Lynn Redgrave Gets Personal
by quendrith johnson
When Lynn Redgrave materializes for her interview, we're both
shocked to find out that three consecutive Los Angeles-area eateries
are closed because it is just after 3 pm, the apparent post-lunch
witching hour. Who would miss a chance to be in the company of
Lynn Redgrave, two-time Oscar® nominated actor (Gods and Monsters,
1998, Georgy Girl, 1966), Tony winner, author of the outstanding
one-woman show "Shakepeare for My Father," sister of
Vanessa Redgrave, and, consequently, aunt of Natasha Richardson
and Joely Richardson; also aunt to her actor brother Corin's daughter,
Today, Lynn, in "trainers" (as they call sneakers in
England) is impeccably dressed in matching ivory top and pants
and is ready for the hike to a coffee shop in the neighborhood.
The picture of grace under pressure, she begins by expressing
surprise that The Annihilation of Fish, which Regent Entertainment
opens at the end of this month (co-starring James Earl Jones and
Margot Kidder), is actually being released. A) because it is about
"old" people; b) because they are eccentric; and c)
because they are in love. "I can't remember Jimmy [James
Earl Jones] in a recent love scene, can you?" she asks. "He
is a very sexy man."
By the time lattes have been ordered and it is clear the coffee
place is too loud for a proper interview, Redgrave is as patient
as Geoffrey Rush's lover she played in Shine. "I've never
seen this place not packed," she notes, and then graciously
agrees to sit on a rather sunny but quiet doorstep a few shops
down. Here, on the stoop, we veer into unexpected territory. Not
the usual fare to promote Fish nor next month's The Simian Line,
directed by Linda Yellen, in which Redgrave plays Harry Connick
Perhaps we go "personal" because she has a son who
is a pilot for Delta and a daughter who was studying at Parsons
in New York when the planes hit. (Both children, and her other
son, are, thankfully, safe in Post-Innocence America.) Perhaps
we go there because both films, Fish and Line, were shot at a
time when her personal life was about to be broad-sided without
warning. In any case, let it stand that Lynn Redgrave has essentially
been reincarnated in her own lifetime. She did not collapse under
the weight of infidelity and harsh personal betrayal, but instead
stood standing and working, despite a divorce from her husband
of 32 years and a brush with the tabloids that would have leveled
In retrospect, Redgrave puts it this way: "I could imagine
myself at some point, possibly, sharing things with women's groups,
saying, 'Okay, this is what I went through and this is what I
learned.' Now I look back, and I was in a very abusive situation,
and I allowed it. I don't mean physically abusive, but I lived
through it in all the classic ways that abused women do. Many
women have been badly, badly abused, but I am one of the ones
who got away."
Which makes her performance in The Annihilation of Fish, where
she plays an overwrought, Puccini-obsessed lover of a Jamaican,
demon-possessed gentleman and title character, Fish (Jones), that
much more remarkable. "Pointsettia (her character in Fish)
is not something you could do with half measures," Redgrave
states, putting her work and her life into perspective.
Quendrith: Going back to Shine in 1996, it seems like you've
had some fantastic projects.
Lynn Redgrave: Shine certainly completely changed everything
as far as film. I hadn't done a film in six years, and it didn't
look like I was about to. I had been working in the theater and
nobody, absolutely nobody, wanted to put me in a film.
Were you here at the time, based in L.A.?
Topanga Canyon, actually. I had the British Oscar nomination,
the BAFTA, for Shine. I got [Shine] because Scott Hicks just happened
to come in while I was doing my one-woman show, "Shakespeare
for My Father." Scott is Australian, and in my entrance I
come on in a 'dry as a bone,' which is a cattleman's coat and
a cattleman's hat, which the audience wouldn't recognize as anything
Unless you are Australian.
Right. That intrigued him and he offered me Shine, and that was
just a little low-budget movie in Australia about a pianist we
had never heard of. And John Gielgud was playing a role and that
was great. So I said, 'Yes,' and did it. It was a wonderful experience
to be with Geoffrey and with [Scott] and everybody, and I thought,
'I will never see these people again.'
Did you have a sense of the potential of that piece?
No. I don't think anybody did. Until I saw that, in fact, I was
in a masterpiece! I only knew that when I saw the screening, and
I could see that Geoffrey was giving a marvelous performance.
Not long after, it came out and Geoffrey won the Oscar®.
(Director) Bill Condon, who had also seen me in "Shakespeare
for My Father," said, "Well, if you can transform yourself
with no visual aid, then I want you to play Hannah [in Gods and
Monsters]. So I did Gods and Monsters, and the success of Gods
and Monsters coupled with Shine, seemed to completely change everybody's
thinking about me in film. I haven't added it up, but in the last
couple of years I've been in seven or eight films, and now the
Annihilation of Fish.
When was the Annihilation of Fish shot?
Around the time of the Oscars® for Gods and Monsters, actually,
and so was another film called The Simian Line which is also coming
out. It's going to open in New York in November and that's with
Harry Connick. In the meantime, there's a lot of stuff that's
about to come out and the nice thing is, I'm not pigeonholed anymore.
Not one single role I'm offered is like any other. Usually, with
the film world, when you play the Hungarian housekeeper, you will
continue to be offered the Hungarian housekeeper or German housekeeper.
The story in The Annihilation of Fish is very raw. There are
moments in it that reminded me a little bit of Barfly- the Charles
I haven't seen [Barfly]. But this story, it's a weird one, isn't
it? I don't know who its audience is. Audiences laugh like mad,
or cry. They applaud; they go crazy. But those are festival audiences,
who are into film. Young people I know who've seen it, love it.
But I don't know how you market it towards young people. I don't
know how you'd market a film like this anyway, and it's a miracle
it is coming out-I'm thrilled. I love James Earl Jones. He's a
Who was on the project first?
James, then me, and then Margot.
It's so much about personal pain. Margot Kidder, obviously in
her on-screen and off-screen life, has had some transformations
Yes. Now, she doesn't look like that [much older in the film];
she is still very attractive. It's a make-up job. She's marvelous,
Yes, it's a very moving performance when you know the backstory.
I guess because we're all older, and we have all been somewhere
strange and painful in our lives, as is inevitable if you live
long enough. That seems to kind of speak to people. I mean, the
biggest laughs, which I've seen with fairly large type audiences,
is when Fish says, "You know, what have we got in common?"
Poinsettia says 'we have old in common.'
I love that line. Because it is unapologetic old, not "Oh,
we're at this place in our lives, but we're not really here."
The masks are sort of ripped off.
Absolutely. And Charles Burnett, who made it, is the gentlest,
sweetest man, and it was made on a shoestring. We were all sort
of special SAG minimum. But we all wanted to do it because of
the script. I mean James certainly doesn't have to do a little
low-budget movie if he doesn't want to. But he did; he loved the
character of Fish.
Your American accent is perfect, clipped in all the right places.
I've been at it a long time, 25 years playing Americans. When
I came to America, I thought if your name is Redgrave, people
will know you're English and you'll be pigeonholed. I studied
with a dialect coach to get the accent down.
You really come from an acting dynasty. Your grandfather [Roy
Redgrave], your father [Michael Redgrave], your sister, nieces.
My great-grandfather too, my sister, three of my nieces, my sister's
daughters, and my brother's daughter.
Do you all share the same philosophy of the business or how you
look for roles?
When we're together, we're more likely to be talking about family.
If it's my sister and me, if she's working on something-I'll ask
her who else is in it. And we'll go to each other's opening nights,
if we're around. [Vanessa] came to my opening night of "Noises
Off," which I just did in England. I go to her plays, my
brother's plays. Acting is not the main thing we talk about, because
it is what we do. It's much more difficult to set up reunions
in a show biz family. We don't really talk acting that much, unless
we're having trouble with a director! [laughs] The joy of our
lives is when we have a good director. I've had so many good ones
lately I haven't had to bitch too much.
Getting specific about transitions in people's lives, you have
moved out of a marriage you were in for a long time, and you are
in this place where your craft is at its height.
Yes. It has been an extraordinary time because, of course, my
marriage was breaking up in an unfortunately very public way.
The drama, as far as tabloids and things were concerned, was in
full swing, if that's the word, while [Fish] was going on. Perhaps
it's the same for people in other careers as well, but I think
that cast and crews of movies, or companies of theater actors,
are so wonderfully supportive. I think because we all live in
a somewhat fragile state anyway, there is no job security. We
never know for sure if [success] will ever continue.
Because we have to bare our souls with each other, often with
total strangers-I'm playing so-and-so and you're so-and-so, and
let's get into bed-there's an emotional nakedness. You know you
are putting your trust in people around you; it's like being a
trapeze artist, and people are your safety net. That's why the
relationships become intensely friendly, but don't necessarily
continue, but you could pick up in ten years.
Your performance in Fish is just emotionally out there at points.
There was no other way to play her. Here's somebody who walks
around with [an invisible] Puccini on her arm; and then leaves
him because he won't marry her. You have to go full flood into
that when one of the first scenes, [Poinsettia] is sitting at
a performance of "Butterfly" and Puccini is next to
her. And she admits he is dead, and she thinks he wrote [the role]
for her. There were no half measures, you have to leap in with
the full fervor that the writer Tony Winkler wrote them with.
Meanwhile, on the outside, your personal life and the media surrounding
it, is eating away at your privacy.
Yes. That's what I was starting out to say: Thank God for movie
hours. You wake up in the morning, you go to work at 6 or 6:15
am and work till 8 or 9 pm. I remember when my dad died in 1985,
going to rehearsal was what got me through. I don't know to what
extent I would have given a different performance in Fish if I
hadn't been under the sort of stress that I was. But I suspect
it wouldn't have been that different; she leapt off the page at
me. There was no barrier between me and her; it was the same as
with Hannah (Gods and Monsters).
Are these women hard to leave?
Hannah was particularly hard to leave. I loved Hannah. I did
sit in my costume for a good hour or so on my last day [of shooting]
and didn't want to say goodbye.
Was there such logic to the character that she could have gone
It's hard to explain. Usually it's the ones who are not like
me, like Hannah, like my character in Whatever Happened to Baby
Jane, which I played with my sister. When I find a character [that's
good], usually because they are well-written, they jump off the
page and I know who they are. It's absolutely clear to me, those
people. I look forward to meeting them each day. I'm spending
time in their company. But I'm also a professional, so it's not
like I'll sit around at home thinking, 'Oh, I need a Hannah fix,
think I'll go put on the costume.'
Does the wall between you and the person you are "visiting"
get thinner when your life is in turmoil?
I think leaving my past life freed me fantastically. I feel very
different now than I did two years ago. It wasn't a particularly
easy road, when you've been with someone thirty-something years
and had children. I said this to my children- when it all first
happened I felt that I was struggling to climb some big mountain
that I would probably never get to the top of, but I had a sort
of faith. Actually, it was sort of a mountain range more than
a mountain, where a new life was over the mountain range. Like
when the pioneers got to the Rockies, I had to believe there was
this sunny place somewhere where you could grow an orange tree
in your garden. I had this horrible feeling I couldn't get over
the range, but if I did, there would be this wonderful place.
My children have reminded me since that I made it. I have changed
and grown and my "true" self perhaps has come out, maybe
I do remember that there came a day when I felt that I could
actually see over the other side. I mean I literally felt like
that; it was really, really hard. And then came the moment when
I noted to myself that I hadn't thought about it for a morning,
and that was a wonderful day.to actually think about other things.
Then I began being able to make jokes about it. I'm a great journal
writer and writing is so often how I get rid of stress-that if
I can write it down and get it into some order. I would take notes,
like, 'Today I made a joke. Today I felt good. Today, I was happy.'
The irony is that your character gets married at the end of Fish.
Right. And happily married, to Jimmy! He would say, "What
scene are we doing first?" And I would say, 'Sorry, Jimmy,
I'm afraid it is more kissing.' And he would say, "Yum, yum!"
Are you still making the choices the way you used to? Because
I know you did The Wild Thornberrys and that seems like a departure.
I love that. I've been wanting to do some animated stuff for
a while. The first I did was a little children's video where I
was a Siamese cat and a Basset hound. I do a lot of books on tape
where I have to learn a million parts. Last year I did, for the
Disney Channel, a thing called "The Lion of Oz," which
was written by Frank Baum's nephew-or great-nephew possibly. And
all of a sudden came The Wild Thornberrys. I play the granny;
Tim Curry is in it. It won't be out for a long while because it
takes forever to animate those things. They take enormous energy;
they do it line by line with a voice director. It's like a radio
play. The whole script is in lines; you do each line until they
As far as projects you are looking at right now?
There are a couple. One is David Cronenberg's latest; it's called
Spider, with Ralph Fiennes and Miranda Richardson and Gabriel
Byrne. It's still shooting. David Cronenberg I love; Dead Ringers
and The Fly are a couple of my favorites. He's the nicest man,
but he makes these [horror movies].
What's the gist of Spider, without giving it all away?
Briefly, there is a man in the late 1980s in England when they
were releasing a lot of criminally insane people. My character
runs the halfway house that he (Ralph Fiennes) arrives at; we
go back in his mind to three sorts of flashbacks. One in which
he is in the presence of his younger self; one is an infected
memory; and the third is in his fantasy and imagination. At one
point Miranda Richardson and I swap roles; in the next cut it
is Miranda dressed as me or me dressed as her. It's wonderful.
What's the other project?
It's called Anita and Me. It's by Meera Syal; her parents are
from India but she was born in a mining town in the north of England.
They were the only Indian family in the area. She wrote a novel
called "Anita and Me" and then she wrote the screenplay.
She's very famous in England. Anita is the naughty girl who is
a couple of years older and leading her astray and ultimately
betraying her. It sucks you in, in this comedic way, and then
it breaks your heart because it has some really profound things
to say about racism.
I play Mrs. [Enid] Ormerod, a church woman who believes that
high heels are the work of the devil; she likes [the main character]
because she knows her, but she can be very racist in an off-hand
way, not knowing better.
And this catches you up to now?
I began Spider in England while I was still doing "Noises
Off." Then I finished "Noises Off," went up north,
and did some Anita and Me. Then I went to Canada, finished Spider,
then I went to England [for Anita and Me]. and was in a field
in Nottingham when the terrible disaster [of September 11] happened.
We were up in a field and one of the sound people had been listening
to the radio and said, "Come listen to this!"
Immediately you were probably trying to find your son and daughter
in New York.
My son is a pilot, and I knew he was supposed to have been in
New York the night before; he wasn't with one of the two airlines
who were hijacked. But your mind does start playing tricks. What
if. maybe. what if there's a fantastic photo-processing shop my
daughter goes to down by the World Trade Center.
I've been in America so long, this is home. I've got family in
England, but this is a world problem now. It's like when people
said they didn't want to be near earthquakes. We don't know what's
what, do we?
You certainly are a transformed person in a new life at a new
time. You've been nominated for Oscars twice, Tony awards, BAFTA
awards, and you are greatly admired. So, in terms of everything
you feel you should have done, is there anything left to do?
I am for sure doing next another play. It's nice not just being
hired help. So I thought I'd see if I could write a 'play' play,
not just a one-woman show. I did that last March in New Haven.
It's called "The Mandrake Root." It's going to be at
San Jose Rep in January/February. I'm doing more work on it based
on the feedback. Of course, we don't know what theaterland is
like in New York anymore, but that's where I hope it is headed.
It has seven characters in it.
A mandrake root is shaped like a woman and it is fantastically
potent-it can kill you; it's an aphrodisiac and you can get it
on the witches' web sites for about $2.99 a pound. It's magic.
The play is about a mother and daughter; the symbolism of the
root and the magic itself. Sally, the daughter, has a secret.
She unravels it for herself.
Have you ever wanted to put your journals, because I know you
are a journal writer, into a non-fiction book?
Oh, no. I mean "Shakespeare for My Father" was non-fiction.
But [the past events] are things about which I have never spoken.
To the extent that sharing one's story can make other people heal
or make a move, you know that's important. If anything, if it
could help women move and find their strength. I've had time to
look back and see how subtle [abuse] can be.
It's good that you did not blame it on your art in some way.
I have been able to get to the point where I am no longer distressed;
I have three strong, wonderful children, and I am still able to
work. Maybe one of these days. if I ever talk about it in any
depth, it would not be in a tell-all story; it would just be in
the hopes that by telling it, someone might get up and go, out
of something abusive and into the good life.