Natasha Richardson: The New Natasha
After several years of slow emergence as the newest progeny of an English acting dynasty, Natasha Richardson won a Tony nomination, married Liam Neeson and landed a starring role in Nell.
A sleek and burnished Natasha Richardson leans toward me over a late lunch in a private sector of her favorite Carnegie Hall-adjacent trattoria. "I spent the morning making myself feel beautiful--I had my face cleaned and I had my nails done and I had a pedicure," she says. I decide to joke with her. "For me, Natasha? I'm flattered." This teases from her a thick, languorous laugh exactly like the one with which Vanessa Redgrave, her mother, slays me whenever I watch and re-watch Blowup or Isadora. Gazing up doe-eyed over a glass of Pellegrino, tongue firmly in cheek, Natasha purrs, "Well, I did know the minute I saw you that I was terribly sorry I am married, but . . . I was actually making myself beautiful because tomorrow I'm flying to visit my husband in Scotland. Your skin is supposed to look very pink when you're done. Does it?"
Oh, supremely pink. And Natasha's husband--that's Liam Neeson, in case you've been boycotting newspaper, magazine and TV gossip coverage for the last few months--will probably agree. That's the same Neeson, of course, who won critical raves playing Oskar Schindler, and with whom Richardson is about to be seen in Nell as one of two doctors baffled by backwoods wild-child Jodie Foster. That's the Neeson, too, with whom she just bought a rambling farmhouse, and with whom she plans more co-starring ventures. Richardson met Neeson when they starred together on Broadway in a glitteringly successful revival of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, and she left a marriage to be with him.
LiamandNatasha. Uttered as one six-syllable word these days in hip circles. Inextricably linked, they're the beautiful, bright young couple of the instant. Arousing more curiosity than Kenneth and Emma. Less funky and kooky than Renny and Geena. More stately, somehow, than Tom and Nicole. Liam boasts a strong reputation as an actor (Husbands and Wives and Ethan Frome among many others, before Schindler) and an equally formidable one as a ladies' man. Natasha hails from the hallowed entertainment dynasty that boasts grandfather Michael Redgrave, grandmother Rachel Kempson, mother Vanessa, aunt Lynn, uncle Corin, father Tony Richardson and sister Joely Richardson--back off, Barry mores--and has achieved a certain cult status with solid performances in an oddball assortment of independent films, from Patty Hearst to The Handmaid's Tale, and meant-to-be-classy TV fare like Zelda and Suddenly Last Summer.
Separately, Liam and Natasha earned more respect than column inches. Together, they're a hot commodity, in tony venues and tabloids alike. Suddenly, they're photographed sunbathing in the near-altogether, dogged by the press while on their European honeymoon, whispered about and speculated about.
Right now, sitting across from her, feeling her strong, commanding vibe, I get the distinct impression that the 31-year-old Richardson is acutely aware that LiamandNatasha represents, among other pleasures, a chance for Big American Movie Stardom. Am I way off on this? "To be perfectly honest, I can't make any bones about it," the actress asserts. "A lot of the movies I've done were perfectly well-received. Some of them were disappointing, some of them were art house movies for a very limited audience. Consequently, I found it frustrating that I wasn't given the freedom of choice in the parts that I wanted to play in bigger movies. When I was in drama school, the types of movies that made me aspire to be an actress were, first, Judy Garland movies, then Coal Miner's Daughter, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Julia." (The last one, of course, was the film for which Natasha's mother won her Oscar.) "'Stardom,' as you put it," she continues, "is very important to me in that I want to be able to have the choice of the scripts of which there are so few, even for the top five ladies in the business. I've felt frustrated that I haven't found the part on which my name was written."
Richardson knows all about parts with names emblazoned on them. She was born to Tony Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave during a five-year marriage when their careers were soaring. He had just been wildly acclaimed for directing A Taste of Honey and had won the Best Picture Oscar for Tom Jones; she was getting hosannas for Morgan! and Blowup. Natasha's own film bow was in a movie directed by Ken Russell, who had cast mother Vanessa as a hunchback nymphomaniac nun in The Devils. "My introduction into this business was sort of beyond anybody's wildest dreams," she says. "When I was 22, Ken offered me Gothic without my even having met him. So, I thought, 'This is great.' It didn't occur to me that I was [ever] going to have to go through the often humiliating process of auditioning. I got a little spoiled at the beginning."
The bizarre Gothic was not, perhaps, the sort of debut that makes career doors swing open. "Hearing stories about Marlon Brando's auditioning for The Godfather or Richard Harris turning up as a waiter in restaurants and bombarding the makers of Camelot with telegrams because they wanted Richard Burton for the movie, not him, doesn't make it any better," says Richardson. "I have to go after parts, like everybody else, because 'somebody's' not convinced."
Was Richardson helped in landing the role of the uptight, got-it-all-together psychiatrist in Nell because her suddenly in-demand husband had been cast as one of the movie's leads? She shakes her head in a resolute no. "I read it before Liam was doing it, and Jodie Foster and I have the same agent. I felt passionately about the script and thought, 'Oh, I just want to play this woman and be in this story.' Liam and I decided it was something we'd both like to do, individually and together. We knew that if one of us didn't get it, it didn't mean that the other was not going to do it. It's not like we were in a package. The character was this person who is so determined to be perfect that she can't really open up and risk not being perfect. I thought, 'I know this so well,' because I've been through this myself, knocking those walls down. The big difference between me and her is that she is not in touch with her emotions and I am too in touch with my emotions."