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Natasha Richardson – Late in the Evening

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Natasha Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave star in "Evening."

Natasha Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave star in “Evening.”

Natasha Richardson

Late in the Evening

by Jay S. Jacobs

In Evening, Natasha Richardson plays a difficult role, that of an adult daughter watching her mother slowly losing the fight for life. The part is probably doubly heart-wrenching for the actress because her own mother – screen legend Vanessa Redgrave – plays the elderly woman coming to terms with her mortality and her lost opportunities.

If there is any such thing as acting royalty, then Richardson applies for the role. As just mentioned, her mother is an Academy Award-winning actress. Her husband – acclaimed Irish actor Liam Neeson – also is an Oscar nominee. Her father Tony Richardson was a well-known writer and director. Her grandparents were also actors, Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson. Her aunt and uncle are actors Lynn and Corin Redgrave and her younger sister Joely Richardson has also taken up the family business.

Natasha Richardson herself has long been a revered stage and film actress who has tried valiantly to balance an interesting career with raising two small children.  She won a Tony Award for the role of Sally Bowles in the 1998 revival of Camelot.  She has appeared in such varied and complicated film projects as Patty Hearst, Nell, The White Countess, The Parent Trap, The Comfort of Strangers and Maid in Manhattan.

Evening is her latest film, an interesting gothic mystery about two sisters (Richardson and Toni Collette) who learn a little about their mother’s secret life as she is near death. The film flips back and forth from the present day to memories of her mother’s relationship with a past love who got away and a good friend who died mysteriously.  The mother is played by Redgrave in the current day and Claire Danes in flashback.

A few weeks before Evening was due to debut, we met up with Richardson at the Regency Hotel in New York to discuss the film. 

What was it like working with your mother in the movie?

It was unique, a very special opportunity to play mother and daughter on screen. To not only be playing these characters, but bring all our history, all our baggage, all our love, all our painful times to serve these characters in the film. It was great to be able to do that. It was also very painful because it was evocative of a lot of things. Seeing her lying there on that bed, very convincingly, looking very seriously ill, it of course makes you project the future and the past, like when my father was dying. So, it was a very special experience.

As actors, knowing you wanted to find these characters independently of your own relationship, it must have been an interesting process of what to use to make these characters their own entities.

Oh, yeah, but you know your own self – that kind of stuff is sort of in the background. It’s for free and it just adds to it, but you are definitely playing different women in different situations. 

What was it like working with Toni Collette as your sister?

(Laughs) I enjoyed that very much. It’s so rich, that sister dynamic in this film. It’s so treated like how sisters are. That you just know each other so well and you love each other so much, and yet sisters can push each others buttons and be absolutely vicious in a way that no one else can be. I think those scenes, if anything, became more emotional than how they were written. Lajos (Koltai, the director) really wanted us to go for it at every opportunity.

Did you ad lib any of it?

I don’t know that we ad libbed much. We might have changed the odd line a little bit.

What was your experience like in Newport, where the film was made?

I’d never been there before…

It’s a strange place…

Yeah, but it’s a very exotic location. You’re staying in a nice hotel overlooking the harbor, with the seagulls and nice fish lunches on weekends. (laughs) I don’t think it was quite like I’d imagined. I had imagined it much more Great Gatsby-esque and they are very… fortress-like, from the outside. Very, very, impersonal. I didn’t think, oh, I’d like to live in one of those.

Lajos said that your mom was onboard first. 

Yes.

How did you get the role? 

Well, they offered it to me. I was very taken with it. I was very moved by it. I thought it would be great to work with these people, but I felt, well, I don’t know about this other sister constant. Toni’s got more interesting [things to do.] I like difficult, messed up characters. And there wasn’t a scene between my mother and I. I was like, there’s no point. The whole point of us doing this would be to have a moment together. It would be the one and only time. So I said to them you’ve got to take advantage of this. If you feel it’s right and if you feel it’s up to the story, then I need a scene with my mum. I need a moment. If you write that, then I’ll play the part. So, (screenwriter) Michael Cunningham wrote that beautiful, beautiful scene for us.

It looks like everyone had a hand in the process of writing…

I know. (laughs) I know.

Michael wrote a special scene for you, other actors had their requests. Did he feel sort of put upon?

Well, I’m sure he did, but he is so gracious. And he is such fun, too. But I do think it’s one of the triumphs of his screenplay and his film. Also, I was terrified. I thought even if they write this scene, it’s never going to be in the final movie. It’s just not going to be in there. What happens so often in a film is in the editing a couple of characters take over the film and other characters have to – for reasons of time and pace – become cut or subsidiary characters. I think it’s amazing that they juggled so many important characters in this story.

When you saw Lajos’ film Fateless, did that help drive your interest in this?

It was a very powerful movie and I met him and talked with him, too. He seemed like an incredibly sensitive man. Often you think when directors of Photography become directors; it’s often style over content. That’s not him at all. In fact, I loved working with him so much that it literally restored my faith in the process of filmmaking. Unlike most modern directors, he’s not sitting behind a bank of monitors miles away, sort of shouting at the actors do this, that or the other. He’s right there and just is so respectful, appreciative and sensitive to what you need in the room. How actors work. So, he just created conditions where you could just do your best work. It was just all pouring out of you.

I was watching the film and thinking it’s got such a big cast, and you and your mother worked so well together. There must have been something for your aunt in here… 

I know. (laughs) We were good together, I know. Lynn’s the missing link. Let’s get Michael Cunningham back. (laughs harder.)

Natasha Richardson and Toni Collette star in "Evening."

Natasha Richardson and Toni Collette star in “Evening.”

But I was thinking that it was interesting to have Toni in there as well as a sister. If you had your real sister in there, it might have been almost too familiar. Having Toni there added an element of conflict.

I think so. It did.

You and Toni must have worked hard to get that dynamic.

I think because we were very different. We’re different people. We didn’t know each other well. We have great mutual respect but kind of very different approaches and personalities. That added to the sparks.

Some of the scenes had the intimacy of theater. I could have really seen this as a play with some of the parts taken out. Did it feel theatrical to you? 

It didn’t feel theatrical, but it did feel very intimate. Very, very intimate. It felt like they were eavesdropping on us. That’s what I love about it. It’s a special knack.

Does it make you want to be on stage again soon?

I have to find what I want to do next on stage. I have to find that play or that part that makes me go: I must! I must play this. You just have to have a really deep connection yearning to put yourself out there.

Well after this, maybe you could do the classics. Is there something you could see from the past you want to do?

No, there are, but they are either something you want to do but somebody did it recently, so you can’t or maybe there’s something you don’t feel quite ready for – like play Cleopatra. I don’t think, having been accused of being too young for Blanche (DuBois, the Streetcar Named Desire character Richardson played), which is in fact not what Tennessee Williams wrote… but anyway, maybe I’m not ready to take on Cleopatra just yet. And probably that would be something I’d do in England.

Do you prefer working in the theater in England?

I love to work in New York. New York is my home. At the same time being English and the theater being such a different world… you know there’s not the commercial pressure there is here. It’s not a one-newspaper town. It doesn’t all rise and fall on one man’s opinion. I often think about trying to work in the theater in England, but it’s hard for me because my children are in school here.

In this movie your mother is playing this dying woman, and then she is playing this role on Broadway of a woman who is dealing with her husband and child dying (in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking). It must have made you think about mortality and dying. 

Obviously.

I assume you’ve seen her in it…

I have, twice, yes.

Have you talked about it at all?

Of course, because it’s so present, you know. What it makes you do is it makes you just cherish every moment that you have, knowing that it can all change in an instant.

You also realize in this movie that someone you are so close to and so intimate with – there is so much about them that you really just don’t know. Do you ever get that type of moment with your mother or have other people get it with you?

My mum is very good about being very open to any questions, but I am sure there are things about her life that I don’t know… and maybe I shouldn’t know. When my sons grow up, I don’t know if I’d want them to know everything about me. (laughs) There is always that fascination in children as to what happened in your life before I was born. My son is fascinated that I was married before I was married to Liam, so…

The character you played is the grounded one, your sister is not. Do you feel you’re as grounded as your character, or more ethereal?

I think I’m a bit of both, to be honest. All my damage, my stuff, my vulnerability, I suppose I put out in my work. I try to make my home life as ordered and grounded as possible to enable both. To enable me to do the work I do and to live. So both, really. I’m a capable caretaker type, but I also have another side of me too.

Photo Credits:
#1 © 2007 Gene Page. Courtesy of Focus Features.  All rights reserved.
#2 © 2007 Gene Page. Courtesy of Focus Features.  All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: June 29, 2007.

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