Politicking with ‘Made in Dagenham”s Miranda Richardson

Made in Dagenham (directed by Calendar Girls’ Nigel Cole) tells the complicated, true story of the women working in the Dagenham Ford factory who, in 1968, went on strike for equal pay to men doing comparable jobs. The women’s actions directly led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970, which was the first legislation in the country aimed at leveling the financial playing field between men and women. Part history lesson, part spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, Made in Dagenham is the rare film about feminism that will actually educate its viewers about global feminist history and politics, and show an experience that might seem familiar, when in fact very few people are actually aware of the details of the event.

In 1968, there were 187 women working at the Dagenham plant, doing mainly hand-sewing of interiors, and doing it with precision and doing it fast to keep up with the almost unrealistic demand that they pace themselves according to speed of the production line. They at first gamely take on the challenge, relentlessly piecing upholstery together on machines and with their hands. Their work, according to the administration, is considered “unskilled.” In addition to being a part of the hard-working blue collar world, many of these women were expected to work at home. Their days did not end when they stitched their final stitch of the day and punched the time clock. They went home to take care of children, husbands who did similar work, and parents. They cooked, they cleaned, they ironed dutifully as many women of this era did, interpreting the term “modern woman” as one who simply did all the work for little recognition and next to no pay. They were also expected to have their hair and makeup done and to look good while doing all of this work.

The film opens on a gorgeous summer morning, setting a deceptively light tone. Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) rides her bike to work alongside her co-workers, immediately recalling the last time Hawkins opened a film while riding a bicycle: Mike Leigh’s brilliant Happy-Go-Lucky, in which Hawkins gave her iconic performance as Poppy, the quirky heroine of the story. The opening montage in Made in Dagenham is stylish, colorful, and dare I say, poppy. But make no mistake: the actress is not simply repeating herself in this film, but rather branching out to play a completely new, exciting woman who inadvertently finds herself at the flashpoint of a burgeoning women’s movement and later becames one of it’s most enthusiastic crusaders.

Hawkins exceptionally navigates the brutal paradox of the “modern woman” having to be beholden to a double bind where the expectation was that women be paragons of strength, and towers of morality and wisdom, but also somewhat silent for the benefit of everybody when it came to the meat and potatoes of the struggle for gender equality. No men (and even some other women) wanted to hear these ladies complaining about the lack of equality. To complain, to break the silence, was to transgress a rigid silence mandate supporting the gendered status quo, and to ask for equality was considered an act of revolution. This film is multi-layered and rich in its timely depiction of a feminist struggle from yesteryear that is utterly relevant today, provoking the questions: Have things really changed all that much since 1968? Why are women still so grotesquely underpaid in the workforce when compared to their male counterparts? In Hollywood, is there gender equality for male and female film stars more than 40 years after the emergence of feminism?

While Hawkins gives a charismatic, assured performance as Rita (her speeches are simply gorgeous), the character that will command the audience’s attention is the regal, “fiery redhead” politician Barbara Castle, played with verve and vivacity by two-time Oscar nominee Miranda Richards (Damage, Tom & Viv). As Castle, the actress again completely disappears into the character – a Richardson signature. In yet another signature Richardson move, she manages to steal every scene she appears in with expertly-played gestures and facial expressions, aided by period costume, hair and make-up to change her physical features ever-so-slightly. Castle was one of the only female politicians working in the British cabinet at the time, but her formidability and tenacity is the stuff of legend, much like the storied career of Richardson herself, who has become known for her blisteringly honest, nervy, and intuitive performances.

Richardson, taking a cue from Castle, is out working the campaign trail on behalf of her film, and kindly took a few moments to speak with me. As I walked into the Manhattan hotel suite, I was warmly greeted by the actress – and long-time animal rights activist – looking like every bit the fashionista in a punk rock couture mini dress, dripping in heavy metal jewelry, and wearing a positively editorial pair of black suede Yves St. Laurent platforms with a pony hair mohawk fringe delicately spiked up along the edge of the heel. Without missing a beat, Richardson let me know that no animals were harmed to make the shoes and assured me that the embellishment came from animal by-products only.

In every interview I read as prep, each author indicated that she was a “difficult” person to talk to, daring to shoot from the hip and not give canned, slick responses as is the standard of the press junket circuit. Unpredictable. Talented. Intelligent. Strong. Woman? Of course these guys who are interviewing her are disturbed and disarmed by her candor and off-kilter, yet warm sense of humor. When a man keeps it real, it is brio and everybody is charmed. When a powerful woman like Richardson does it, she is branded “difficult” or “strange” by unimaginative writers. It’s a pity that some of these older profiles of the actress were unable to celebrate Richardson’s superhuman ability to see through bullshit, and even call out sloppy journalism as she judiciously, and with good humor, saw fit.

For someone so allegedly “aloof,” Richardson, despite enjoying her first cup of coffee of the day at noon following a trans-Atlantic flight the previous evening, was warm, gracious and extremely funny. Without a morning cup of coffee, its not a good idea for me to leave the house, but even when I mistakenly misspoke and referred to her as a “transformer” (when I meant to say “chameleon”), the actress quite sportively did a spot-on impression of a robot turning into a car, complete with gestures, whirrs and bleeps; not at all what I had expected from the journalist-slaying reputation that was alluded to and that I had lived in fear of after doing my research. Richardson is refreshingly cool, not to mention a heavy favorite to find herself back in the Best Supporting Actress awards conversation this year for her work in Made in Dagenham. In the film, she “transforms” into the slightly-frumpy, yet still stylish whiskey-drinking firecracker Barbara Castle, and not, as auteur David Cronenberg, who directed her in Spider (2002) might have us believing, a hot Italian race car.

The third time’s a charm, or so they say…

PopMatters: How is New York treating you so far?

Miranda Richardson: Oh, very well. Very well. I only arrived last night [Halloween], so I didn’t get to go out in costume or anything like that. Its very hard (laughs). No, its very nice to be in a comfy hotel. We were just in Rome the day before, for the film festival there, and had a terrific screening, wonderful reception. Two of the original [real-life] ladies from Dagenham were there, and they got applause that just went on and on and on… It’s very moving.

PM: How familiar were you with this inspirational feminist story when you took on the part of Barbara Castle?

MR: [I was] Not. Not. I was pretty much a baby when it was all happening. I like telling everybody ‘my head was full of horses.’ And that was it at the time. I knew nothing about [the strike].

PM: What was your point of entry into the character of Barbara Castle? What made you want to play her?

MR: She is so inspirational to so many people, still, and what she did was so important. What all of these women did was so important. I had to make a fairly swift decision and I didn’t have long to work on the movie. You know how things are today. The money comes together like (makes swooshing noise with appropriate sweeping hand and arm gestures) and you go! So, it was a bit like that.

I got a lovely letter from Stephen and Liz [Woolley and Karlsen, respectively. The film’s producers] and they asked ‘Could you? Would you?’ And I thought ‘Well, I’ll have a go.’ So, they just threw everything they had at me, like a biography, news footage, just a couple of snippets, you know? At one point in her life, when she was older and had left the government, [you could see that] the energy was just phenomenal. Putting herself out there everyday, helping people, and making things better. I just thought she was amazing. Everything I read just confirmed that. I worked with a dialect coach, because I thought that was quite important, being a real-life character that’s in a movie, that I should sound approaching what she was like, anyways.

PM: That is a great segue into my next question, actually, because one of my favorite aspects of the character you create in Made in Dagenham is her voice. What was filming the fiery red-head scene in Dagenham like, yelling at those guys over and over? How many takes did you do?

MR: You know what? I don’t think we did many! (laughing) It was a bit of a blur that day because I was quite nervous, but I thought it was well-written. I wanted to get the juice out of it, really. If you do it too many times, you can start hearing yourself, and that’s fatal, it’s horrible. I was working with two incredibly funny guys and so there’s that split going on: when you’re not doing the takes, you’re joking with everyone and listening to them and being helpless with laughter and then suddenly, it’s ‘you’re on!’ [And you think] ‘OK, what am I doing?’ (laughing) I leave it a little bit loose. I try not to over-think it, over-work it, and just suck it and see. So, I sucked it and saw about! Three or four times, I think. There are times when you feel like you’re not doing it, its just kind of just happening. Those are the moments that I like, when it’s just kind of going off on it’s own.

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.

Made in Dagenham opens in limited release on 19 November 2010, and will expand throughout the holiday season.