Richardson Stars in 'Asylum'

Natasha Richardson in 'Asylum.'

hide captionNatasha Richardson in Asylum.

Paramount Classics

Michele Norris talks with Natasha Richardson, lead actress in the new film Asylum, which was adapted from the book by Patrick McGrath. Richardson plays Stella, the wife of an accomplished psychiatrist. She falls obsessively in love with a patient at her husband's institution. Richardson and Norris discuss the psychology of the attraction as seen in the film as well as the background behind the film, including the role Richardson's real-life husband, Liam Neeson, played in its development.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

You could say that Natasha Richardson was born with the instinct for acting. Her mother is Vanessa Redgrave; her father, the late director Tony Richardson. Her aunt, her grandparents, her sister, all thespians. And she's married to film star Liam Neeson, so she knows a good role when she spots one. Her radar went off when she picked up the book "Asylum" by Patrick McGrath. Richardson fought for the role of Stella Raphael, an elegant, unhappy and ultimate unhinged woman whose husband takes a job as a forensic psychiatrist at an English hospital for the criminally insane.

(Soundbite of "Asylum")

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: And we wish you many contented years here among the confined and confused. I refer, of course, to the present company, not to the patients.

NORRIS: Like the book, the film "Asylum" explores the darker reaches of obsessive love. Stella falls into a torrid affair with an inmate whose past is as dark as his brooding stare. It's clear that nothing good can come of their attraction, and that's what intrigued Richardson.

Ms. NATASHA RICHARDSON (Actress): I was just completely gripped by this story. I couldn't put it down. And I guess, to a certain degree, I fell in love with this woman. I mean, she's a difficult woman, but I felt like I empathized with her in a very profound way, and I felt like--I just felt it had my name written on it. I thought, `This is--I must, must play this part, and I want to be in the movie of this.'

NORRIS: I want to play a clip from the film. It's after Stella begins this passionate affair with Edgar Stark, one of the patients at the asylum. And one of the doctors, Dr. Peter Cleave, played by the actor Ian McKellen, approaches her as she's sitting in the garden. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of "Asylum")

Mr. IAN McKELLEN: (As Dr. Peter Cleave) You should know what he did to his wife.

Ms. RICHARDSON: (As Stella Raphael) I don't need to know. I have nothing to do with the man.

Mr. McKELLEN: (As Dr. Peter Cleave) He beat her to death with a hammer and then decapitated her. He took a scalpel and cut out her eyes, and then he hacked at her face as if it were clay. Perhaps there won't be any more trips to London. Perhaps your mental state is too fragile. With Max's consent, we can hold you here.

Ms. RICHARDSON: (As Stella Raphael) Nonsense.

Mr. McKELLEN: (As Dr. Peter Cleave) Oh, but we can.

NORRIS: `Nonsense.' She sort of looks at him. Now this is not the normal...

Ms. RICHARDSON: I was enjoy--sorry. I was just enjoying that, but Ian has such a wonderful voice. It was quite a good radio play (laughs).

NORRIS: Well, describe for us where you were, sort of your mental state as Stella as you were sitting on that bench before he approached you.

Ms. RICHARDSON: Well, I think that she's in a place where she knows what he's done, and she's justify--in her mind, he committed an awful crime of passion and that he is rehabilitated and not the psychopath that Dr. Cleave says he is. I think she's always having to keep up a front. And, I think, inwardly, she is horrified to a degree, but at the same time I think that's, you know, how being in love can create all sorts of denial in people.

NORRIS: So how did you imagine Stella beyond the four corners of this script? Who was she?

Ms. RICHARDSON: I think she's a woman who is damaged in some way. I think she's probably had some sort of mini nervous breakdown in the past that has left her rather fractured and fragile. And she's a woman of great intelligence, and she's good-looking. And I think she's a very passionate, probably very sexual woman. And she's living in a world and in a marriage where she is finding no outlet for her creativity, her intelligence or her sexuality. So I think she's somebody who's suffocating, who's slowing dying inside. And it is in the 1950s, where middle-class women were expected to just really be there to serve their husbands and to play a certain role and, you know, bring the slippers and the pipe and the cocktail to your husband at the end of the day, and that's it. That's the extent of her life, and she doesn't even have to, you know, clean the house 'cause she has a housekeeper. So it's a very dry existence for her.

NORRIS: Stephen King also read this book and felt quite passionate about it and apparently also fought to adapt the novel for the big screen. Was he at all involved in this?

Ms. RICHARDSON: I wouldn't put it like that. At a certain moment in time--and it was an extraordinary piece of good fortune that he--he doesn't normally adapt anybody else's work, other than his own for the screen. And he did, and he came up a fantastic script, a script that's very different from the movie that we ended up making and a very different script from the novel. I think it was that--it was a version of it that was also an attempt to make it more accessible to larger audiences. It would have been entirely different, but, gosh, it was a good script.

NORRIS: Originally, this was a team project. Your husband, Liam Neeson, was going to play the role of Edgar Stark. Why the change in plan?

Ms. RICHARDSON: It was something we were going to do together. I thought he would be incredible in the part. But there were so many setbacks and struggles in the attempt to bring it to the screen that my husband--by the time we got to do it, he was committed to another film, and he knew that it was something I had always been more passionate about than he, so he was happy to let it go.

NORRIS: I wonder if it was a relief in some way or a missed opportunity. I mean, the scenes, the sex scenes and the sort of build up to that between Stella and Edgar, are so intense that I wonder if you would be sort of entering a zone of privacy if you were filming with your husband.

Ms. RICHARDSON: Well, that's an interesting question, because I think that the scenes are very hot and very intense.

NORRIS: That's an understatement actually.

Ms. RICHARDSON: (Laughs) And, you know, who knows? Some people would say, `Oh, well, maybe they wouldn't be with your husband because, you know, you guys have a degree of familiarity that wouldn't create that sort of erotic tension.' But on the other hand, you could say, `Well, some people have chemistry together, and some people don't. End of story.' I think my husband and I, in our work, have had that. So there's an argument for both ways, I think.

NORRIS: It's been reported that your husband relies on you to decide which movie roles he should accept and which he should decline.

Ms. RICHARDSON: (Laughs)

NORRIS: It means you're a very powerful woman in Hollywood.

Ms. RICHARDSON: (Laughs) That's not true. That's not true. If he's unsure of something, he will ask me to read a script and ask for my opinion, and I will give it to him. I don't tell him what he should or shouldn't do. I'll just give him my instinct, and I think he probably will never forgive me for the fact that when we were first together and they asked him to do James Bond, I said, `Under no circumstances can you be James Bond. I am not marrying James Bond.' And he probably will never forgive me for that.

NORRIS: Why wouldn't you want to be married to 007?

Ms. RICHARDSON: At that time, it--when Liam was offered it, it felt like the franchise was running out, and who knew that it was then going to have this amazing new life? And I do think that once you are Bond, you are Bond for life. And it has its bonds, and I didn't think that Liam needed that.

NORRIS: Natasha, it's been great talking to you.

Ms. RICHARDSON: And you, Michele. Thanks for having me on the show.

NORRIS: Actress Natasha Richardson. Her latest film "Asylum" is playing in theaters now.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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