Natasha Richardson talks about her controversial mother, Vanessa Redgrave; her bisexual father, Tony Richardson; and her own winning lesbian performance in Blow Dry
Natasha Richardson believes there are two ways not to play a lesbian. The first is to shy away from the character's sexuality, making the actress's unease predominate on the screen. The second strategy can be equally disconcerting: "I just hate it in movies when it's shoved down your throat," she says. "`Look at me, aren't I being so brave as an actress, I'm not frightened of playing lesbian!'"
In the new Miramax film Blow Dry, a farcical but touching look at an extended family of hairdressers in a northern England working-class town, the London-born actress "plays lesbian" with just the right touch of empathy and "What's the big deal?" attitude. Her character, Shelley, is having a terminal relapse of cancer but doesn't want to let on to her significant other of 10 years, fellow hairdresser Sandra (Hilary and Jackie' s Rachel Griffiths). She does tell her still-smarting ex-husband (played by Alan Rickman) and her son (played by American teen-movie hottie Josh Hartnett with a pitch-perfect accent) and eventually corrals them into joining her and Sandra in the national hairdressing competition in their town. Silliness and pathos ensue.
Richardson, 37, is certainly not the first member of Clan Redgrave to play a lesbian in film or onstage. Younger sister Joely Richardson played half of a pair of disturbed, incestuous sisters in the 1994 film Sister My Sister. Aunt Lynn Redgrave appeared in the groundbreaking but coy 1986 TV movie My Two Loves, in which the most intimate scene involved Redgrave washing her lover Mariette Hartley's hair. And mother Vanessa Redgrave has been both lesbian- and transgender-friendly: as a suffragist in The Bostonians; as transsexual tennis player Renee Richards in the TV movie Second Serve, as lesbian author (and Virginia Woolfs lover) Vita Sackville-West in the play Vita and Virginia, and, most recently, as a closeted older lesbian who loses her lover and then their home in the HBO movie If These Walls Could Talk 2. Of the latter role--which netted Redgrave an Emmy award--Natasha says admiringly, "It's one of her most brilliant performances."
In real life it's been the men in Richardson's family who turned out to be bisexual: specifically her grandfather, actor Michael Redgrave, and her father, director Tony Richardson, who died of AIDS complications in 1991. Natasha, who's married to actor Liam Neeson (he played Oscar Wilde on Broadway), is thus particularly sensitive to people being boxed in by their sexuality.
"I guess, because of the world I've been brought up in, I just don't categorize people," she says. "I don't think, oh, that's a bisexual person, that's a gay person, that's a straight person."
Since her father's death she's taken a hands-on role in AIDS work, including organizing the American Foundation for AIDS Research's hugely successful auction of Oscar dresses last year (for which she'll be honored in November at the organization's Seasons of Hope gala). In between her activism and raising two young sons, Richardson has also filmed a couple of other projects in the past year--another Miramax movie, Waking Up in Reno, in which she plays Billy Bob Thornton's long-suffering spouse, and the TV miniseries docu-drama Haven, in which she plays Jewish heroine Ruth Gruber (a sort of female version of her husband's Academy Award-nominated Oskar Schindler), who rescued 1,000 Jewish refugees from Europe during World War II.
Just before she finished shooting Haven, she talked with The Advocate by phone from Toronto about kissing Rachel Griffiths, her father's not-so-hidden gay life, the emotional subtext of her new film, and her own hard-won acting identity.
What attracted you to the role of Shelley?
She's the kind of woman I could see vividly. I'm half true Yorkshire--my dad came from the north of England--and I loved the idea of working in England with those actors. …