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Voices -- Natasha Richardson, 1963 - 2009

March 18, 2009 |  6:00 pm

Note: The Daily Mirror went into the archives for this 1993 interview with Natasha Richardson, who was badly injured in a skiing accident.   
Update: Richardson has died in New York.

Must Be Something in the Genes

Natasha Richardson--a specialist in off-center American roles--upholds the Redgrave family name in her rapturous Broadway debut

January 24, 1993

By PETER MARKS, Peter Marks is a staff writer for Newsday

NEW YORK -- Natasha Richardson is not, she insists, hiding behind her sunglasses. A case of conjunctivitis in her left eye, exacerbated by all the crying she is called on to do through the four acts of "Anna Christie," has driven her to this cliche of stardom, for which she expresses deep remorse.

It seems, nonetheless, a perfectly fitting disguise, for Richardson, sitting smartly in the bar of the Algonquin Hotel in a smashing black miniskirt, sipping Perrier as her thick brown hair brushes her neck, could easily pass for a jaded glamourpuss. She certainly has the pedigree for it: star of artsy movies and highbrow television; offspring of one of the world's most famous theatrical clans; wife of a prominent British theater producer, Robert Fox, himself the member of a celebrated acting family.

But there is no churlishness or egomania flashing on the corner couch by the doors to the Oak Room. There are only good manners and the appearance of humility. When Richardson is told what people are saying about her performance in the title role of the classic Eugene O'Neill play, she glances at her publicist from behind tinted frames, scrunches her shoulders and affects a look of pleasure mixed with terror.

"It's anxiety-producing, but it's so thrilling to me," she says of her Broadway debut. "Now that I'm based here in New York and working in this city that I love, it just gives me a big kick. To be working on Broadway, it's--I know it's boring to say it, but it's an incredible experience."

The experience has been all the more gratifying because of the reception the play is getting, a production that had its origin in the imagination of Richardson herself. The Roundabout Theater production, co-starring Liam Neeson and Rip Torn, opened this month to glowing notices for the direction, the ensemble--even the set--and especially for the 29-year-old Richardson, who, teamed with Neeson, was hailed as a revelation.

Newsday described her performance as the tough-but-vulnerable Anna as "complicated and captivating," while the New York Times said the actress is giving "what may prove to be the performance of the season." The play has been extended at the Criterion Center through Feb. 28.

"Anna Christie"--the story of a tormented young woman who, after a lost childhood in the upper Midwest, arrives in New York City for a reunion with her Swedish father (Torn) and a liaison with a strapping Irish sailor (Neeson)--is not one of O'Neill's most oft-performed works. It is both slighter and lighter than most of O'Neill, best known for darker plays like "Long Day's Journey Into Night." Richardson, however, knew it well, having played Anna two years ago in a well-received production at London's Young Vic. From virtually the day the run ended, she had been trying to remount the play, with a new cast, in New York.

Richardson had been negotiating with various nonprofit theater companies to stage the play when, about a year ago, Todd Haimes, Roundabout's producing director, expressed an interest. "He said, 'I want to do it with you.' That was just fantastic," she says. "I will forever be in his debt."

Neeson, who recently appeared in Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives," had been Richardson's first choice to play Mat Burke, the lug who steals Anna's heart. "I think O'Neill wrote that part for Liam Neeson," she says.

"I read the play three years ago. I just couldn't put it down," Richardson adds in her soft London accent. "I fell in love with Anna. Few parts are written for actresses with this sort of range. And it seems to be speaking to audiences here in a way that it didn't in London two years ago. I don't know if it's because the girl is from such a dysfunctional background--it has the ring of truth to it. I just feel for her--her anger and her loneliness and her pain.

"You see Annas every day on the streets of New York, with nothing, and just desperately trying to survive, with everything she owns in two suitcases. And still, she makes the decision in the play to tell the truth. I admire her courage."

It is the sort of quirky, complex role Richardson is turning into a specialty. Lately, in fact, she has made a career of playing fragile, off-center American women. Earlier this month, she starred with Maggie Smith in a highly acclaimed PBS production of Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly Last Summer"--yet another neglected minor classic--as Catharine Holly, the wild-eyed deb with the horrible secret (and the fabulous 15-minute soliloquy). Before that came other women on the edge--the kidnaped heiress in the film "Patty Hearst"; the rebellious handmaid in "The Handmaid's Tale."

Aside from a knack for regional American accents--she talks fluent Minnesota for "Anna" and New Orleans for "Suddenly"--Richardson's affinity for a culture other than her own appears to perpetuate a family pattern. While her parentage is resolutely English, neither of her parents fit in well in English society. Her father, the late film director Tony Richardson, always hated England, she says, living for years in self-imposed exile in Los Angeles until his death from AIDS-related causes last year. Her mother, actress Vanessa Redgrave, has an even more complex relationship with the mother country, having spent most of her life in political fringe groups at war with the Establishment.

For the daughter of one of the greatest stage actresses of her generation, classical roles would be almost a birthright. (Natasha's sister, Joely, has also followed her mother into the family business.) But though Richardson trained at the prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama in London, she says that she did not do a lot of Moliere or Shakespeare as a student, and that she has no burning desire to perform a definitive Medea. "I don't have 10 roles in the classical repertoire I want to play," she says.

It may have been an act of rebellion. At one time, in fact, Richardson bristled at the inevitable comparisons to her mother. Physically, she is a more delicate version of Redgrave, the powerful, angular features softened and refined, but with the same graceful neck and piercing eyes. Artistically, she has been successfully carving out her own identity, which seems to have given her more self-assurance. She expresses regret now at not having worked with her father but appears open to working with her mother, given the right opportunity.

"To be honest, I've shied away from working with my family. You're so sensitive to the charge of nepotism." Eight years ago, she says, she had her first and only experience in working with Redgrave. Richardson was playing Nina in a production of "The Seagull" in England, when her mother replaced Samantha Eggar in the role of Madame Arkadina.

Having a legend for a mother is one thing, but facing her onstage night after night is quite another. It was "scary," she recalls. "The first day, I was suddenly aware that I'm on the stage with this overwhelming actress. It made me want to run and hide."

Although she inherited her parents' love of performance, Richardson seems not to have absorbed either her father's loathing of England or her mother's political extremism. In person, she has none of the gritty edginess she projects onstage. But she has assumed the role of the outsider nonetheless.

"Do I think of myself as English?" she asks, mulling the question as she flicks the ash off her cigarette. "I don't feel very English. I don't. There are things that I love about Europe, but I find with American people there is an energy and an enthusiasm you don't find in Europe. I respond to that."

Sitting in the Algonquin stirs old memories for the actress, who fell in love with New York on her first visit here, with her father, at the age of 14. "The first time I came to New York, I stayed in this hotel with him," she says, surveying the famously dowdy lobby. "For me, growing older and spending a lot of time here, the rose-tinted glasses came off, and I saw all the dirt, the grime. But coming here is still heady for me. It gives me a lot of energy and hope."

Richardson liked the city so much that two years ago, she bought an apartment in Manhattan, with a view of Central Park. Although she says she makes her home here, it's not a place where she spends months on end--except during the run of the play. For her, Manhattan remains not quite real, a bit of a playground. You know this is the case when she explains that she does not even mind paying her electric bill.

She feels in sync with the city, and now that her play is a hit on Broadway, she believes that she has conquered another hurdle. What comes next is not clear. "I am thinking about 'Anna Christie' at the moment," she says, adding that maybe she will do another film, though she has no particular deals in the works. Despite the problems with her eye, things seem to be looking up for Richardson.

"I've got a lot to do," she says, swirling her Perrier. "I just want to work."