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Natasha's gay genes.

Natasha Richardson talks about her controversial mother, Vanessa Redgrave; her bisexual father, Tony Richardson; and her own winning lesbian performance in Blow Dry

Natasha Richardson believes there are two ways not to play a lesbian. The first is to shy away from the character's sexuality, making the actress's unease predominate on the screen. The second strategy can be equally disconcerting: "I just hate it in movies when it's shoved down your throat," she says. "`Look at me, aren't I being so brave as an actress, I'm not frightened of playing lesbian!'"

In the new Miramax film Blow Dry, a farcical but touching look at an extended family of hairdressers in a northern England working-class town, the London-born actress "plays lesbian" with just the right touch of empathy and "What's the big deal?" attitude. Her character, Shelley, is having a terminal relapse of cancer but doesn't want to let on to her significant other of 10 years, fellow hairdresser Sandra (Hilary and Jackie' s Rachel Griffiths). She does tell her still-smarting ex-husband (played by Alan Rickman) and her son (played by American teen-movie hottie Josh Hartnett with a pitch-perfect accent) and eventually corrals them into joining her and Sandra in the national hairdressing competition in their town. Silliness and pathos ensue.

Richardson, 37, is certainly not the first member of Clan Redgrave to play a lesbian in film or onstage. Younger sister Joely Richardson played half of a pair of disturbed, incestuous sisters in the 1994 film Sister My Sister. Aunt Lynn Redgrave appeared in the groundbreaking but coy 1986 TV movie My Two Loves, in which the most intimate scene involved Redgrave washing her lover Mariette Hartley's hair. And mother Vanessa Redgrave has been both lesbian- and transgender-friendly: as a suffragist in The Bostonians; as transsexual tennis player Renee Richards in the TV movie Second Serve, as lesbian author (and Virginia Woolfs lover) Vita Sackville-West in the play Vita and Virginia, and, most recently, as a closeted older lesbian who loses her lover and then their home in the HBO movie If These Walls Could Talk 2. Of the latter role--which netted Redgrave an Emmy award--Natasha says admiringly, "It's one of her most brilliant performances."

In real life it's been the men in Richardson's family who turned out to be bisexual: specifically her grandfather, actor Michael Redgrave, and her father, director Tony Richardson, who died of AIDS complications in 1991. Natasha, who's married to actor Liam Neeson (he played Oscar Wilde on Broadway), is thus particularly sensitive to people being boxed in by their sexuality.

"I guess, because of the world I've been brought up in, I just don't categorize people," she says. "I don't think, oh, that's a bisexual person, that's a gay person, that's a straight person."

Since her father's death she's taken a hands-on role in AIDS work, including organizing the American Foundation for AIDS Research's hugely successful auction of Oscar dresses last year (for which she'll be honored in November at the organization's Seasons of Hope gala). In between her activism and raising two young sons, Richardson has also filmed a couple of other projects in the past year--another Miramax movie, Waking Up in Reno, in which she plays Billy Bob Thornton's long-suffering spouse, and the TV miniseries docu-drama Haven, in which she plays Jewish heroine Ruth Gruber (a sort of female version of her husband's Academy Award-nominated Oskar Schindler), who rescued 1,000 Jewish refugees from Europe during World War II.

Just before she finished shooting Haven, she talked with The Advocate by phone from Toronto about kissing Rachel Griffiths, her father's not-so-hidden gay life, the emotional subtext of her new film, and her own hard-won acting identity.

What attracted you to the role of Shelley?

She's the kind of woman I could see vividly. I'm half true Yorkshire--my dad came from the north of England--and I loved the idea of working in England with those actors. But the character was written older, and I just didn't think I could play her, so I turned down the part twice.

Then I went to a party, and [Miramax head] Harvey Weinstein walks up to me and says, "Why have you turned down this movie?" I said, "Do I look like a 40-ish, working-class, blue-collar mother of a grown-up son?" He said, "Well, we'll rewrite it--we'll make it that you had the kid when you were very young." I said, "Oh. Nobody ever said that before."

It's not a falling-in-love story--Shelley and Sandra have been in a relationship for 10 years. That must have been an interesting challenge to play.

Rachel and I were very determined and thoughtful about making that come across--that their love isn't the first rush but is genuine and comfortable.

And when they kiss--a sweet, full-on buss--it's less about romance than love. You pulled that off very well.

I'm glad that worked for you! We talked about what kind of kiss it should be. We didn't think it would be tongues down each other's throats after a 10-year relationship, you know? And a little peck on the cheek wouldn't show their love either.

The family in this movie split apart after Shelley ran off with a woman. I wonder if it had personal resonance for you, since you come from a divorced family and both your father and grandfather were bisexual.

Now that you say it, I think, oh, yes, of course! But I can say, hand on heart, that that never occurred to me. I connect to something, or I don't. I definitely connect to the pain in this story as well as the humor, and that does resonate with my life and my family.

After your parents divorced, was your dad open with you and your sister about his life and his relationships?

In a way, it was so open that it wasn't discussed. Yet at the same time it was completely a closed door. It was something he never talked about. He had this mixed world around him of gay friends and straight friends that mirrored, I suppose, his personal life, which included a lot of gay relationships as well as longstanding relationships with women--my mother, my stepmother that he was with for many years, and other girlfriends. It was a strange mixture of being very private about it but public too. It's very hard to explain. It's not as easy as somebody being in the closet because he didn't hide it.

It was like he was hiding in plain sight?

Yes, kind of. When I was about 10 or 11 I said to my mother, "Is my papa gay?" She said yes, and I remember being very upset by that. I'm not sure quite why. There's the social stigma when you're in School ... and I guess at the time you think your parents are gods.

When he was sick did you discuss his having AIDS?

No. He told a friend of mine that one shouldn't tell anyone if you have AIDS. "Once people know that you're sick with a terminal disease, they treat you totally differently," he said. My father would get on his tennis court every day and hit balls come rain or shine, even when he was practically hobbled because his feet were so swollen and so covered in Kaposi's. Nobody dies of AIDS--everyone dies of the related illnesses--so I think he tried in his mind to say, "I've got skin cancer, I will beat that." Or, "Now I've got this, I will beat that ..."

He came from a different generation and from the north of England. I know he didn't want sympathy. I remember one conversation he was having with me about what we should do in the event of his death, not being specific, and I started to cry. He just said, "Don't do that, Tasha. Don't do that, darling."

He was brave for you.

The older I get, the more I realize that life, sexuality, the whole kit and caboodle, is never black-and-white. Is there part of it that's denial? Yes. Is there part of it that's bravery and openness? Yes. Rarely are things one thing or the other. And in terms of people's sexuality, they're often not just one thing or the other either.

Did his illness inspire your involvement with AmFAR?

Before my father died, my eyes weren't closed to AIDS because already a couple of good family friends had died. But nursing my father through his death galvanized me. I couldn't let other people go through this without actively trying to do something to help.

Do you see your work with AmFAR as a kind of ongoing tribute to him?

No, that sounds too proud. And I know he would have mixed feelings about it. He would want to be identified for the work he did and with his children rather than the fact that he died of AIDS. I just think of how exceptional he was, how he was like this great big tree that was felled by this, way before his time. To be honest, I wish I could do more. I haven't just put my name on a piece of stationery or on an honorary committee--I've actually done a lot of the work myself, and that can really be a full-time job.

Now that you're a parent, how do you think you would react if one of your sons were to turn out gay?

Well, I think there's a good chance because it seems to run in my family! [Laughs heartily] The only two things that obviously come to mind are that you want your children to die at a healthy old age and you like the idea of having grandchildren. Apart from that, I have no problem with it.

Of course, the gayness in your family didn't stop anyone from having children!

No, that's true, exactly. So who knows?

Considering you come from about five generations of actors, do the boys show the acting gene yet?

I hope they don't become actors.

That's a surprise--why not?

Because I know how it is to be the daughter of a great actress, how very hard it is to make your own way, to be compared to someone of such great relent and beauty. To feel, When am I ever going to make it on my own and be judged on my own merit?

Haven't you reached that point?

I have in this country [she lives in New York]. But I only have to go back to England for five minutes to feel I've been put in my place, as though I'm just starting out on my first job and am worthy of notice only because I happen to be a Redgrave. When I was doing Cabaret [for which she won Broadway's Tony award] I was interviewed for the front page of the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times, and it was this big piece about "Natasha Richardson Plays Sally Bowles." Then I did an interview at the same time for the London Times, and their banner headline was "Natasha Richardson on Being a Redgrave and Mrs. Neeson." Whenever I get homesick for England, I remember things like that.

Kort is writing a bio of Laura Nyro for St. Martin's Press.

For more on Blow Dry and links to related Web sites, go to www.advocate.com
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Title Annotation:actress Natasha Richardson
Author:Kort, Michele
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 7, 2000
Words:1889
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