Now, Joely Richardson (47) and her mother Vanessa Redgrave (74) have teamed up again in the new Roland Emmerich movie Anonymous, each playing Queen Elizabeth I at different stages of the monarch’s life. The two women have been seen together on television regularly over the past five years in the hit show Nip/Tuck.
It is almost redundant to describe their regal bearing when the mother and daughter walk into the Ritz Carlton in Cancun to talk to The Irish Examiner. There on a brief holiday together, the two women tease and contradict each other in one breath, while finishing each other’s sentences in the next, clearly at ease together, the best of friends.
The past two years have been tough ones for their family, marked by the tragic death of Natasha Richardson in March 2009 at the age of 45 in a freak skiing accident. She left behind her shattered husband Liam Neeson and their two boys. This heartbreak was followed barely a year later by the sudden deaths of Vanessa’s actor brother Corin Richardson and then their sister Lynn Redgrave just one month later, from breast cancer. Whatever grieving is still going on for them privately, the two women are present and alert today, busy as ever and evidently happy to be out together.
“I’ve worked with Mum before and the thing that I’m always really impressed by is that she behaves like a student,” says Joely, appraising her mother admiringly as she speaks. “She’s always open to new information, open to direction. I remember when I was about 18 or 19 Mum and Ian McKellan both said to me that when you get to a certain level directors stop directing you because they’re nervous that you know more than they do. They both said how much they like to be directed and this was a good thing with Roland Emmerich, who has a very strong personality.
“Working with Mum on this film was nice, as you had a friend to go for a cup of tea with in between breaks. She’s always very concentrated and dedicated when she goes to work, whether it’s film or theatre, and there’s always a routine, like specific foods that she brings. When I’ve seen her heading off to work there’s always a very definite intent and some level of joy.”
As the daughter of Michael Redgrave, best known for his role in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and the husband of director Tony Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave has been a prominent public figure all of her life, both for her acting and her radical, though sometimes incoherent, politics. She ran unsuccessfully four times for the Worker’s Revolutionary Party in England and has espoused many different causes. Her soft voice in person and her regal gait belie a surprising steeliness.
“Today is today and thank God for each and every one of us, wherever we are, whoever we are,” said Vanessa. “There’s always a new day and life brings changes, sometimes horrible ones, sometimes wonderful ones. Just when things are most horrible comes a reminder that there’s something wonderful. Where I am today is a profound belief that music, theatre and film are as important and sometimes more important than food itself.
“If the soul can hold on and resist, the human being can last a little bit longer, even deprived of everything that a human being should have, whether in music like the Barenboim side foundations West East and Divan Orchestra, which brings together graduate students from Israel and the Arab countries or a film like Miral, which tells a true story with actors and crew that are both Israeli and Palestinian. These are what I feel I can give my little to and that’s where I belong.”
Redgrave’s outspokenness has not always made her friends or won her admirers. One comment in particular about “Zionist hoodlums” which she made when she collected her Oscar for Best Actress for “Julia” in 1977, led to her being left out in the cold by Hollywood for well over a decade, though not out of stage and screen work elsewhere.
She married for the second time four years ago to the director Franco Nero with whom she has been involved for over 40 years, when her marriage to Tony Richardson broke down over reports that Vanessa had found her bisexual husband in bed with her father. She gave birth to son Carlo Nero, a screenwriter, a year after the marriage ended in 1969. Their wedding was arranged by Joely on New Years Eve.
“I was very naughty!” says Joely. “The whole thing was my idea that we needed a wedding, a celebration, and Franco and Vanessa decided on New Year’s Eve because that was when everyone was available and all the family could meet.
“We held it at my house in the country and they had a sort of spiritual wedding by the fireplace with their son putting the ring on their finger. It was really beautiful to watch — him having been a part of my childhood and then 30 0r 40 years later to see mum looking beautiful and then to see Franco galloping up on a horse. It’s a beautiful story that stands the test of time.”
Vanessa is beaming and occasionally interrupting her youngest daughter with additional details as she tells this account of her second wedding. Given all that the family has gone through in the past two years, especially burying Natasha, it’s clear that Vanessa is a dearly beloved mother to her children.
“I’ve been every kind of mother,” laughs Vanessa. “All kinds of mothers are. I’ve been a bad, mad mother. I’ve been a good mother. I’ve been a caring mother. I’ve been a forgetful mother. I’ve been all of those things, but the wonderful thing is that whatever I’ve lacked, or whatever I’ve done that I wish I’d been different, I’ve got these wonderful children. I’m very lucky.”
With a host of high profile movies coming up for each of the women, including rumours of potential Oscar nominations for Vanessa for the upcoming feature Coriolanus, directed by Ralph Fiennes, it’s clear that there’s no sign of this dynasty vanishing from the stage of public life anytime soon. She’s still getting behind assorted issues, including the recent issue of Irish travellers at Dale Farm in England, who are threatened with eviction.
“My politics have become rights-based,” she says. “That’s my duty. I’m pledged to put children before the politics of any government, before anybody’s politics or my politics. I worry for the children of Dale Farm. I want to ask, ‘Why don’t you, the council, contact the leaders of the Dale Farm Travellers and say you’d like to come down and talk? You say what you think, and please give your time to listen, especially to the mothers and children’.”
* Anonymous opens nationwide on October 28