want anything that has baggage attached to it. I don't want to do classic for the sake of doing classic.'

The second daughter of middle-class parents, who have both now passed away, Miranda grew up in Southport, Merseyside ('I've been back a couple of times. There are things about it I like, but I couldn't not leave'), before going to Bristol Old Vic theatre school. Although she wasn't a child actor, she knew at an early age what she wanted to do. 'My sister says I made a pronouncement when I was six: 'I'm going to be an actress.' I have no recollection. I was into horses – well, all animals – John Wayne, westerns. I thought at one point I might direct westerns, having ruled out being a vet or a farmer.'

Her father was a marketing executive and Oxford graduate; her mother had been a classically trained singer. 'She said to me later' – here Miranda adopts a theatrical voice – ''Well, I would never have been good enough.' The fact that she didn't follow through, it's slightly sad to me. Anyway, she was a very independent kind of mum, so we became independent too.'

Miranda never had children herself. I ask whether she thinks she could have had the career she's had and been a mother. 'Even though I think you can have it all – but not at the same time – I just don't think it would work for me. I would have felt so torn, that I would have been letting that other side of my life, my career…' She drifts to a halt. 'If you stop and think too much about any of those elements of life, no one would ever do anything. You have to just plunge in and do it. But you have to have enough… I don't know what it is. Courage?

'I've never been massively motivated in the children department. I absolutely got the point, I know why people do it – they can be utterly delightful. I think one or both parties has to go, 'It's going to be all right, let's do it.' But it just sort of didn't come up. It's so individual, and…' She stops again.

'Everything I say sounds wrong. But the business is itinerant, you're all over the place. And even though the nest is so important to me, I would beat myself up if I'd had kids in that nest. It's bad enough with my animals. I waited years and years until I had the right situation to get them, because it's not fair. But you can't do that with kids. We're meant to have them when we're 19: lots of energy, the right spirit – 'Oh, they're playing over there. Oh, it's fallen over.' Rather than worrying in advance what might happen.'

While Miranda worries about some things – the environment, for instance – her career doesn't seem to be one of them. From the outset, she says, she 'approached it without any feeling of submissiveness, paranoia, any of those emotive words associated with being nice and a good girl'.

Post-Weinstein, she is hopeful that things will change, not just in the way women are treated personally, but professionally. She's been thinking about the number of actresses who simply disappeared. 'You go, 'I wonder what happened to so-and-so…?' or you hear they're still working, but not doing very much. It's usually women. And it will be that they didn't think it was worth it, or they were worth it. And that's horrifying. The stakes in the US are so high. That's why it creates monsters, this business.' As for whether she could have been bigger than Sharon Stone, well, she says, 'That's a different sort of actress. There's always a sexual element. If you're perceived as a viable vixen, and if you're in someone's face all the time, then you might be more likely to be thought of for a role. I never had that sort of confidence, or chutzpah.' But to walk away from it all, when it's there for the taking, that, surely, takes an awful lot of confidence indeed.

'Girlfriends' is on Wednesdays at 9pm on ITV