CAROLE ZUCKER: Tell me how you ended up studying at The Bristol Old Vic Theater School.
MIRANDA RICHARDSON: I took my exams [in secondary school] early and then moved to Bristol and worked there because it was the only opportunity of getting a grant for drama school. I wasn’t going to get a grant from where I was [near Liverpool], which was partly why I don’t care about going back. They’re cretins, really, this discretionary grant system which was constantly raising its head. I get so many letters every week from students saying “I’m doing six jobs, and I’ve got to pay my fees and I don’t know how.” (1)
CZ: I visited the Bristol Old Vic Theater School and attended some classes. A lot of students told me that they were working at Safeway all night and then coming to classes all day.
MR: Yes, but there’s a perverse romance about it at the time, you’ve got energy to do certain things. I remember at the end of the day, looking at my watch because I had a cleaning job to go to. And Nat Brenner who was running the school then, and knew immediately if your attention wasn’t completely there, noticed me looking uneasy, and I said “I’m really sorry, I’m going to have to go now because I’ll be late for my cleaning job,” and he said “Well, cleanliness is next to godliness, so please go ahead.” He was very understanding, very good about that. All these silly prizes that have names to them, grants given to the school; he would always deal them out to the people who were the most needy.
CZ: Did your parents encourage you to go to drama school?
MR: They didn’t discourage me. I think they were worried, like anyone would be. I did this ridiculous secretarial course for something to fall back on, which actually got me a job before I went to drama school, which meant I could earn some money. But there was never any intention of that being a career. Actors are always saying “Got a job? When’s your next job?” Anything in the pipeline?” No one ever takes anything for granted, because it might stop.
CZ: When did you know that you wanted to be an actor?
MR: Probably around seventeen. I think I still thought I was going to go to university and study either English or drama there. As the practical became more important to me, I didn’t see why I was going to university. So many people, if they have the education, go on to university as the next thing, almost automatically. I woke up to that and thought “Why am I doing it?” I did an interview for the drama department [of a university], and I enjoyed the practical day enormously, and didn’t enjoy the interview very much at all. I felt even then that one’s instincts were going to be quashed, or kind of channeled into certain directions. I suddenly got a very strong feeling that it wasn’t quite the place for me. I was asked what my decision would be if I got a place at both the university and the drama school. Apparently I had declared my intention of applying to the Old Vic. I was so pissed off after the interview, that I said “I’d go to drama school.” And that’s what I did. I’ve always taken it as a compliment that the university didn’t offer me a place. An indication they thought I would get in at the Vic school.
CZ: Was Bristol Old Vic the only drama school that you applied to?
MR: No, no. LAMDA [London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts] and Central [School of Speech and Drama]. Central couldn’t even offer an audition, because they were the only subsidized school at that point, (2) and they were just swamped with applications. LAMDA, I got in, but couldn’t get a grant. They said “Don’t worry too much about that,” but by that time Bristol had said “Come back in a year’s time,” which I thought meant that they thought I needed another year in the world and I think they were probably right, so that’s what I did. During that time I worked with Nat Brenner on an outside course about comedy and farce. He said “What are you going to do with yourself?” and I said “Well, I’m going to come to your school, if you’ll have me.” And he said “Yeah. You can come. You’ll still do the auditions, though.” It was great. (3)
CZ: What it was like to be at The Old Vic?
MR: I remember being excited to go in every day, and learn something. That’s the best of being student really, without the idea of having to do exams, and tie yourself in knots about that. There’s speech training, there’s movement training… At that time they didn’t have facilities for film and television really, they just had a radio room. I remember us being in a radio competition. In that sense it seemed quite antiquated. It has a tradition for being quite a workmanlike school, a classical school. You work from the Greeks, and on history plays, and upwards. We didn’t do really any modern stuff; anything like that was extracurricular, and of course that’s what you wanted to do, because it was like a breath of fresh air. Quite a number of plays were done: I remember we did Three Women about Sylvia Plath, some Albee was done, things like that. You have the energy to do that outside of the hours. I enjoyed the speech training although, perversely, I remember that I became so conscious of how to produce a sound that I actually lost my voice for a time. It was very strange, and made me think that actually what I wanted to do was do it by myself–you know, bedroom ranting, as I call it–and I had no business being [at drama school]. To be a performer, you have to be out there. It was a very strange experience.
CZ: What other sorts of classes did you have?
MR: Movement was great, because I’d never really done anything like that very much. This sort of yoga-based stuff, stamina stuff, mad Greek dancing, in the heat of the mid-day sun. It’s very good for coordination and form. I remember also doing Laban-based movement… Also putting routines together, in case you’re ever called to be in a musical, how you put something across, even if you’re not a naturally wonderful dancer. They’re concentrating much more now on that; there are so many musicals around at the moment.
CZ: What did they teach you about characterization at Bristol Old Vic?
MR: Well, they’re very strong on imagination. And whatever your text is, it should offer you all the answers if you study it well enough. And it’s not only what’s in the lines, but what’s between the lines. If there’s a silence, why is there a silence? What might be happening in that silence, what might you be thinking in that silence. But it’s not until you leave drama school and start applying things that you really find out what you’ve learnt. There were many times where you didn’t see how you were going to apply what you were being taught. There were some rather good disciplines, like we would spend ten minutes doing an arm gesture, while saying one speech. It’s very good if you’re extremely young and you’re full of energy and you’re liable to fling your arms and let things go, or snatch at sentences, which is something I still do. In texts you have to follow the line through. And it’s very good for concentration and focus, calming you down and making you think and listen. Particularly if you’re at the age most people are when they go to drama school; eighteen, nineteen. You’re in such a hurry to get things across, to get things done, so I think that was very useful.
CZ: Did you ever harbor any ideas, when you were at drama school, of being a star?
MR: No. I don’t know what I thought. I found something I could do, that was all. I was just sort of following something through. There are times when you really feel lost. You’re in a sort of cocoon, because you’re there.
CZ: When you were a kid, and you were going to the cinema, was there ever anybody that you wanted to emulate?
MR: All the guys. The guys had the best parts. Those were the ones, really. I liked Westerns a lot–John Wayne westerns, I’d go and watch those all the time, and be able to practically recite the whole movie. I had tremendous recall, for things like that, or anything that was on the television that I really liked, I could recall a lot of it.
CZ: Would you watch things over and over again?
MR: We didn’t have tapes then, it wasn’t like that. But, yeah I’d go and see movies several times. Whatever your obsession is at the time, whatever excites the imagination. It was a combination of Westerns, and I remember seeing the film Cromwell at the time. At that time I was a member of the Sealed Knot, which is the Cavaliers and Roundheads Association. I was thirteen, fourteen or something, and not acting but that’s quite similar, it’s enactment. I was extremely into T.E. Lawrence–I don’t mean Peter O’Toole, yes, I saw the film and I loved the film–at the same time I was reading all about the desert, and his time in the desert, and the kind of a guy he was….
CZ: So, you were a romantic.
MR: Broadly speaking, I would say, yes.
CZ: My big hero when I was around that age was Isadora Duncan.
MR: Great! What a wonderful role model.
CZ: I think it’s a little morbid, too.
MR: That’s okay, because that’s what’s going on as well at that time, isn’t it… [in sepulchural tones] death, mortality. The women sort of came later; I wasn’t too enamored of many actresses, I can’t remember many at that time. Well, I remember Irene Worth very strongly, because I went to see her in King Lear, which she’s so wonderful in. It was a mixed bag of people, really.
CZ: Was it your idea to go into film?
MR: I think I’m quite lucky to have a nice guy for an agent who I’m still with, in England. Actually what happened was that I was doing a play Insignificance, back in Bristol, having a great time, and somebody who wasn’t the director [of Dance With A Stranger] came to see that production, and they’d been looking for somebody. I had no idea about film. When you’re doing theater, you don’t really think about film, and when you’re doing film you don’t really think about theater, or I don’t. They saw me and thought that I might be worth seeing in an audition situation, a reading situation. They’d been looking for quite some time. They didn’t know what they wanted; whether they wanted somebody who was already somewhat known, which means that people might have preconceived ideas about them, or to go with somebody who nobody had seen before, I don’t know how many people they saw. My agent said to me afterwards–he was rather confused–because when he set me up for it, he thought that my situation was somewhat similar, not that I was a hostess in a drinking club, but that I had somehow reinvented myself, lost my accent, to do this job [in Insignificance]. I found it completely fascinating that he would think that; we hadn’t known each other very long. But that wasn’t my story. However… it did work out eventually. Not on the first reading. I remember spectacularly meeting Mike [Newell] on the way out; I was just furious. I’d travelled all the way down from Lancaster Rep, and I just thought “Some people just think the whole world stops for them.”
CZ: Did you read with the other actors?
MR: No. But I knew Rupert Everett was going to do the part. I didn’t know at that point that Ian Holm was going to be in it. When I heard that Ian Holm was going to be in it, when I got the part I thought to myself “Oh god, I’ve got to take this seriously now.”
MR: Eventually I did, a long time afterwards. I liked it, she’s good.
CZ: How did you feel when you got this part?
MR: I didn’t know what I was in for, and they said “Well, you’re going to get very, very tired, go away for a week.” They sent me away for a week supposedly to just prepare for [the fatigue]. And they were right. It was nine weeks of on every day. Originally, it was seven weeks, and then we got more money. I had no resources, really. I didn’t feel protected, but I wasn’t expecting to be protected. In retrospect, I felt very well looked-after cinematically. I thought they did a brilliant job. But I was thrown in the deep end with a million props, and the continuity lady saying “I’m going to bug you. You did this on this, and this on this [take]; if you could do that again that would be wonderful.” Because I was concentrating so much about that, I didn’t have time to worry about other things, or the big pressures; I just did it.
CZ: You mean things like hitting your marks…
MR: It comes to you. And you also have to practice that. If I haven’t done filming for a while, somebody will tell me something and I’ll think I’ve heard it and completely ignore it. Then if it’s really a problem you can work something else out. If it’s really difficult for you to bear down by that time emotionally, or whatever, then something can be worked out. But because it was every day for nine weeks, you get into it quite fast.
CZ: How did you feel about the character? A lot of the women actors that I speak to say that they have to fall in love with their characters, no matter how despicable they might be.
MR: I think you have to find some enjoyment there, yes. I don’t think you have to love them, I think you have to understand them. I felt sorry for her. And I also thought she was funny, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes intentionally. It’s very hard to say….
CZ: Did you work with a dialogue coach?
MR: No, I didn’t actually. I heard one little bit of tape, it was the only bit of tape; they’re very drunk. She, talking to Desmond [Ian Holm's character]. She’s very hyper, you know, she’s very highly strung. That’s where that came from really… And the pretention, somebody who’s trying to make herself other than she is. And the time it’s set in. I thought the film captured the time very well.
CZ: How much did you know about the real person?
MR: Not much. There’s only a couple of books. There’s one very salubrious book which I read, and I read one which concentrated more on the events leading up to the trial. I looked at pictures of her, how she comes across in photographs. That’s very helpful when you’re doing something very physical.
CZ: You didn’t feel this need to create a backstory for her; what happened in her childhood that got her to this point?
MR: Well, I think that goes somewhere here (points to head). The script was good; it’s implicit in the script, though I did read stuff beforehand so I could have an awareness of where she came from, what she was escaping from. You can’t play all that all the time. I remember talking to someone who worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company with one particular director, and the director was finding it hard to articulate what he meant, and eventually somebody said “You mean you want us to invest that line with the sixteenth century?” And he said “Yes!” And you can’t do that.
CZ: You mean because it’s not an actable thing?
MR: No! You can do as much research as you like into the manners of the time; you can try and disclaim all knowledge of the twentieth century, but these are also real people that you’re playing, so you can’t do that ridiculous direction.
CZ: In terms of Ruth’s character, how did you find the actable emotions for her? I would think it would be hard to find what Stanislavski called a “through-line” for her character, since she’s masochistic one moment and sadistic the next.
MR: Is she?
CZ: I think she is extremely sadistic to the Ian Holm character, and will take any form of abuse from Rupert Everett’s character.
MR: I would have to say it’s the day-to-day processes: who you’re playing with, and what they offer you at the time in that situation. I think with film you just come in with a sort of a broad landscape in your mind, and a familiarity with the words, rather than knowing them so well that you can’t discard [something] or find them for yourself while filming. But I don’t know if I knew that at the time, I mean it’s kind of instinctive, really. We talked and read through scenes for about ten days beforehand, but that’s only to make everybody feel at ease, really. You don’t end up probably playing what you did in rehearsal, and of course your playing arena is completely different. Once you get on set, the confines of the set, and what’s around you, paints the picture as much as anything else.
CZ: Is it unusual for you to be given a ten-day period for rehearsal?
MR: Yeah. Certainly in the British film industry, yeah. You get a few days. It depends on the nature of the piece. If it’s improvisational, you probably just do it straight off. Mike talked about the fifties a bit: after the war period, what people wanted, what they were looking for. He said everybody wanted a party, which I found a very useful note, and so she is providing a party atmosphere a lot of the time for a lot of people. She was a very small fish, really, but the big fish in that very tiny pond. Ian’s so great, he was very supportive, and there was no sort of ego-trip going on there, for his character.
CZ: Was this one of Rupert Everett’s first films?
MR: I think it must have been. He’d done Another Country, by then, which, in British film terms, was meteoric, really. This virtuoso performance from the stage, which they then transferred to film.
CZ: I find it surprising that they didn’t make a plea of non compas mento for Ruth Ellis, because of the drugs and alcohol; she’s obviously in a dissociative state when she does the shooting. Did people generally support her hanging?
MR: She’s made an example of.
CZ: Because she was a scummy person who deserved to die?
MR: Yeah. I don’t know if it was even that clear. It was horrific, just horrific. She didn’t make any attempt to save herself, either; she said “No, I intended to kill him.” So it sounds like premediated murder. I think she was very self-dramatizing, and this was the most famous she was going to get, actually. Like the guy who killed John Lennon, except that this was a smaller British personality. She bleached her hair specially, so she would look nice in court, so they wouldn’t think she was a fleabag. She made no attempt to come in looking ghastly and sorry for herself and out of it, if she had then there might have been mitigating circumstances. “Crimes of passion” didn’t apply in England, just on the continent. We’re not supposed to have those here.
CZ: How did you feel about watching yourself?
MR: It was awkward, but I almost didn’t recognize myself. I’d just remember seeing a rough cut; I was terrified, because I knew so little about filming, and the soundtrack was not ready, and the levels hadn’t been balanced, and I was horrified. I saw this scene where there was this enormous sound of a hoover going on in the club, and I thought “They can’t be going to leave it like that.” That’s how naive I was; I just thought this was awful; how can they tell anything? I saw the finished thing, and it was very different. Just this funny little person, really. I thought “How can she have caused such a scandal?” Not really recognizing oneself on screen.
CZ: Do you ever use rushes as a tool?
MR: I should. The only time I’ve sat through a lot of rushes was Kansas City. It was really like a party. Jenny [Jennifer] Jason-Leigh is very practical about that kind of thing. No matter how tired she is, she goes to rushes. She says “Come, come here, you must come here! You missed a great scene yesterday….” She shamed me into going, and when I went, I had a good time, but I was in very capable hands in that movie, so there wasn’t too much reason to feel worried about going. Stupidly, of course, when you feel in less capable hands, those are the times when you should probably go to rushes more, and say “God, I really hated that, I’d like an opportunity to do that again, if it’s at all possible,” or “What are you going to do with this?” or “Are you going to use that shot because that other shot seems much better to me.” Then, there are people who never go to watch their movies.
CZ: Do you generally feel well taken care of? Did you ever have battle of personalities with someone over your treatment on the set, where you felt like you needed more time, or more takes, or more discussion, and you weren’t given the opportunity?
MR: There have been a couple… sometimes in Britain–well, almost always in Britain–there isn’t enough money and enough time, so they get people who can do the work. There is something to be said for not doing too many takes; I don’t necessarily think that take fifty-four is going to be better than take one. It might be slightly different, but just to keep on slogging is not necessarily the best way of achieving a performance. Once you have the pressure of knowing that you have to move on, and you have two takes, that is also very difficult to deal with. If you’re not happy with it, you either get so you don’t care, you go “Oh, fuck it,” which is dangerous, or you just get angry. So, yes, there have been times when I’ve thought “Oh, okay, I’ve got to save myself, because I’m the one who’s up there in the end.” It’s very aggravating and frustrating.
CZ: The first film that you were in was a really big international success, and it played all the big festivals. How did that feel?
MR: It wasn’t well-publicized, though. I was out of touch with it really, because I wasn’t very well after it; I’d just got completely run down. I think everybody was sort of learning at the time. I was in a daze, really, that’s the best way to describe it–not a glorious daze; I mean it was a lot of hot air, a lot of interviewers asking the same things again and again, photo shoots, not feeling up to it, and not knowing what would come next, and not really ready for it either. And there was a big thing about the resurgent new British film industry. I think it was a very good film, but there wasn’t a very obvious follow-up to that in the British film industry.
CZ: Well, it goes in fits and starts, it seems to be re-emerging, and then goes through a period of crisis again. What did you do after this great success?
MR: Actually quite soon after that, I went back to the theater, because I need that variety anyway. There is an unreality about the film world. With theater you can feel the process much more clearly. If you’re going from point A to point B, you know how you got there, and there’s a lot more dialogue, more interaction, really.
CZ: What sort of theater were you doing at the time?
MR: I did Mamet plays at the Royal Court, I did a film and some television, things like that.
CZ: Do you see a pattern in the parts that you’re drawn to?
MR: No. Other people do, I know. But I don’t, and I also feel a lot luckier than people who have to work in America, because absolutely they are made to play the same thing again and again, you know, “You did that well, here’s another one, do this, and then you can move on to something else,” but you end up playing four or five parts which seem to me very, very similar before you can break out of that at all. Then it seems like a huge major move, and “Gosh, we never dreamt that this person could do this! Wow! Because we’re used to seeing them doing….” It’s very strange, and very frustrating, I would think.
CZ: Getting back to the original question: I see you really exploring your dark side a lot in your roles.
MR: Well, all right. But you haven’t seen Kansas City, you haven’t seen Evening Star. I don’t know, what other movies have I done?
CZ: Damage, Crying Game, Redemption [a depressing BBC drama]….
MR: Oh, Crying Game. Now, you see, I don’t take those roles for the reasons you might suppose. I wanted to work with Neil [Jordan], I thought it was a great script–it was like being in a circus troupe–and there was a sort of a lack of responsibility about it as well.
CZ: Why was that?
MR: I don’t know, it had something to do with the way he films, or something. I didn’t think “Oh here’s another dark person….”
CZ: I don’t mean you go looking for these sorts of dark parts on a conscious level. Sometimes actors have told me that their lives dovetail with the parts that they choose, and that they learn things about themselves. Again, it’s especially true of the women actors I’ve talked to.
MR: Another reason for doing The Crying Game was because there was a chance to do some more action in it, be quite physical onscreen, which is a relief. A bit of gun-toting, and running, and sort of roughness. I really relished the opportunity to do that in that particular instance. Enchanted April, I sort of had to be persuaded to do, but actually it was rather nice. I liked the idea of the geographical thing, you know, of the English personality being transported somewhere else and something else happening to–broadly speaking–the English psyche. I thought “Oh, well let’s try this, let’s see if it happens,” and of course what happened was that it rained in Italy all the time. We left brilliant sunshine in England and it was perverse, that we were acting under this very cloudy sky for the first two weeks, anyway.
CZ: Do you ever feel that roles affect you psychologically or emotionally, or is it mostly just a job?
MR: The story affects you while you’re doing it, and you’re concentrating on it, and focusing on how does this character react in this situation, so there is some kind of channel for that. But I don’t have a problem leaving things behind at the end of the day. That doesn’t mean that I’m not thinking about the next day, it means that I don’t have to be in character when I’m off-screen. I don’t have a problem with that, I don’t have to wear the same things the person wears. That’s one way of doing it, and I don’t know whether it’s a superstition with certain people, you know, they feel that the process is so nebulous anyway, that they have to hang on to that or nothing’s going to happen… I don’t really know, but I don’t do that.
CZ: That relates to one of the things I’m trying to deal with in these interviews–how British actors feel they’re different from American actors, because usually it’s the Americans you hear about who can’t leave their characters behind at the end of the day. There is something about British actors, even though they’ve been knighted, that makes them want to be treated like ordinary blokes. As [Dame]Judi Dench put it, “I think of myself as a jobbing actor.” What do you think it is about the British character that makes people feel that way, because I don’t think that Americans feel like that? Americans seem to want their actors to be heros to a much greater extent.
MR: Americans have more of a tradition of film anyway, and as I said there’s a level of unreality about film, and there’s so much more riding on it. It’s a complete world for that amount of time that you’re working on it. It’s like a big family; everybody’s focused on that one thing. In theater much more, people have their lives, they go back to their house during the day; you do the thing and you go home. There are other things happening. On location, when you’re removed from most of the things that are normally surrounding you, then different things come into play, I suppose. Myths are built up around actors, which I think are actually very damaging, because people can start to believe what’s said about them, or think they’re gods, or do anything they like. Everybody needs to be given confidence, to be able to work, but I think the hype actually works against people; I think they get less secure, because in the end, people are frightened to direct them, they’re frightened to make any demands on them at all. In the end you get more left alone, and it would be terrifying if somebody felt that they were so in awe of you that they didn’t direct you. I couldn’t handle it.
CZ: In going to all of these drama schools–RADA, and East 15, and all the major places around London and outside of London, there still seems to be this whole debate that’s raging about “the Method,” among the acting teachers and the students.
MR: I think whatever works for you, you can use bits of anything. I think the only book I actually enjoyed reading was Uta Hagen’s book Respect for Acting. I thought there was a lot of sense in that. One of the most important things is just to try and keep open, and observe. Hopefully you have to be curious, otherwise you just end up playing an aspect yourself all the time. Some people do very very well with that; it’s limited, but comfortable for the public, obviously, because they know what they’re going to get.
CZ: You just finished doing a film with someone who would be regarded as sort of a quintessential ”Method” actor–Jennifer Jason Leigh. [Kansas City]
MR: Jenny I feel works in a pretty similar way to me, except that she’s much more researched. She’s extremely practical, and she would get as much information as possible, about anything pertaining to the part beforehand. I feel like I rely on the script a lot more; what’s actually there on the page. I might subsequently find that what I’m actually supposed to say doesn’t completely do it for me. But I think it’s the continual discoveries that go along on a film, you know. When you’re there, you flesh it out more, even if you’re not working in chronological order, which is what usually happens. Jenny doesn’t have any problems shedding the character at the end of the day. She’s tired–we’re all tired–but we go out and play. It’s good to spend time with somebody that you have a lot of screen time with, just so you can trust each other. You feel like “Oh, whatever I’m going to be thrown, or throw at this person, they’ll be fine, there’s no ego basis for it.” It’s character based, or your instinct says to do this. If you stop and say “Actually, that was crap,” or “I don’t think that was really very truthful,” you could do that. You’re not going to spoil the mystery by doing that. It’s partly a practical. It’s not that I’m completely trying to demystify the process, and I’m not, because I don’t think you can. No matter how much you try and analyze it, it is a mysterious process; it’s actually difficult to talk about, because when you get up there something might just come in from left field, and you don’t know where it comes from, but it feels right, or it’s interesting, or something.
CZ: Can you think of an example of where you instinctually did something that turned out to be a happy accident, on the spot?
MR: I don’t know, really; I think the scene in Damage was good. We did it in one take, really, and I thought it was a very well-written scene, that kitchen scene. It didn’t really need to be directed, we knew what the physical confines of it were; it had a natural arc to make, and we knew it was a very emotional high point in the film. I didn’t analyze how I was going to do it, so I just sort of did it, and there’s a bit of you watching what’s going on at the same time at it is happening, and you feel that something is right. That’s the only way I can describe it. The only other way I’ve described acting on film, or what it feels like, is it feels like a sort of moment-to-moment combustion, like an engine firing. It’s partly to do with preparation, partly to do with the atmosphere in the room, and giving more or less energy, depending on whether you’re performing in a close-up or in a really wide shot.
CZ: Do you pay very close attention to those technical things?
MR: I’m aware of the camera, but I’m not always as aware as I should be of exactly where it is. Unless you’re in a big close-up, and then you can’t help it. I always feel like I’m being pulled into the camera when it’s near, like ectoplasm or something. Even when I’m playing a scene where the other actor might be right there, it’s really strange. The same is, I suppose, true in a way, on stage; it doesn’t mean you’re not focusing on the person you’re playing with, but the audience is out there, and you’re aware of that.
CZ: Are you aware of giving the editor cutting points, or anything like that?
MR: Occasionally I am, and I think that’s something that can be an instinct but it can also be learned, and hopefully one learns more the more you do it. I’m sure Jack Nicholson is past master at that. But I also don’t want to be so caught up in technique that I can’t just play, so I haven’t made it my business to learn all about that. I want to be free of that, really, I want to be able to trust that those people know what they’re doing.
CZ: Was there ever a part that you felt you really had a hard time understanding? Would you ask for help in that situation? Do you generally find directors are helpful in that sense?
MR: I know I’m often amazed; I feel I got away with something. I’ve done a take and I think, “That can’t be all there is to it. I must have missed something.” I mean, I remember feeling like that a lot on Tom and Viv; I don’t know how often I articulated it. I thought, “But I just sort of did that.” Sometimes the equation is, if there is no apparent effort, then it can’t be registering, which is ridiculous, because if you see effort, you know something isn’t right. It’s excruciating to watch. But sometimes, it’s like “Why was that so easy?” I don’t trust myself then, I feel I shouldn’t be doing the job because it’s that easy. But of course, the goal is ease, apparent ease; that’s why a lot of fabulous actors don’t really get as much attention as they deserve because it’s so effortless, what they do, it’s so right, it’s so zen! If I don’t trust something then I will say, and Brian [Gilbert, dir. Tom and Viv] was very supportive and actually very confident in what he saw and what he wanted. Oftentimes, he would just say “I’m very happy. Do you want to do another one? Well, if you’re happy, okay, fine!” You have to trust that, you can’t go on forever, wanking. Maybe the reason that felt easy was because here’s somebody who was actually expressing herself [Viv], everybody else was much more cramped and stolid around her, and not saying what they really thought, and she was actually refreshingly honest, and it was a relief, so I felt fine, full of energy and didn’t have a problem and wasn’t emotionally brought down, but I occasionally distrusted that.
MR: I suppose I do, but just for myself. Jenny and I would do it to free up some energy sometimes. The before and after of a take, in the car, and then we’d drop it, we’d just sort of rush around vaguely in character, and then be in the scene and then come out of it. Bob [Altman] often encourages that anyway, and when he actually wanted specifically some more text–there’s a scene in Union Station where he wanted us to improvise some stuff before we ever shot it. The night before, we sat in his caravan and drew out some stuff about the Lindbergh baby. I was very grateful to Jenny in that instance, because she came in with that already researched. She had got stuff all about what was going on at the time, and that was extremely useful, because we could have these great conversations: two women talking on equal terms about their views on something sensational that was happening in the papers on a daily basis. That was great fun. I won’t stop a set to do that, or anything like that. I saw Holly Hunter giving a kind of a master class, a Q and A, and saying that she wanted to feel in a certain way before a scene, and she actually got the extras to push her around, she said “I’m asking you do this.” She wanted to be really angry, and she said anger was something she had trouble getting in touch with, and she wanted to feel really really pissed off, and so she got them to do that for her. I’ve never asked that; I think I’m too self-sufficient, I always feel that I should be able to generate it for myself. It doesn’t always work if you can’t generate the sad feeling about this, to think of some other situation [in which something similar happened to you]. In Uta Hagen’s book she will ask you to do that kind of thing, and while I see it makes perfect sense, I don’t feel I truly can do that; I can’t necessarily replace one situation with another, and make it work for that moment. It’s more likely to happen off screen, when I’m just thinking around things. But I think what you do is you remember that emotion, sort of a sense memory, it’s part mimicry, part instinct, and part relaxation.
CZ: It’s a curious thing, how different actors learn a script. Do you do it by emotional association?
MR: On a film script, particularly, you can’t work in a vacuum, you have to work in tandem with the people you will be working with. You can see what the text says, but until you get there and find out what the situation is, and whether indeed you are going to say those things, or whether it’s going to be changed, which quite often happens… it’s more a question of thinking around it, saying “What is truthful to my character?” and then you get there and play it out. It’s like boxers in a ring, because you come in from each side and you play it out–not necessarily so that one wins and one loses, but what kind of action you take and when. What was the original question?
CZ: I was asking about how you learn a script.
MR: I familiarize myself with the script, rather than learning it.
CZ: Are you saying that you’re drawing the basic emotional parameters for the character without filling in the details? I think it would be better if we talk about it specifically, because I want to talk about Tom and Viv, because I think that it’s one of the most complex women’s roles that I’ve seen in a recent film. Did you read any accounts of the relationship between T. S. Eliot and Vivien [Haigh-Wood]?
MR: Yeah, but they’re all biased, that’s the trouble. I’m not saying that just to defend her, but it’s everybody bolstering Tom, and saying she’s dragging him down. I’ve just been reading a lot of Woolf, for Orlando, and being swept away by it. There are mentions of Viv in Woolf’s writing, and actually very kind mentions. It’s not at all one-sided. You can see that here’s somebody who’s actually being encouraged to write, and who apparently thought very highly of Virginia, and Virginia had obviously given her enough encouragement to continue her writing. She was using it almost medicinally; she was writing just to express. I didn’t feel I had to read all of Eliot’s stuff to understand. I read quite a lot of his stuff, and listened to his tapes as well. I found him quite mad, really. I mean he’s the one who’s nuts; he’s stuck, that’s what we try to show in the film.
CZ: At the end there’s the image of both of them imprisoned; Viv in the institution, Tom is last seen behind the bars of an elevator. What did you understand her medical condition to be?
MR: A hormonal imbalance. They talk vaguely about the endocrine system. It’s something which is actually quite easy to rectify once it’s diagnosed. It’s appalling P.M.S. Her periods were very erratic–she would have a period for three days, and then a gap of a week, and then it would come on again, so she was all over the place emotionally. She was diagnosed as being morally insane, which really means bad behavior.
CZ: Vivien’s life was tragic; I don’t think there’s any doubt of that. What do you think her motivations were, or what you think was the essence of her character? What was it that made her a tragic figure? What were the different forces that you saw ruling her life?
MR: Well, the time she was in, the lack of understanding about this specifically women’s problem, the concerns of the family for respectability, and the right form of behavior for the class they were in. She’s not pukkah, they’re upper middle class, not top-drawer. They’re merchant class, but the concerns are much stronger. I think had she been upper-class, and with a great deal of money she could have done what the fuck she liked. She wouldn’t have been locked in a tower in the east wing or anything, she’d have just been allowed to roam the property and be eccentric, because she had the money and the position to be. The requirements of that class and that family at that time were other. And the fact was that she then met Tom, who was incapable of rising to the occasion in any manner. She became his cross that he had to bear, which became part of what informed his work, instead of it being a marriage. The intellectual spark was there, but then he was so lionized and applauded and actually needed and wanted that, that I think she felt shut out. The way I’ve described it, actually diminishes her. Her writing, when you read it, is extremely personal. The characters that she does manage to get down, there’s always a central woman, you can feel it very strongly, it’s her, an aspect of her… she wasn’t supported.
CZ: She was treated as an “ill” person, all the time, by her family.
MR: Treading very carefully around her, and nobody saying what they really thought or really felt.
CZ: The mother says, “Vivien will be taken care of as she always has been.” It’s not unlike other families in which someone is labeled a “problem,” and they have great difficulty escaping that role. I’m surprised to learn that she wrote anything, because in the film it seemed that she had no outlet for her creativity, except for shopping; its seems whenever she’s going through one of these manic episodes, she comes back with a lot of shopping bags.
MR: Yeah, low self-esteem. It’s like any of us who are impulse buyers, or hormonal buyers, trying to make herself better, by doing it externally, you know. She’s looking more and more wretched and ragged and worn, and she looks sort of ravaged, really, at the end of her life, in photographs. She also looks like a totally different person from photograph to photograph. It’s quite uncanny. You can see her; there are an awful lot [of photographs] in which she’s blurred, because she’s moving. There’s an energy, she’s on all the time, and the camera’s caught this sort of languid group of people, and Viv’s always in motion, looking at something else. So the photographs, again, were extremely useful.
CZ: There seemed to be a dichotomy that’s presented in the film between the view of her as a free spirit and on the other hand, being unstable. It’s almost as if, had she been an artist, her behavior would have been quite acceptable.
CZ: When she says in the film “They all admired Tom’s mind, but I am his mind,” do you feel that she was deluded about her influence on his writing? He says to her at one point “I can’t write without you,” and she says “I know.” It seems like she never formed her own life or her own relationships, or felt that she was worth anything.
MR: That’s it, really, an appalling lack of self-esteem, because she’s let the side down from the moment she reached puberty. You know, it’s a shameful thing, and I think there are times when she reacts with rage against that, and times when she just feels guilty and extremely depressed, and is at the mercy of her body, and can’t see anything clearly.
CZ: Do you think that she was deluded about her influence on T.S. Eliot?
MR: No. He wouldn’t have written the books he wrote if he hadn’t met Viv. She’s threaded through his work. She’s also tremendously supportive to him, and expected and wanted him to be championed, but not to the exclusion of her personality.
CZ: Why do you think that she decided to do nothing about her incarceration once she had calmed down, and was apparently well?
MR: Because I think by that time it was a sort of sanctuary, and I think she would have been more lonely out on her own. Her mother died when she was in there… She didn’t have the resources anymore to start again, and say, “Right then, let’s discover the world now.” And she wouldn’t have had the money; she’s not landed gentry.
CZ: Why do you think that Tom never visited her?
MR: He couldn’t cope, emotionally, at all, with the guilt…. He was free, in one sense, to get on with his work, but bearing that enormously important burden out of which came his work. There wouldn’t have been any conversation between them; can you imagine? It would have been excruciating.
CZ: Do you have a sense of an arc in your career? Do you see or feel a difference in your acting from when you were in your twenties until now?
MR: I think that’s where technique comes in; it’s much stronger. When you’re nineteen, you feel like I can do anything, and you do, it’s just that you do it instinctually. Later on there’s a sort of fusion of the instinct and the technique. The more you think you know, the less you know. Perhaps it’s more to do with a sort of compulsion. I often think I’m not always going to do it; I don’t know quite what else I would do. I think you get more fearful, but then it’s something that you have to work through. At times when I say to myself: “You’re mad, you’re mad. What made you think you could do this?” Partly an act of will, trying to move on in some way, to different challenges. The physicality of it is very important to me, because this is your instrument, and a lot of the time, it’s concentrated up here [points from neck up]. And it’s a relief to feel everything working at once.
CZ: Who do you think has influenced you the most, as a grown woman? An actor, a director, some other person?
MR: Lots of people. I think one takes from a myriad of different things, not just specific parts, but that makes you feel wonderful about the creative process, about art, the visual arts, and music. There are a number of people I admire greatly, and it’s something to do with an honesty about what they do. I think Francis Bacon’s stuff is wonderful, because I find it very honest, not because I’m morbid or like to see something flayed. I find it very honest. There are writers who I love to read because I feel the honesty in their writing, and it’s something to do with “Yes, that’s how I would want to say it if I had chosen that form.” There are actors who are wonderful in specific things; some people who you like to watch all the time. I mean, I love Paul Scofield, Oh god…. Too much, too many. Sometimes people affect you at a particular time in your life; I’m sure that’s true. Maybe you can’t listen to Mozart before you’re thirty, or something; I don’t know if that’s true, but maybe Oasis means more to you at a certain age than Haydn. Just sort of take from everything, I guess.
(1) . Richardson is referring to the British system of discretionary grants. Students in every discipline–with the exception of dance and drama–automatically receive a grant to attend universities and professional institutes. The local town council decides on grants given to those interested in studying drama and dance; thus the grants are given at the council’s “discretion.” It is a fairly universal opinion in the U.K. that the town councils are completely unqualified to determine who should receive such grants. Richardson realized that she was unlikely to receive a grant from her local council, and thus moved to Bristol, where as a resident, the local council (in a town with its own famous drama school) would be much more likely to recognize talent, and award her a grant for drama school.
(2) . Central is one of a handful of British drama schools that has opted to become part of the British University system. The positive consequences of this decision are that all the students who are accepted to Central are automatically subsidized, the negative consequences are that the students must now take many courses that they consider irrelevant to their education as actors.
(3) . A note of explanation concerning auditions for drama schools in Britain, and particularly at The Bristol Old Vic is in order. The Old Vic has over 12,000 applicant each year. They audition each applicant over a series of weeks, and then narrow the competition down to approximately 300 students. These 300 are then broken into several groups, and asked to spend a long weekend at The Old Vic. The instructors then do a series of workshops with the students, determining their suitability for the particular program offered at their school, their level of concentration, discipline, maturity, etc. They also try to determine if the students they choose will work well together as a group. COPYRIGHT 1997 CineAction