A friend, in deeds

Miranda Richardson shunned Hollywood in favour of roles offering a more realistic representation of women and is now on the set of a new show about the importance of female friendships in middle age

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You would expect Miranda Richardson to be aloof. There is something rather imperious about her roles: think of her Queen Elizabeth in Blackadder, or Rita Skeeter, the bitchy journalist in the Harry Potter films. Even in her breakthrough role as Ruth Ellis, the last women to be hanged in Britain, she had an air of detachment while turning out a brilliant performance.

But although not overtly comfortable in the interview process, there is nothing standoffish about her. She is warm and funny and only becomes reticent when asked about anything personal. If you want to know why the Bafta-winning, Oscar-nominated, beautiful and talented Ms Richardson has never married, she’s not going to let on and will politely and swiftly scupper any further questions in that area.

No problem, because Richardson is still a very entertaining conversationalist as well as a fascinating actor, who can metamorphosise into a role and become that person entirely.

Her two most current roles – as Sue Thackeray in ITV’s 1 Girlfriends, penned by Kay Mellor, and Patty Bauman in the film Stronger, about the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 – couldn’t be more different. Yet Richardson is convincing in both.

We meet on the set of Girlfriends, filmed in Leeds, where Richardson plays one of a trio of lifelong girlfriends, alongside Zoe Wanamaker and Phyllis Logan, now all women of a certain age.

“Well, Sue is glamorous and successful,” says Richardson. “It’s a nice thing to play. I’ve had a coterie of slobby, not particularly kempt people to play lately so it was a rather nice about face.”

“I don’t feel grown up very often, I’m not sure what that is. I get to play grown up though.”

The women’s lives are more complicated than ever. When Linda’s husband Micky vanishes from a cruise ship on their wedding anniversary Linda suddenly finds herself on her own for the first time in nearly 30 years. Widowed and out of her depth, she turns to her old friends Gail and Sue for support, who each have their own problems to face. Richardson’s character, a features editor on a bridal magazine, has been having an affair with the much married boss (Anthony Head) for over 30 years, indeed has a son by him.

“Here’s the bad joke: I would say she is like Cleopatra,” says Richardson, then pausing for effect. “She’s in denial because she thinks she’s got everything and on paper she, sort of, has. She’s kind of free of commitment, but she’s got a long-term partner who she is still extremely keen on. She has a son, who’s doing very well in his law firm. She has a great job and all the accoutrements of a successful woman. But…”

All is not going well for Sue and Richardson handles her character’s downfall with mix of high drama and outright comedy. A tirade against her lover, while sporting huge white patches of unblended concealer under her eyes, is pure tragicomedy. Mellor may have written it but Richardson delivers it.

Richardson grew up in the coastal town of Southport with her marketing exec father, her mother – a housewife – and her elder sister. “You could never find the sea – it was never in,” she says. “There were lots of dead jellyfish and a pony and cart going along digging for lugworms, a bit grim.”

She wanted to act from a young age and at Southport High School for Girls she says she was a great mimic, impersonating school friends, teachers and Hollywood stars. She had intended to become a vet and is still passionate about animals and wildlife today but plumped for English and then drama instead, studying at Bristol Old Vic.

Her career has spanned Hollywood, West End theatre and countless TV dramas. Aged now 59, she agrees being over a certain age is an issue in the acting world. “I do feel that certain invisibility that comes with getting older, especially as an actress. I think a lot of women feel it. I haven’t had an awareness of other professions but I’m sure it exists. Ambition is OK but when you are on the receiving end of somebody else’s ambition when you’ve been there for a lot of years at the top, it’s not so great.

“But I know people who have gone on from strength to strength as they get older. It’s all about keeping your eyes and ears open and doing things that people are still interested in.”

Leeds-born Mellor, 66, says Girlfriends came about because she thought women of a certain age needed a voice. “People playing 60-plus are usually portrayed as grandmas, nanas. I’ve long been interested in women, my peer group are ageing and their mothers are ageing. Women are now a sandwich generation – looking after their mothers, daughters, grandchildren.”

Richardson’s character in Girlfriends hates getting older and spends a small fortune on non-surgical facelifts, hair dye and make-up. How does Richardson feel as she approaches 60? “Sue’s reaching that landmark birthday too and it enforces her insecurity but I think that mentality has been there probably since she was 20. You know, looking in the mirror: ‘OMG, I’m 20!’ I did it, we all do it, then 30 or 40, the fear is there whatever.

“I understand that fear. It might mean you have to have responsibility or grow up. I don’t feel grown up very often. I’m not sure what that is. I get to play grown up though.”

Richardson as Sue in new series Girlfriends

Richardson clearly has a sense of humour and doesn’t take herself too seriously, as demonstrated when asked if she is happy with her looks today. “No, not really and I defy anyone, especially any woman, to say they are. There is a certain vanity there, whatever part you are playing. When I go into make-up, even if the role requires a dreadful wig and for me to be 80 years old, I just say: ‘I would like to look gorgeous, please. I don’t care if it’s appropriate.’”

Nominated for an Oscar for political drama Damage back in 1992, Richardson could have had a massive Hollywood career but chose to eschew it, famously turning down the role Glenn Close took on in the blockbusting Fatal Attraction, stating: “If I don’t believe in a role, I can’t pull it off. There have been people who have wondered why on earth I would not do that role, but I felt so strongly that it was demonising women. It was a case of: ‘Let’s present the female character not as a person but as a representation of what women are capable of.’”

On Hollywood today she says: “You can have a laugh in Los Angeles or you can weep in Los Angeles, depending on your attitude towards it.”

Her other current role as Bostonian Patty Bauman in Stronger couldn’t be more different to Sue. “She’s a drinker and smoker and when her son is injured in the Boston bombing just wants to be useful. Jeff is her life – there is a great love there. She’s a big character and it was great to play her.”

Back on set in Leeds, Richardson says her co-stars have become genuine girlfriends. “They are both great. I’ve worked with Zoe before but a long time ago, and I have discovered Phyllis has got a daft ragbag brain when it comes to music and ditties, as I have. She’ll start singing something and I’ll pick it up. Zoe’s quite a good stooge. You know, she can do quite a good poker face and then you realise she’s taking the mickey. I find that great fun.”

As in Girlfriends, Richardson says she relies on a group of lifelong friends. “I wouldn’t want to go back to my twenties – they were pretty angst-laden times. What I tried to do in the past was deal with everything myself and not feel that I could share. I didn’t have the confidence, trust, all that kind of thing

“That personally has become easier. Now I have friends that have been in my life a long time. We do have gaps but we can slot back in easily. Some of those are male friends as well – you know, because of the nature of this business. It’s sort of about trust really. Your girlfriends, who have stayed with you throughout your life, are extremely important. It’s the people that you feel, if you had to, you could ring up in the middle of the night and say: ‘What do I do about this? I have no idea. Help.’”

Somehow, you couldn’t quite imagine Richardson not knowing what do in any given situation.

Girlfriends begins on Wednesday 3 January at 9pm on ITV. Stronger is in cinemas now 


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