Monday 22 July 2019

'It's politically incorrect to say women look nice now, and that's sad'

Joely Richardson has known success and sadness. Now she's choosing to be joyful at 53, writes Celia Walden

When Joely Richardson turned 50, she made a vow: "This is going to be the happiest time of my life. I'm making that decision here and now." The actress pauses for a moment - eyes wide, defiant.

Then she smiles, embarrassed by her own solemnity. "Honestly, though, I do feel that as English people we get nervous of saying: 'I want to be happy'. But the thing is, I've done sadness and I will do sadness again. So right now I just choose to get as much joy out of life as I can."

That the 53-year-old star of Snowden and Red Sparrow immediately qualifies this statement with the kind of English semi-apology she's just warned against - "not that I mean I'll only do frivolous things" - is endearing.

And maybe it's the illustrious theatrical dynasty the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and the late Tony Richardson is a part of, the string of weighty roles she's played over the course of her 35-year career (everyone from Lady Chatterley, Wallis Simpson and Catherine Parr to Marie Antoinette and Emily Dickinson) and her catwalk-model height and posture, but I didn't think Joely Richardson would be reachable enough to find endearing.

It didn't help that I spent the previous night watching her play Lila, a brittle Hollywood actress in her new film: the feel-good Christmas caper of the year, Surviving Christmas With The Relatives.

Married to her alcoholic agent (played by Michael Landes) she, her sister Miranda (Gemma Whelan) and their families (James Fox, Sally Phillips and Ronni Ancona are all part of the dysfunctional mix) reunite in their deceased parents' dilapidated country house for a three-day Christmas ordeal of the kind we all recognise.

Breaking off from an account of filming with Fatal Attaction writer, James Dearden, who based the script on manic Christmases of his own, she makes the poignant aside: "I don't know why, but I've been thinking a lot of my father recently."

As the sister of the late Natasha Richardson, who died in a skiing accident in 2009, she has a story and a sadness we've followed for years. "Losing my sister meant that there were many years of grief and those were years were tough," she says quietly. Closing her eyes for a second, Richardson rakes her hands through her thick blonde hair: "I didn't think life was going to be like this!' And there was an element of just surviving. But then I turned 50 and had this reaction. Because we have this window, don't we?"

Her sister's death and the near-fatal heart attack her mother suffered in 2015 may have heightened Richardson's awareness of this opportunity to wring joy, but the actress has always come across as someone who lives fully, vigorously - both in her private and professional life. She may have thrown herself into work, after her marriage to Working Title co-founder Tim Bevan ended (the pair have 26 year-old daughter, Daisy, who is also an actress), and swung from the hit US TV drama Nip/Tuck and one-woman shows like the off-Broadway Belle of Amherst to blockbuster movies like Red Sparrow, but she found time for relationships with high-profile men such as Jamie Theakston and Russian businessman Evgeny Lebedev over the years.

When people try and commiserate with her over "how tough it must be getting roles when you're older" the actress throws it back at them. "Things have only got more interesting for me! And if I'm lucky, I can keep going into my 80s like my mum."

She will say that because of the "revolution" that has taken place in her industry and beyond, "things have got much better for women in general". Jennifer Lawrence - her co-star in Red Sparrow - "was so impressive" in making a stand for equal pay, well before #MeToo highlighted other inequalities and abuses. "What's good is that rules have been set - and it has really filtered down.

"But what's tricky in terms of the very famous cases is that that's more of a personality disorder issue than what actually goes on in this industry," she points out, clearly referring to the Hollywood-sized villain that is Harvey Weinstein. "And sometimes things can swing very far in one direction first."

Ask her what she means by this, and Richardson tells me that "sometimes now at work the men are almost strait-jacketed. And there's a level of playfulness that's gone. Then, sometimes, women are not as aware as they should be that if this exists for the men, then it means we have to behave in that way, too." Richardson wrestles with whether or not to say something more for a moment.

"I don't know if you feel this, but on the days when I really try, and I've had my hair and make-up done and nobody says 'oh you look nice', because it's really politically incorrect now…" She shrugs: "I think that's sad - don't you?"

I do. But the idea that there are women like her out there - women who refuse to parrot the accepted thoughts on men and women and the ''fading 50s'' we're supposed to lament; women who have been through personal tragedy but decided to enjoy life - well that makes me happy.

'Surviving Christmas With the Relatives' is out from Nov 30. ©Telegraph

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