While under quarantine, our London-based members hopped on a Zoom call to discuss the state of the film industry. Composer Gary Yershon welcomed Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter, Joely Richardson, to talk about their acting journeys, their perspectives on the industry (both British and American), and how they’re staying creative in quarantine.
Gary Yershon: Where are you two? Are you in the U.K. or are you in America?
Joely Richardson: We're in Hampshire.
Ah. What's the weather like?
JR: Mixed today, but do you know in this whole lockdown time, it's
been rather extraordinary the weather, hasn't it, mum?
Vanessa Redgrave: It's been beautiful.
JR: I think not having all the cars and the airplanes, there's something truly... how would you even describe it? Like crystal, the air sometimes.
VR: Like spring, actually.
Yes, it's a kind of nature's revenge on the fact that we have to stay indoors most of the time. How have you been managing in the enforced domestic environment?
VR: Well, Joely can cook.
JR: I thought I could cook, but my cooking seems to have gone like this [draws a downward slope with her hand] as lockdown has continued.
VR: If there's a difficulty, we go locally. And there's pizza, we can get lots of pizza.
JR: And COOK. Do you know COOK, the freezer thing?
VR: Lots of chicken satay.
JR: But to elaborate on lockdown: It's gone through a million different phases, right? You start one way, then there's that phase, and everyone seems to hit downs at different times. We're lucky because we have a garden, so you can put an awful lot of energy into the garden. And I do my NHS deliveries. That's how I've contributed, dropping off food parcels. Mom's done lots of radio.
I was going to ask you whether it's been a creative time, artistically. Because as actors, you're kind of cut off from your normal artistic expression. I wondered whether that's been frustrating.
VR: There's nobody who’s acting or making films able to work at the moment. There's a difference. Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland have said they're staying in full lockdown. For some reason, Boris Johnson has said, in England, we're going to do bits and pieces not in lockdown. Nobody quite knows what that means, but what it does mean is we still can't make films or TV because of social distancing. And I think it's safer because we haven't hit the right place yet, I don't think.
JR: In terms of creativity, mum, for instance, reads an enormous amount. We love watching things. There's painting, there's gardening. As you were saying, creativity takes so many different forms, and I feel very guilty saying this, but I think there's been some element of this giant pause in people's lives that's caused all sorts of different outlets for creativity. So, yes, we're not doing our normal jobs, but that doesn't mean that the creativity stopped.
VR: Doesn't mean we don't draw anymore. And there's a thing called being creative with each other, which means listening to each other, for a start.
JR: The question is so much bigger of what we’ve all gone through than our work. It’s our lives, it’s how we’ve managed, it's how we relate. So, I think if we're sitting here, thinking, "Well, what about my work? When am I going to be able…" it would be missing the point. And because we're in it together, I don't think that's occurred to us.
VR: We're thinking of all the people who are not even able to get outside. Everybody's been trying to think about how they can help.
JR: But Gary, I think you're very right in that, weirdly, this time has possibly enforced or induced more creativity in everyone and that’s what's exciting about it.
It's the public perception that the actor is a kind of passive recipient of other people’s projects. I know you have never had that, because you've always been so widely engaged...
JR: I can't speak for mum's generation. I can speak for my own, and we got lucky. There was lots of work around. But I'm astonished by the younger generation because they are not just passive recipients of work, they are out there writing, directing, just creating all over the place. So, there's a whole new way...
VR: Have you seen Juilliard? It's the top drama school in the United States and, I would say, the top drama school. It's a four-year course, but the point is, they just produced something that's gone out online and it's brilliant. Without words, to the music of Boléro. And every single one of them is in it, doing marvelous dance. So you get a glimpse of what the young people can do, for instance.
JR: Finding the creativity within the circumstance.
VR: Yes, exactly.
JR: Because none of us know how it's going to be going forward. Everything might not exist as it used to, or in fact, at all. It will take a different version. But I thought during this time just how incredibly lucky I've been to work within this industry. To make a living in this industry. Some of us have been very lucky to be paid for something we love doing. The creative profession and how everyone's paid are two different arguments.
VR: No, it's the same thing. I think we're heading for a time in which nobody's going to get paid very much.
JR: Nobody knows what will happen.
VR: Well I'm saying what I think. Because what else can I say.
JR: The world is in a very perilous position, isn't it? It goes back to “we're all in it together.” Every single industry. For me, it’s a thing to see collectively, rather than individually.
VR: Yes, I agree.
JR: And I know “we're all gathered here today” sounds funny, it sounds like a...
VR: A wedding.
JR: We're here to talk about the arts and about film, but as we're all here talking on Zoom, you can't help but... I feel funny just defending our industry, when it's widespread, global, everyone's industries.
Obviously you both started out in the theatre, in a very distinguished theatrical family. I supposed it came very naturally. Is that the case for all of you? You both moved into the theatre because that's where your parents were – is that what you were going to do right from the beginning?
VR: I wanted to be a dancer. I trained as a dancer. I didn’t realize as I was training from the age of five with the Ballet Rambert, I didn’t realize that I was going to be too tall. So as a youngster, I just thought, “This is what I'm going to do, this is wonderful.” And then the day came when I realized that I was too tall. I couldn't dance in the classical ballet, which had been my ambition. Of course, if I'd been in America, I'd have realized that there were many venues where I could have danced as a very tall young woman. Anyway, that's what I had hoped to do. I couldn't dance, so next best thing: act.
You've done quite well at the next best thing, haven't you?
VR: Well it served me in good stead.
Yes, real longevity in your second choice. What about you, Joely?
JR: You know what one of the funny things is, that Vanessa stole my thunder, not for the first time. Because I was going to say I wanted to be a gymnast, and I grew too tall. And that is a true story.
VR: It is. I remember we used to take you. You were very, very good.
JR: We used to go on the tube on the freezing nights to do my beam work and stuff like that.
VR: Yes, you were very good at that.
JR: When the career as a gymnast, being a foot above the required height, failed, acting was just always something we did. I say ‘we,’ me and my sister Natasha, because there wasn't all the technology that there is now. So on a winter evening of a holiday, that's what you did, you'd put on plays.
I was always incredibly shy so this acting thing became this extraordinary outlet where I could lose myself.
And that's how I came to do it. So where's the bit from your ballet dancer to acting?
VR: I just so love to listen to you. I do, I love it. I've done my bit, second-best act, I went to drama school to be interviewed by the principal, and I was rather intimidated because I didn't know whether she'd accept me. I had done some kind of an audition, but hadn't got a great reaction. I was 19 or something. Anyway, she said, “You'll have to realize that until you're about 30, you won't get any parts of your own age.” I said, “I realize that, that's okay. I’ll deal with that.” So I set forth in my mind as somebody who was never going to get a wonderful part of my age, ever. But one day, when I was old, like age 30, maybe I'd get some walk-on parts or something interesting like that. We all have different ideas than anybody ever imagines.
Joely, did you come out to drama school with completely different expectations to that? Did you have any blocks or obstacles?
JR: I did theatre and film. What were my expectations? That's such a...
VR: I know what my expectations of you were.
JR: What were yours?
VR: I saw her play this...
JR: Oh gosh, do we want to hear this?
VR: Yes we do. Well I do, I want you to hear it. Because I went to see, I don't know if it was her final year at the Royal Academy. And I saw her play Rosalind in a full-length production of As You Like It, which was very exciting and actually was a very good production, and she was wonderful in it. And I thought, ‘My god, this is so great. I am so thrilled she is playing it beautifully.’ So that's my little chip in... but she's going to run herself down.
JR: No, I was just going to say, what were expectations? I think just to... be good. I mean, I always say that there's an arrogance of youth that actually helps you.
VR: It helps you survive.
JR: Because you don't have the millions of doubts. The wonderful thing about youth is you don't think, you just go and you grab. And it protects you.
VR: There was a big break, which benefited all of us, which was a complete change of direction in British cinema. What happened was that the French had a huge influence on the young British directors. Tony Richardson, her father, and Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, and many others... they were the foremost, I would say. And John Schlesinger, of course, who turned British cinema upside down.
Forget trying to be like Hollywood. We are British and we are dealing with subjects that we care about, which is how ordinary people live in this country.
And what was your step into American films? Was it through something like Camelot?
VR: One of the greatest films I've ever seen in my life came out of Hollywood. It's called High Noon, Fred Zinnemann directed it. It changed everything for me.
JR: What was the other one you talked about in The Guardian?
VR: Well, The Search, Fred Zinnemann's next film. Of course, Tony's, your father, Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, brilliant film.
JR: And Warren Beatty’s Reds...
VR: And Reds. That came out of Hollywood. I don't join in this ‘ho, ho, ho’ Hollywood stuff because some of the greatest work has come out via Hollywood, with all sorts of differences, no doubt.
JR: Remember when you were offered Camelot?
VR: I was going to turn it down.
JR: And he encouraged you to do it.
VR: [Joely’s father] said, "You must be mad. If you do Camelot, you can do any single film you want to do.” And of course it did, it opened a door. It was directed brilliantly, photographed brilliantly, brilliant score, brilliant libretto. I mean, what more would you want from that?
Joely, was it easy to get into the American film industry having been a British stage actress?
JR: I got lucky, again, with the wave of British cinema that was happening when I got out of drama school. I worked for David Hare, Peter Greenaway, Ken Russell, there were all these people, and a lot more independent films were being made. So I sort of went straight into film. I think my first American film was 101 Dalmatians...
Sorry, a little segue. During this time, I've been doing the isolation sort, as I'm sure more people have. Attic full of boxes of papers and work stuff, and da da da. And I found an old journal that said something like, “That's the 23rd job I've gone up for that I haven't got.”
Twenty-three in a row I didn't get. So what that says – I mean, encouraging to some – is that perhaps I should've thought about a different profession. But there are always those moments as actors where you despair where you're not getting anything.
But I remembered, for my first [American audition], which I think was 101 Dalmatians, there was a cattle call, a line around the block in terms of the audition process. And this sweet, brilliant, beautiful, now very successful actress was in front of me and she was having an absolute panic attack. She was going in before me and she was like, "Oh my god, I'm so nervous, I'm so nervous." And she said, "Doesn't it get any easier?" And I was like, "No, the nerves always stay." Every job was hard to get because there were so many people going up for it. But in terms of breaking into the market, that was luck in my case because once the doors open... I have been offered more jobs in America than I'm offered in England.
VR: One thing I think is important: At that time, when Richardson, Reisz, and Lindsay Anderson were making their films, Americans had decided that anything that was British was going to make money. Now this doesn't often happen in any industry. But that's what had happened. And wonderful people were able to get filming off the ground in a way that has never happened since. That was a moment when, if you were British, you were the bee's knees, as an actress and also, actually as a technician. Some of the greatest English technicians found permanent work in the United States. It's an interesting moment.
But remember, we're talking about England. We've been in cinema in Europe, too. Not just in America. I always find this strange... a kind of lockout. What about Germany and Spain? We as actors, we're following it all. And we're hoping, from time to time, to get a chance to work with wonderful German, Spanish, French directors. Don't lock all that out. There's always a tendency in Britain to get a little bit nationalistic without meaning to. We're all decent people, but there is this tendency to block out what's happening in the rest of the world, unless it's America.
Joely, I just noticed a very interesting film that you made, well the title’s interesting [Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America].
JR: Yes. Well, now I've done two about pandemics. The Day of the Triffids, we also did. And, in fact, I've been texting lots of the crew during the time because we were like, "Oh would you remember the day we did that?"
When you're doing a role like that, does any of the research you're doing stay with you?
JR: Well no, I think... do you remember the early days of when this hit all of us? Many people were around their television and the five o'clock speech, and everyone coming out, and everyone was saying, “Gosh, this is really strange. We feel like we're in a film.” Like you said, you've seen the films, I've seen the films, I've been in the films. So when it actually happens, you think, “This is weirdly familiar.” Of course, not in terms of the research. The research is changing every day. But I think people who are very Internet perceptive, and who really stay on the beat, are saying this has been predicted for a long time.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.