“The theater is such a wonderful part of everyone’s life,” says Joely Richardson, who is speaking to me right before an early preview matinee of Michael Weller’s new play Side Effects at The Lucille Lortel Theatre (through July 3). Though she comes from a storied theatrical background, Richardson hasn’t been able to do much theater in recent years. “My daughter is 19 now, and in those early years when she was a child, I thought, ‘I can’t stand not being there in the evening.’ When I was first starting out, I did quite a bit of West End fringe theater, plays with the RSC, lots of regional theater, and then there was a 20-year gap. In the last 20 years, I’ve done two plays, one with Macaulay Culkin here in New York, Madame Melville, and one in London, Lady Windemere’s Fan.” Richardson acted in that Oscar Wilde play with her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, maybe the best living actress in the English language. When asked about working with her, Richardson says, “Yes, it was amazing to work with Vanessa. She taught me by proxy, she didn’t—she’s not someone who lectures, she’s just not that kind of person. She was perpetually open, and that was such a beautiful thing.”
Speaking about Side Effects, which is being directed by Proof playwright David Auburn, Richardson says, “They asked me to do the play in January. I quickly read through it and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a piece and a half.’ I had been wanting to do theater the last couple of years. I had been doing a television show, Nip/Tuck, and during the breaks I would do more film and more television.” The Weller play is a two-character piece about a faltering marriage that Richardson plays with actor Cotter Smith. “In a two-hander, there are no other characters, there’s no other flesh, as it were,” Richardson says. “It’s like rock-climbing, you just need your footholds. It is a new play, so throughout the last four weeks of rehearsal we have re-writes virtually every day in previews. It’s incredibly exciting to be part of work that’s altering after doing it. Scary, too! It keeps you on your toes. It’s like going right back to the beginning of your career, or how I started, anyway—carrying the book around and never letting it go.”
When asked about some of her favorite film roles, Richardson says, “I did a film based on Jean Genet’s The Maids, it was called Sister My Sister,” and then mentions some big-budget movies like 101 Dalmatians and The Patriot. In this age of Netflix and YouTube, it’s easy to catch up on a film you might have missed, and I’m glad that Richardson mentioned Sister My Sister, which is certainly the best version of this material that I’ve ever seen, perhaps because the British players understand the class tensions at work a bit better than the French do. Richardson emphasizes the self-loathing temper of the older sister without ever losing sympathy for her, and this sympathetic fleshing out of what might have been an impenetrably closed-off character signals Richardson’s talent, which might be termed a Redgrave/Richardson talent for empathetic imagining of even the most damned or outlandish people. The day after our phone interview, Richardson left a charming voicemail message mentioning that she had also liked playing Wallis Simpson in a recent TV film and a young Queen Elizabeth in the upcoming Anonymous. I look forward to seeing those as well, just as I hope that Richardson herself returns to the New York theater in both new plays and the classics.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)