Vanessa Redgrave has teamed up with daughter Joely Richardson for a movie version of Henry James novella The Aspern Papers.
She first saw the play as a child when her famous father adapted it from the novella and played the male lead. Decades later, Redgrave played the role of Miss Tina on stage.
More time has passed and now she is playing the forbidding grande dame Juliana Bordereau in the big-screen version which is opening in the US, with Richardson cast in the younger woman’s role.
“I’ve been through every version of it,” says Redgrave, whose blue eyes still pierce.
“My father was in it with two wonderful actresses, which I saw a number of times. Then I was in it much later as Miss Tina, and suddenly I get the chance to be this ferocious Bordereau, the old lady, which is kind of the full stretch of the bow, if you see what I mean.”
Redgrave, at 81, still radiates the outspoken intelligence that has characterised her film and stage work, softening only when looking into the eyes of her daughter — “She’s so beautiful,” Redgrave coos — or cuddling her poodle-Pomeranian, Zep.
“It was heaven working with Joels,” Redgrave says, pronouncing her daughter’s nickname as Jules.
It is the fourth time the two have paired, a sequence that includes Redgrave joining her daughter on the popular TV series Nip/Tuck in a number of episodes, including one in which Redgrave sought a facelift from one of the two young plastic surgeons at the heart of the show.
At the time, Richardson — one of the three stars — worried that her mother might not cope well with the demands of weekly television, including the need for quick memorisation of dozens of pages of scripts.
Her mother thrived, of course, even if she is far better known for her dramatic work onstage.
For Richardson, working with her mother highlights what she calls “that Mum-Vanessa thing”.
It is what happens when your mother has been famous your entire life — and has set a standard in the profession you chose.
“It’s so funny because obviously mum’s mum to me, but when I’m talking about her in a professional capacity, I tend to go into calling her Vanessa,” Richardson said. “When your mother’s public and private, it’s a two-name deal.”
Working with her mother has been a revelation, says Richardson, who has also shared screen and stage time with Dame Judi Dench, Glenn Close, Robert DeNiro and other greats.
“Sometimes I see her as Vanessa,” says Richardson, 54. “Being on stage with her, it was like, oh my God, this is where it happens. It’s in these moments, these magic moments, when she’s truly more present than I’ve ever seen her be, probably, in real life. It’s an extraordinary thing.”
Redgrave is similarly impressed with her daughter’s performance in The Aspern Papers, which is set in Venice in the late 19th century.
Richardson plays Miss Tina, a quietly unhappy middle-aged woman frightened of her elderly aunt whose life is disrupted by the arrival of an American editor seeking the old woman’s love letters from a fictional Romantic poet named Jeffrey Aspern.
“Suddenly, Joely becomes Miss Tina, right on the spot,” Redgrave says of her daughter. “Looking into her eyes, I don’t see Joely. I see Miss Tina. That’s special, that’s what she’s about in her work, finding that depth of truth.”
Redgrave is the matriarch of a venerable British acting dynasty that includes her late father Michael Redgrave, her late siblings Lynne and Corin Redgrave, and her children — Natasha Richardson, who died in a skiing accident in 2009, Joely Richardson and writer and director Carlo Nero.