Joely Richardson keeps interrupting me. That’s what makes them fabulous. We’re at a sidewalk café near London’s television hub, chatting about her new drama Assume. She’s one of a murderous cast of actors who may or may not have a clue. Channel 4 is still keeping the finale under wraps, I say, so we can’t talk about the ending. “The resolution!” she interjects. But hypothetically… “Haha! “Hypothetically, what is the ending?” You’re good! And doing it all so innocently, hoping that I’ll reveal it all.” But – continuing my detective work – hypothetically, have you ever acted… “Terrible characters?” Well, wrong… “Often”, she sighs. “I feel like I’m still waiting to play a proper ‘un.” That’s surprising, I tell her. Why does she think people are attracted to her for… “Anything?” She lets out a great yell from behind the rafters.
That’s what it’s like to chat with Richardson. Quickly. frenetic. Probably exhausting if you can’t quite keep up. It’s a bit like taking part in a tennis match. But while she has an innate royalty — that’s what happens when you’re part of an acting dynasty, I suppose — she’s also incredibly funny, with a magnetic coyness that keeps you on your toes. Much like her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, and her late sister, Natasha, she has always been just as unpredictable as an actress. Romp with Sean Bean in the 90’s Lady Chatterley and plays friendly pet owner Anita in the live action 101 Dalmatians cemented her as a bastion of well-spoken loveliness, but there was also often an ethereal menace to her performances. Look no further than her early role as a murderess in Peter Greenaway’s dream logic thriller drowning in numbersor as an incestuous French maid in the uncanny sister my sister. Her inability to be defined as a thing is truly her secret weapon.
“That’s the funny thing about being an actor,” she continues, dressed in a chic blouse the color of a Quality Street tin can. “You never know what you’re projecting.” However, last year she had an idea when she searched her name online. (For the first time ever, she promises.) She found her credits — including the surgeon’s perpetually restless wife in the US drama series Nip/tuck — but otherwise “saw no representation of who I feel. Red carpet appearances only. And I understood why people think certain things about me. I can come across as looking really tough. A little “thin air”. But I hope that’s not me.” And that’s why she beams: “I started an Instagram at the old age of 57. Just me, who I just so it’s out there with the other stuff.
Richardson is still reflecting on her previous work. “I suppose I’ve played some nice characters. Julia further Nip/tuck baseball was nice.” There’s Anita, I remind her. “Sure! She was a dream.” And she offers that there’s Netflix’s upcoming adaptation of Neil Gaimans The Sandman. She plays the mother of a super villain. “She’s a bit of someone, ‘Is she good? Is she bad?’” Richardson throws up her hands. “Oh I don’t know what I’m projecting, tell me. You know?” I think… “Oh, you don’t give a damn! Why would you?”
Assume plays with precisely this ambiguity. James Nesbitt stars as Danny Frater, a grumpy police officer assigned to investigate the death of a young woman. It’s only when Richardson’s enigmatic pathologist lifts the sheet covering Jane Doe’s face that Frater makes a grisly discovery: the woman is his estranged daughter. Over the course of eight 30-minute episodes, Frater individually interrogates his daughter’s friends, lovers, and associates, trying to find out what happened to her. Anne-Marie Duff, Richard E Grant and Niamh Algar are among the other British greats who are being urged to act slyly.
On the set, Richardson loved her Assume Episode was more or less a two-handed match between her and Nesbitt – her theatrical credits include all of Lady Windermere’s fan to a one-woman show about Emily Dickinson — but struggled with some of the more complex medical terminology she had to learn. “I sometimes think I’m a bit dyslexic,” she says. “It didn’t come naturally to me at all.” If anything, it reminded her of a US television show she once did, called Emerald City, in which she played a witch. “We had to talk in ‘witch talk,’ which was basically just gibberish. So you had to learn it all phonetically.”
“As I’m older,” she adds, “I find that I love working harder. Maybe it’s because everything feels so much more valuable, or maybe it’s just getting older. You dive into your own skin. You know your opinion.”
That was not always so. She only decided to act after years in competitive sports, studying at the Rada and then working for a year at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Movies came later. But it took her longer to find herself as a person and figure out what she thought about things. Eventually, her childhood was accompanied by Redgrave’s work as an activist and anti-war campaigner. There was obviously pressure. “Growing up, everyone around me had such big opinions about everything,” she recalls. “I found that I didn’t, and that was a bit scary. I wanted to know things and how they made me feel. But it took years. Now, as a much more mature adult, I have an idea. There’s something very calming about that.”
You and Redgrave are staying close. She cheered her on in the West End just weeks earlier, with Redgrave – aged 85 – currently starring my beautiful lady. “I Was Overwhelmed,” Fangirls by Richardson. “I realized: oh my god, this is where she lives. Here she is most alive, happiest. It was an extraordinary thing to see.” I am curious to hear what she has learned from her over the years. “Oh, to be humble forever,” she says. “That you are forever a student, that you never arrived, that you are always a work in progress.”
When it comes to her own career, Richardson credits Nip/tuck – which earned her two Golden Globes – as a special breakthrough. Even if the show has gotten a bit out of joint over time. Richardson began appearing less and less on the series – family commitments led to her returning to the UK during season four – and by the time it ended in 2010, Julia had given birth to a lobster-handed baby who was being held hostage. got doused in her lesbian lover’s ashes… Out of joint like I said. In a surreal casting coup, Redgrave was recruited to play Julia’s mother, and that story unraveled when her character went to jail after Julia planted cocaine in her airplane carry-on.
“I remember feeling like it was going to be a little offbeat,” says Richardson dryly. “What I liked most about the show was that it was extreme but also grounded. But there’s a theory that long shows — the good ones at least — start brilliantly, sometimes have a break in the middle, and then end brilliantly.” She can’t speak for it Nip/tuck, although. “I never really saw the last few seasons. I just stopped. I don’t really know why.”
Even when the show drifted to dysfunctional parts, Richardson was always great — wistful, unpredictable, secretly impressive. She admits it “takes a while to grow into acting” but also leaves her imperfect. “Sometimes I see things, old or new, and I’m like, ‘What? This is just awful! You thought you were fine?’ However, sometimes I see things I’m in and I’m pleasantly surprised at myself. “Oh, where the I’m from?'”
However, it is not so easy to just get better at work. “It’s always two steps forward and one step back. Nip/tuck was definitely a turning point, but some of the work I did around my sister’s death…” She falls silent for a moment. “There was a little separation.” Natasha died in a skiing accident in 2009 at the age of 45. “I think without realizing it, I went on autopilot a bit. I was doing some TV shows around this time, some of which I watched during lockdown. She flinches. “Yes, not so good.”
Richardson has spoken in the past of being fed up with headlines for her interviews that emphasize her sadness at the death of her sister. Not because they were ever inaccurate; just because there were so many of them. But it’s also difficult not to read between the lines when Richardson discusses her perspective on life. Last year she returned to the world of Lady Chatterley’s loverdoes not play the free-spirited lead (she is played by The crown‘s Emma Corrin) but the elderly caretaker of Lady Chatterley’s husband. She says she found it enriching. “It’s about honoring the passage of time,” she says.
“We went in a slightly different direction with it,” says Richardson, somewhat mischievously. “Would you like to see a still?” She pulls out her phone and scrolls through her photos, landing on one of her in costume. Her character, Mrs. Bolton, wears a large, stocky dress and wears a black wig. The last time Mrs. Bolton was dramatized on screen, she was played by a precursor.kill Eve Jodie Corner. Richardson, on the other hand, appears to have been thoroughly disenchanted and aged for the role.
“We used the same costume house that I had my equipment for Lady Chatterley About 30 years ago,” she recalls. “And now here I am in these sturdy, terrible clothes! Obviously Lady Chatterley is such a well-rounded character, but at my age it feels so rewarding to play a wide variety of people instead [being asked]’Oh, does she look right in that dress?’”
Richardson talks about her age quite often, I notice. “Always! And in a proud way,” she says. “I was young once, I was middle-aged, and now I’m on the other side, I suppose. And me want being that age you know?”
She squints in the afternoon sun, radiant despite the sweltering weather. “Because, really, isn’t it great if we make it another year? Aren’t we lucky?”
Suspect begins tonight (Sunday 19 June) at 9pm on Channel 4 and All 4