On the Phone With Joely Richardson

On the Phone With Joely Richardson

It's the day after Labor Day and Joely Richardson is back in New York, ready to rehearse her first-ever one-woman play, William Luce's The Belle of Amherst, which opened in October at Off-Broadway's Westside Theatre. Here she talks about becoming the reclusive American poet, her own love of gardening and getting her hands dirty, what it means to be a shoot on a distinguished theatrical family tree—her mother is Vanessa Redgrave, her father was Tony Richardson, the noted film and stage director on both sides of the Atlantic—and earning her stripes as a versatile actress, known for movies (101 Dalmatians), TV (Nip/Tuck) and, of course, live theater. You may not hear it in the following transcript of our conversation, but the warmth of her speaking voice is totally seductive, even in a heat wave.

Joely Richardson: I got in late last night. Oh my God, it is so hot! It’s quite brutal on the streets.

Francis Lewis: I’m sorry about that, but welcome back anyway.

JR: You know what? Despite the heat, it is actually lovely to be back and just feel that New York excitement on the streets. The dramatic energy, with everyone hustling and bustling. And the huge lines at Whole Foods and places like that. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s like after Labor Day everyone goes crazy. I was in line for 40 minutes. It was unbelievable.

FL: You’ve certainly picked an interesting play for your return to the New York stage.

JR: Why do you say “interesting”?

FL: Because it’s a one-person show, because it’s about a 19th-century American poet and recluse. Have you ever done a one-person show before?

JR: No. And I swore I’d never do one. The first one-person play I saw I was probably in my twenties and thought, who would do that? What are people made of who do that sort of thing? And then when I saw my mother do Magical Thinking [The Year of Magical Thinking, 2007] I thought, she must be crazy because it’s a weird, scary thing for people to do. But none of us know where the road is going to go. I would have probably said no, even up until six months ago. And then I read The Belle of Amherst this spring. Often I have to think about a project, ruminate. But in this case I literally answered straight back: yes, yes. And I’ve never sent an email like that. In the ensuing months, I’ve wondered quite what I was thinking though. And it wasn’t like I read the play once. I read it about three times because I really wanted to be sure of my decision. This is sublime, an incredible piece. It doesn’t sound like it would be a great evening in the theater. But Emily Dickinson is amazing. And the way that it’s written by William Luce. It’s about love, it’s about death, it’s about nature, it’s about religion, and most important of all Emily is so full of humor and mischief and, at times, obviously blinding insight that the whole effect of it, for me anyway, was sort of sacred. So, that’s why when you said “interesting” I was wondering how the play is perceived by other people. Because to me, I just thought, this is sensational and when will I ever get the chance to do something like this again?

FL: Prior to taking on the role, was Dickinson a part of your life? Were you familiar with her poetry?

JR: I can’t say I was a wild Emily Dickinson fan because, to be honest, I’m more into playwrights. That’s my job. But when this came up, then I started to look into Emily Dickinson. I went to Amherst. I saw her house. I saw her brother’s house. I walked around the gardens. I walked the paths she talked about. I did that early on this summer. I really felt that I wanted to ground all her thoughts and get to know her setting. Then I started to read up on her. I read her letters. And that was the most interesting thing in terms of giving me an idea into her voice. I touched on the biographies, but that’s always going to come from someone else’s point of view. Whereas her letters, and obviously her poetry, come from her. I found that reading her poems is very different from learning her poems. When you learn a poem, you get underneath it. I realized she’s about as good as it gets. She’s knockout. She’s terrifying in her bluntness, in the way she throws you off. Now I know a lot abut Emily Dickinson, but I didn’t before this job. Having said that, I’m not doing an imitation of her. Only one photo was ever taken of her and that was when she was 17. Obviously I’m very different. But this is not a Madame Tussauds thing. What’s most important is to capture her words and spirit. I’m not doing an impersonation because there’s no such thing. There are no sound recordings of her. It’s her spirit that I’m going for. I’m still astonished that I was asked to do it, but very grateful.

FL: Emily Dickinson is known for her love of nature and gardening. Do you share that with her. Are you a gardener?

JR: I’m afraid I am. I’m really quite dotty about it. That’s an English expression. I am actually terribly boring about the subject. I actually show people pictures: These are the roses, these are the berries we picked from my garden, and this is the jam we made from the berries. I’m afraid I’m a right old bore. Up until a few days ago, I was cutting back my roses and putting compost, manure and mulch around them in hopes that they will be really beautiful next year. You’re right. How did you get that?

FL: I don’t know. I just had the feeling that yours would be a hands-on love of nature.

JR: Very hands on. When you get your hands dirty, that’s when you really gel with nature. You can go on great walks and all of that is wonderful, but when you work with nature, that to me is when you fall in love with it. Are you a gardener?

FL: Only in so far as I walk behind a lawnmower every weekend. Not to change the subject, which I am: I’ve always been curious about your first name. It’s an unusual first name, is it not?

JR: Yes, it is. My father was in love with everything French, and he loved the name Jolie, but my parents thought it would be a bit of a curse. You couldn’t be called “Pretty.” So they just kept the name but changed the spelling. My middle name is Kim, from Kim Stanley [American stage and film actress, 1925-2001]. My father thought she was phenomenal, so that’s where the Kim comes from.

FL: I know you’ve been asked a thousand times about the Redgrave dynasty. What’s it like being a part of that legacy ?

JR: That’s a funny question for me to be able to answer because I don’t know. To me, they’re just my family. I can’t separate it. Does that make sense? I remember seeing my mum and my aunt [Lynn Redgrave] take out their little makeup bags and pitch up somewhere rented or in a hotel room and do their bit. I remember feeling at the time really proud of them. There they were away from home, doing it just for the love of doing it, for the love of the work, for the love of communicating. I’m so proud of these women, and it sounds like I’m putting myself above them and obviously I’m not, but I found something quite touching and brilliant about their theatrical endeavors. That’s about the only time I got a little bit of distance.

FL: And now you’re carrying on the tradition. What do you think lies ahead for you? You said you’d never do a one-person play, and here you are, doing a one-person play.

 JR: [laugh] I wouldn’t know the answer to that question, would I, because look where I’ve been led so far. I did Side Effects about three years ago in New York and then The Lady From the Sea, Ivanov and Madame Melville. I felt I had to earn my stripes. Like an athlete, you start by doing a mile, then you do two miles, then three. You work your way up. It’s a bit kamikaze going into a one-woman play like this, but I just couldn’t turn it down. It’s beautiful. I hope I do it justice.

>> The Belle of Amherst, Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St., btw Ninth & 10th aves., 212.239.6200

Check out the slide show below for the many faces of Joely Richardson as Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst. All photos ©2014, Carol Rosegg