Directing Richardson Is Like Driving a Ferrari
PM: This was such a good predominantly female cast, good casting down to the smallest roles. Sally Hawkins was unbelievable. What do you think makes her perfect for playing Rita?
MR: She’s got great integrity as a person and she’s funny, so she can see the humor in situations, but she’s very conscientious, as well. I think the fact that she looks so fragile, but in fact, she is this tower of strength, I think that’s one of the winning things about this tiny little person – this bird-like person – who has the heart of a lion.
PM: What kind of women do you like to see onscreen?
MR: Well, I have my old favorites like [Simone] Signoret and Gena Rowlands. Goodness me! I’ve come around – and this will sound terrible – but I’ve come around to Audrey Hepburn. I’ve really taken note of her recently. I’ve watched a few movies recently and thought ‘God, she’s good. God, she’s very warm.’ She’s not cold, she’s very specific, but she’s not cold at all. So they’re from the old days. (laughing) And now I’m going to have to stop because now I’m going to say ‘Oh God, I didn’t say… Oh God, I forgot…’ So, I can’t get into who, specifically, now, but I like somebody who is not afraid to change and I think we relish those opportunities anyway. I wouldn’t say I feel fearless in my profession, but its nice to watch somebody who you think is fearless, even if they’re not!
PM: Have you had any kind of experiences in your career as an actress that might have placed you in even more of a position of empathy with the women in Dagenham?
MR: Well, the short answer is no. For which I thank these women and all women who have gone before. I have never felt restricted in my profession because of gender. Maybe I’m stupid (heartily laughing). If I can explain it, I feel neither male nor female in my profession, I’m just an actor. I kind of like it that way. I’m not meaning to be confusing, of course if I am doing a female role, I am a woman, yes, we know that. I mean in my brain, in my self. Its all in the trade. Hopefully I can do what’s required, but I never felt circumscribed by gender.
PM: Maybe this has to do with the fact that you’ve played Virginia Woolf’s Orlando on stage?
MR: (Howling with laughter) Yes! Well, I did love that, I have to say! That’s an interesting question, because how did I feel when I was on stage? Did I feel male when I was playing the male character? Did I feel female playing the female? Or maybe I just felt like myself? That would be the goal, wouldn’t it? Its very strict, playing Orlando, very strict. Its more like a dance score that you obey. There was one time, I remember the director, when Orlando is female and is herding goats in Greece or wherever it is, and there’s a tree that arrives on stage, I was leaning up against the tree trunk and enjoying it for just a nanosecond and he went ‘don’t indulge’.I was like… (slaps her own hand, hard). He was right! And I thought ‘damn, he sees everything. Damn it!’
PM: 1992 was a banner year – Enchanted April, The Crying Game and an Oscar nomination for Damage – and we have to talk about the kitchen scene where you remind everyone what scene-stealing is. That scene is such a favorite of mine, there’s so much power, rage and genuine catharsis in it. How did you prepare with the great Louis Malle to deliver such an explosive monologue?
MR: Actually, we didn’t need much. We were supposed to have rehearsal the day before but that was kiboshed. We came to the morning of and he said (in a Louis Malle French accent) ‘you know, I don’t want to do too much. What do you think?’ And I said, I feel so at a loss that I need to do what the British do, and that is make a cup of tea. And so, I put the kettle on. He said ‘good, good, good.’ The handle, just from me putting it on the stove, the handle came away from the kettle, and I was like ‘what is going on?’ And I said I don’ t think I am going move very far. Its that thing of keeping going. If you see someone nervously dusting a table or dusting their clothes, its actually not what they’re thinking about. I think the scene was very well-written,which helps. And the audience is desperate for that, at that point. They’re desperate to feel what she feels, that somebody has got to pay for this and be told off, you know? That’s the moral center of the piece, and its kind of an amoral piece. That is the morality of the piece.
So, the scene had a lovely arc and I was just playing that really. Tell you what, the most difficult thing was arranging my sweater so I didn’t look like I was pregnant when I was leaning over the counter. There was so much of it! It was a lovely sweater, but it was like ‘how do we make it look less without pinning it or rigging it and messing up the scene?’ So I remember that. Its the least little thing… but sometimes those little practical details are very helpful because otherwise you… what I hate is reverence around a scene. You’ve got to have concentration, you’ve gotta have some focus, but reverence around a scene because, you know, (lowers her voice to a dramatic whisper) it’s where someone gets upset. I mean, I quite like those moments, because they allow you to go off in your own head while somebody’s pinning or tucking you or something like that. It’s not suddenly all about (whispering) ‘are we going now…?
PM: Speaking of the Oscars, I’m always interested to know what the experience was like for nominees – what can you tell me about the Oscars that we may not know?
MR: You know that the second you leave your seat, it’s filled, you know that, and it’s very difficult to winkle them out when you get back from the bar, or the loo, or whatever it is. One time, I had to winkle out Jeremy Irons, who just didn’t look me in the eye, I said ‘that’s my seat.’ He said ‘well, there’s a seat over there,’ and I said ‘No! That is my seat! (laughing) So, I’m still trying to get him out in real life.
The second time was fun because I just felt like the pressure was kind of off and thought ‘well, who knows?’ It was a lottery for God’s sake! I went to the bar with my friends and came back about a half an hour later and only about two awards had happened, you know? Everything is grindingly slow. The first one was kind of quite an ordeal. The red carpet thing goes on forever. So many interviews. But quite fun…
PM: I revisited Robert Altman’s Kansas City in preparation for our interview and was really invested in the relationship between your character and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s. It was so exciting to watch the story unfold. What were your biggest challenges working within the Altman milieu, and what did you take away from the experience of working with Altman that has stuck with you?
MR: Oh, good! She’s fabulous! [The challenges] were in my head: ‘what if he wants me to improvise?! Oh my God, I’m filling somebody else’s shoes and I’m not very good at that…Oh, God...’ And it was all like that to build up to the scenes. He teased me. I think it was teasing. He’d say ‘oh, we’re gonna call you on Thursday.’ So, you know, Thursday would come and then actually it would be ‘oh no, no, no, we’re gonna call you tomorrow’ or something like that. ‘We’ll maybe start with this scene…’ I just had to give in in the end otherwise I would be a nervous wreck. And very helpfully, the guy who plays my husband, [actor] Michael [Murphy], said to me, ‘you know, I came to work with Bob, and I was loaded for bear.’ He said ‘you don’t need to be, it’s fine. You’ll make it all fine. Just relax.’ I thought (tentatively) ‘hmmm….OK.’ And he said ‘Really, trust me.’ And it was true! I absolutely loved working with Jennifer, we got on great.
I did actually have to a bit of, kind of a bit of, sort of, improvising, a little in that if there’s a moment in the scene, you either fill it or you don’t. You know, if there’s a silence, so that’s a choice and you can make that because you’re a performer, but later on, he said ‘I don’t know… just write something. Write… write this little speech, you know… what you think she’d say.’ By this time, I had sort of been working on it for like a month, so I felt much more comfortable about that. He said ‘we’ll probably need it on Wednesday,’ and he lied. It was more like next Wednesday, so I had even more time to think about it, and it actually was hugely enjoyable. I felt really like I was contributing to the movie. On Blackadder, on British TV, you get to do a bit of your own thing every now and then, and its very satisfying. So, I came away thinking I was a bit more resilient than I think am, really. I know people were quite mean about that movie, and I am obviously too close to it, but I enjoy it, enormously.
PM: Revisiting your films while preparing for this interview I was reminded of just the sheer range of women you’ve played, they all felt very different. You seem like another person from film to film, so it kind of gave me the idea that you are kind of a transformer [editor’s note: I meant to say ‘chameleon’ and failed!]...
MR: I love that! Wouldn’t you love to do all that? It’d be sort of cool! Do you love all that shit? [Richardson breaks into a spontaneous imitation of a robot turning into a car, complete with spot-on sound effects and amazing facial expressions] Turning back into a sexy little sports car at the end of the day? I’d love to do that. In fact, I have been, once, likened to a sports car. When I worked with David Cronenberg. It was just like any other day. I had done a little scene with Ralph [Fiennes] and I was being mean to him as one character or another (laughing). I was on my way back to the dressing room, and there was a person over my shoulder, and it was David, Cronenberg, and he said ‘I just want to tell you that directing you is like driving a Ferrari.’ And I said ‘coming from you that is very special, thank you.’ So, I have always taken that as my biggest compliment, actually, you know, because he’s all about cars and power and things like that. ‘Working with you is like driving a Ferrari.’ I can’t get over that! So, yeah, transformer...I hope so!
PM: I wonder if you see any qualities that link your characters in some way?
Its not something that I said, I think somebody has said its all about life. You can kind of feel life going on, an interior that exists that is real. Which is very nice, if that’s comes across, but the important thing is to tell the story. Its just to be part of storytelling is magical, and there are many elements to that, but I’m just trying to get it right.