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Politicking with 'Made in Dagenham''s Miranda Richardson

Miranda Richardson in character as Barbara Castle in Made in Dagenham

Miranda Richardson discusses this season's premiere feminism-themed film about the real-life strike at the UK Ford plant that challenged and changed British laws on equal pay. Just how far have we come since 1968 in the fight for gender equality in the workplace?

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.

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