Interview - Miranda Richardson - In 'Dagenham,' A Bombshell Makes A Power Play Actress Miranda Richardson, best known for her intense performances and her feline sensuality, goes all Establishment to play a British Cabinet minister in Nigel Cole's labor drama. But behind the sensible suits, she tells Ella Taylor, her character was "a party animal" in real life.
NPR logo In 'Dagenham,' A Bombshell Makes A Power Play

In 'Dagenham,' A Bombshell Makes A Power Play

In Made in Dagenham, Miranda Richardson plays Barbara Castle, a Cabinet member who backs working-class women in their struggle for equal pay. Susie Allnutt/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

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Susie Allnutt/Sony Pictures Classics

In Made in Dagenham, Miranda Richardson plays Barbara Castle, a Cabinet member who backs working-class women in their struggle for equal pay.

Susie Allnutt/Sony Pictures Classics

In Nigel Cole's film Made in Dagenham, British glamourpuss Miranda Richardson comes on all businesslike — power suit, wavy perm — as Barbara Castle, the feisty Cabinet minister who got behind a tiny band of striking female machinists to blaze a trail to equal pay for women in 1968. Talking back to condescending male pols and chugging whiskey with the gals, Richardson's Castle all but steals the broad realist comedy from its lead, Sally Hawkins, who plays a Norma Rae-like union leader urging Castle to take up the strikers' cause — and to take on a bullying American troubleshooter from Ford Motors HQ.

Those lady-mayoress outfits Richardson wears in Dagenham are a far cry from the high heels, dove-gray miniskirt and low-cut, layered black top she's sporting when she swans into the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. But over coffee in the bar, Richardson points out that she and Castle have a certain something in common.

"All the men around her wanted to, if you'll pardon the expression, make her," Richardson says with relish. "She was a wonderful party animal. That's a good title for a movie about her, isn't it? Party Animal. She could absolutely hold her own with the guys."

The actress flavors Castle with a flirty air of challenge that must have served the real woman well in a male-dominated pre-feminism Cabinet. Indeed Richardson is known for how effortlessly she summons steely indomitablity — though she can also ooze enigma and a feline sexual magnetism on demand. Off-screen she's been called aloof, but today, jazzed by an unexpectedly lively round table with a pack of junketeers, she's a bright, vivacious woman without a hint of remoteness. In fact she seems willing to talk about anything — unless you make the mistake of asking why she turned down the lead in Fatal Attraction.

"Can we not go there?" she says crisply, rolling her eyes. "Me and whose army turned down Fatal Attraction? It was hideously demonizing, and there's a sinister attitude behind it."

Not that Richardson is opposed to playing a noir vamp.

"I love all the Hitchcock movies," she says. "Working with him would have been — something to contend with. He was not good with girls, no, but he was pretty fabulous."

But the actress draws the line at vindictive, and Adrian Lyne's infamous bunny-boiler was far from the only nastily conceived femme fatale she's been asked to play.

"There are lots of those roles," she says wearily. "I got offered Jade, which was vile and went nowhere. So I feel quite happy about those choices."

"I don't know who I think I am," she adds in a wry aside. One actress's moral choice is another's Hollywood meal ticket, after all. "But there's no point doing it. You just lose your soul."

A Gift For The Dark, And An Appetite For Laughs

Richardson charted the traditional British-actor career course; she went to drama school in Bristol, then paid her dues in regional theater and television. She made her name in 1985 with Mike Newell's Dance With a Stranger, playing hapless murderer Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England.

Richardson (pictured at the Rome premiere of Made in Dagenham in October) has twice been nominated for Academy Awards. Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images hide caption

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Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Richardson (pictured at the Rome premiere of Made in Dagenham in October) has twice been nominated for Academy Awards.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

For a while, she was cast mostly as depressive or turbulent neurotics. She earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her turn as T.S. Eliot's distraught wife in 1994's Tom and Viv. In David Cronenberg's bleakly funny domestic drama Spider, she was a triple threat as an ordinary suburban mother fantasized into sexual menace in the diseased imagination of her schizophrenic son (Ralph Fiennes). She played Clive Owen's victimized sister-in-law Gloria in the 2000 remake of Get Carter, and Bloomsbury painter Vanessa Bell opposite Nicole Kidman's Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002).

Richardson firmly resists the notion that she's been typecast on the female dark side, though, and it's true that her long film and television resume is studded with comedies, many of them joyfully black. Like Helen Mirren, Richardson has played more than her share of snooty or bent-out-of-shape royalty: the Red Queen in the made-for-TV Alice in Wonderland, a wonderfully puerile Elizabeth I in the beloved BBC comedy Blackadder, the sadistic Queen Elspeth in Hallmark's Snow White: The Fairest of Them All, a repressed Queen Mary in Stephen Poliakoff's telefilm The Lost Prince.

Richardson continues to make a thriving midcareer out of scene-stealing supporting roles, including poison-pen journalist Rita Skeeter in the Harry Potter franchise. (The highly regarded AMC series Rubicon, in which she's been playing a wealthy widow seeking the truth about her husband's suicide, has just been canceled.)

But given the breadth and depth of her talent, it's frustrating that Richardson hasn't landed more leading roles in film, especially in Hollywood, where she's never worked for more than a few weeks.

"I don't necessarily wait for that massive leading role," she shrugs. "I want to keep the juices flowing."

And anyway, she's skeptical of the current wisdom that more meaty roles are finally being written for middle-aged women.

"Discounting Meryl, who does everything? Who are you thinking of?" she asks — waving away the suggestion of Diane Keaton, who is "tremendous, but not what I would call middle-aged."

An avid reader of short stories — she loves Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore — Richardson has optioned several works of fiction as possible projects, but none has yet panned out.

"I haven't had the courage to follow them through," she admits. "And then it's only a matter of time before they're done by someone else."

Last year, after a long absence from the stage, she returned to London's Royal Court Theatre in Grasses of a Thousand Colors, a new play by Wallace Shawn, with whom she's worked before.

"Wally's acting with me this time," Richardson says, "him and three ladies."

She pauses, then adds innocently: "Which I think is a proportion he likes."

Richardson, who is single and lives with a small army of cats and dogs in London, has no plans to move to Los Angeles like so many of her colleagues seeking refuge from a parched British film industry.

"I don't know what I would be achieving," she says. "I need my friends, I need my house, I need my garden.

"London keeps me grounded," she adds. "We don't get praised every time we open our gobs there."