Actress Joely Richardson opens up to Sophie Heawood about the grief that put her life – and career – in perspective.
Joely Richardson is talking about her father, celebrated director Tony Richardson. He died 28 years ago at the age of 63. Recently she had an odd moment when she suddenly wasn’t sure about the date of his birthday. ‘I couldn’t remember if it was the fifth or sixth of June,’ says Joely, ‘so I googled him. And then I burst into tears, because there was something so mad about having to google your father. I felt like a terrible daughter.’
It’s perhaps inevitable that my conversation with the actress, 54, who starred in Nip/Tuck and The Tudors, turns to the subject of loss and mourning. It is ten years since her sister Natasha, also an actress, died aged 45 in a skiing accident. She slipped during a beginner lesson, hit her head and died two days later.
I ask Joely if she thinks grief ever really ends. ‘In terms of that horrific pain and inability to see that life will ever be the same again – yes, that does end. Do you get over grief? Absolutely you do – with love. Is there joy? Absolutely. But in those early days I never thought grief would end. In my case, it took quite a period of time. Those first five years… grief is just very shocking. I still miss her every single day. What I do feel now, more philosophically, is, why are we not brought up with life and death hand in hand? It’s always just about life – and who gives a toss about the other one? The other always seems far off in the distance.’
She stops herself. ‘I feel funny talking about it because I’m aware just how many people in the world have lost loved ones, lost family. Everyone goes through it, just at different times of our lives. And it even seems strange calling this “my loss” because it was my whole family’s loss – my sister’s boys’ loss… it was like a big explosion. The writer Justine Picardie [editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar magazine] put it best when her sister Ruth died: she said you have to rearrange the whole family dynamic. And we did. And that does take years. But what I hope I get from my mother is this incredible life force.’
Joely’s backstory is well known to anyone with an interest in British theatre. She is part of a famous acting dynasty – with a successful 35-year career of her own. Her mother is the actress Vanessa Redgrave, 82, whose late siblings Corin and Lynn were renowned actors. Natasha was married to Liam Neeson and had two young sons – Micheál, now 24, who has gone into acting, and Daniel, 22, an entrepreneur. After Natasha died Joely left Nip/Tuck, the hit show in which she had starred for seven years, and moved to New York so that she could be nearer to her two nephews. She also returned to theatre, acting off Broadway, having begun her career ‘doing repertory in Liverpool’.
Joely, who always wanted to have more children, suffered with a number of ‘failed pregnancies’ after having her daughter Daisy in 1992. She muses: ‘Weirdly, about ten years before Natasha died I had my own personal collapse and then ten years later I was so much stronger. It is ironic, in the age of “me me me”, that the best way out of our own problems is to help someone else with theirs. It just gets you out of bed, it gets you doing the next thing. People say to me, “Do you act for your sister?” Of course I don’t do things like that. No. But have I tried to be there for my mother and for Natasha’s boys? Yes, I have.’
We are sitting in a Central London hotel. Joely is wearing a flowing, floral dress and drinking an espresso that she has ordered, ‘because I still don’t know what a flat white is. They just sound so depressing, but they must be good because everyone orders them.’ She laughs frequently, speaking in considered, eloquent sentences, interested in grappling with the heart of the matter. She says that she woke up this morning thinking how nice it would be if we could have a proper chat; a two-way conversation rather than the traditional interview format.
Happily single, she tells me about the sense of freedom she discovered in midlife. ‘Once you get out of your 30s and 40s, you’re just not looking for what makes other people feel comfortable,’ she says. ‘Other people are discombobulated by the fact that I’m not married, whereas I’m completely not discombobulated by it.’ (Joely has had a well-documented love life, dating Robbie Williams and Jamie Theakston after her marriage to producer Tim Bevan, Daisy’s father, ended in 1997.)
When she turned 50 four years ago, she got a lot of texts saying things like, ‘Happy birthday! Welcome to the club!’ She found she wasn’t quite sure how to take them, ‘because 50 is a hump – there’s no getting round it. I felt funny about it,’ she admits. But then, once she got further into her new decade, something extraordinary happened. ‘Once you’re past 50, you just start letting it all go, and you don’t care. Everything is new – you’re not trying to find someone to have a family with or to make up a sort of modern family with. It’s all a blank slate – at least it was in my case. So everything’s a gift and this freedom that you get is priceless. It’s the freedom that I was looking for my whole life, but it took to getting to the other side of 50 to find it.’
Joely lives in Bayswater, West London, but also has a house on the borders of Surrey and Hampshire, originally bought to be near Daisy when she was a weekly boarder at Bedales School. Daisy, who appeared in last year’s US TV drama The Alienist, seems to have been unable to resist the lure of the family business. She is even starring in an upcoming film, On Our Way, with her cousin Micheál (who has changed his surname from Neeson to Richardson), her grandmother Vanessa and Vanessa’s husband Franco Nero.
Was it inevitable that Daisy would act too? Joely insists that, though it looks that way from the outside, it really wasn’t. ‘Although as a child she was like my sister Natasha, always putting on shows, always wanting to act. But I do feel that this younger generation of late teens and 20-somethings are so renaissance – they do everything. They have day jobs but then also make food for pop-up stalls or write poetry; it’s not as limited as it used to be when you had to pick one career and follow that path. I am full of admiration for that. Who knows what their eventual defining moment will be?’
Joely’s latest project is The Rook, a futuristic thriller set in London in which she plays Lady Farrier, a Stella Rimington-type character who is the head of a secretive government body that recruits humans with paranormal powers. I watched a preview convinced I wouldn’t get hooked and then found myself completely sucked into the chilling otherworldliness of the story. Joely’s role begins with her speeding down the Thames in a dinghy at night. ‘We went back and forth under all the bridges. And then someone jumped off one of them; this guy, completely off his head, in his undies. The crew saved him. The strength of that current, though – they picked him up so far away from the bridge within seconds.
She is also about to play Nicolas Cage’s wife in forthcoming horror movie Color Out of Space. ‘He and I are the same age in real life, so I was like, “What’s going on?”’ she says. ‘I was pinching myself, saying, surely someone’s made a mistake.’ You mean you would have expected there to be a 25-year-old playing his partner, as in most films? ‘Exactly! At one point I even said to the producers, “This is so cool.” And they said, “Yeah, we made this decision.”’
We discuss gender equality in Hollywood. ‘I do think it has been a revolution.’ Though at a recent press event, ‘this very nice older gentleman said in the sweetest way, “Is it all right if I say your dress is a really lovely colour?” I said, “Thank you very much, it is more than all right if you say that!” It was this fabulous bright cerise dress and as a woman it was lovely to hear that he liked it. I think there is a readjustment period, for women too, because if we’re judging men this harshly, our side of the street has got to be squeaky clean. Hopefully in time it will read just so we can all laugh and joke and not feel straitjacketed about saying, “You look nice today.”’
Joely has learnt how to be true to herself. She enjoys going out to eat, to the theatre and even going on holiday alone. Indeed, she recently went to Greece and found that she was the only person on the beach who seemed able to fully relax. ‘I was appalled,’ she says, laughing again, ‘because everyone was on their phone the whole time. It was as if the sea didn’t exist to swim in, just to take a selfie against and be Instagrammed. I was the only person who went in it.’ She doesn’t do social media at all, not because she’s above all that but because she fears how quickly she might get sucked in. ‘I’m just as fallible as the next person. I’m frightened that I will start living like them, always wanting to grab the moment for their account.’
A few years ago, when she barely knew what social media was, she got on a flight. ‘Another actress gave me a very effusive hello and said, “Ooh, let’s take a picture!” I couldn’t work out what was going on but I knew something odd had just happened.’ It turned out that she was capturing the moment so she could post a photo online of her hanging out with Joely Richardson. She won’t reveal the name of the actress but concedes: ‘I felt slightly robbed.’
‘They say the biggest argument for social media is that you get to write your own narrative. But that,’ she pauses, ‘is bullsh**. We never get to write our own narratives, ever!’ Her own story is a thrilling work in progress. ‘So many of my decisions have been based on: what would be the most exhilarating? So often you receive a script and you can see it doesn’t quite work, the characters and plot – the dots don’t join. But say you’ve nothing else on, would you prefer to go to Cuba during that time or stay at home? Well, now that my daughter’s grown, come on – I want to go to Cuba! And if the film doesn’t work we’ll try and make it work to the best of our ability. And I will have had this incredible life experience.
‘That’s what I was thinking about this weekend while I was with family in the country. I decided to turn my phone off, not answer any work emails and just let them all pile up. I realised that if it was all over tomorrow, I’ve had a blast.’
The Rook will be available from 1 July at 10pm exclusively on Virgin TV Ultra HD