Earthy Beauty

British actor Peter Eyre, who knew Natasha Richardson since she was a child, recalls the qualities that made her so special. Read it and view photos from the actress’ life.

The tragic death of Natasha Richardson is so random and incomprehensible it seems presumptuous to enter into the circus of people now delivering their journalistic verdicts on her life and talent. My little memoir of her is merely a whisper from the heart.

I knew her for many years on and off, in London and New York. As I am more than 20 years older than she is, I would make no claim to intimacy, but as so often happens in our profession as actors, age doesn’t count for much in the bonds we form with our colleagues.

Click on picture to view a gallery of Richardson's life and career.

When she played Anna Christie at the Young Vic, sometime before she played it on Broadway opposite her future husband, Liam Neeson, she displayed a rare authority and ability to transform. O’Neill describes Anna Christie as “tall, blond, fully-developed girl of twenty, handsome after a large Viking-daughter fashion, but now run down in health and plainly showing all the outward evidences of belonging to the world’s oldest profession.” That’s how she was.

It was a remarkable achievement for an actor, who then, although already with a growing reputation, had not an enormous amount of experience. I remember going back to see her, after a matinee at the Young Vic of Anna Christie. Huddled in a voluminous and rather un-chic dressing gown, in a room she shared with another colleague, Natasha spoke about the play with intense enthusiasm. She must have known she had struck gold. I think she already had the idea that the play would have a future life, and it did, in an entirely different production on Broadway, to much acclaim.

Natasha, from her earliest years in the acting profession, gave the impression she knew she had a special gift, and she had all the qualities as a person to make it possible for that gift to flower: A serious dedication to her work, a big ambition, single-mindedness. Her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, must have been an inspiration. No one is more dedicated as an actor than her. Just as she was doubtless inspired by her father, Michael Redgrave, a genius of the stage. His Uncle Vanya I consider the greatest performance I ever saw in my entire life.

Tony Richardson, Natasha’s father, was a brilliant man, an animator of theatre and cinema—talented, witty, ambitious, and extraordinarily skilled in the handling of people. Single-minded in the way he managed his career, he must have been an extremely helpful guide to his eldest daughter as she made her way.

Some memories:

In the early 1970s, Michael White, the West End producer, often rented or shared with Tony his house in the South of France, up in the hills above St. Tropez. One summer, I was there as a friend of Michael’s and a motley group of society people, young or youngish layabouts (I fitted into that category quite neatly), fashionistas, actors. Tony was there with his assistants and two daughters. I remember Natasha and Joely putting on plays for the amusement of the guests.

Even then as an actor Natasha had an earthly, grounded quality and sense of comedy. Joely was luminous like an enchanted spirit. They were children, but already performing with total confidence. Natasha also exhibited a practicality and healthy streak of good common sense in the way she dealt with what can only be called a very mixed crowd. She never seemed fazed or perturbed by the goings-on and the very chaotic sleeping arrangements. In an environment where you might be challenged by all the madness, she seemed, to me, simply to be herself—a warm, loving, and friendly young girl.

Later when she was a successful actress, married then to Robert Fox and starring in the musical High Society in the West End, I remember a dinner she gave when again, she seemed totally unfazed by the whole business of entertaining a large crowd. After all, she had grown up in the expert school of her father, a master of entertainment.

Today, a little memory of that evening comes back. For some reason I told Natasha I was seeing a psychiatrist. She asked me very sweetly, innocently, if I were unhappy. “I suppose I am,” I answered gingerly. After a pause, she said, “Isn’t there anybody you could talk to?” “I suppose not exactly,” I answered hesitantly. After all, it’s difficult, not to say boring, to try to explain the psychoanalytical process to someone who doesn’t know what psychoanalysis is like. “You could always talk to me,” she said. I wish I had now, of course, and wish I had gotten to know her better. When I had played on Broadway in Hamlet with Ralph Fiennes in 1995, she and Liam came around and were generous in their compliments. A few days later, she rang me and I went around to see her at her apartment. I think maybe she wasn’t working at the time and wanted to talk about the theatre, acting, London, what was happening. It was typically sweet of her to bother calling me. Now I think of that day. I wonder if she thought I was unhappy or lonely as, she said, “You can always talk to me.”

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Recently when I was in New York, I thought of getting in touch, but somehow didn’t. I was working, and she was working. I heard she was rehearsing for a one-night benefit of A Little Night Music with her mother. They were both quite remarkable, everybody said, and hoped to do a full-scale production later. What an extraordinary talent she had to be able to do Chekhov. She was a lovely Nina in The Seagull—O’Neill, Ibsen, Shakespeare, and then take on a Broadway musical, Cabaret, and pull it off. She won the Tony. But it doesn’t, in any way, surprise me. It’s difficult to explain to people who think of theatre stars as celebrities, personalities, whatever. But the Redgraves are quite unique in their long experience in the theatre, and being, in the deepest sense, aristocrats of their art. Art, yes. For they have a profound dedication to the truth and power of theatre, which has nothing to do with showbiz or glitz. Natasha was spectacularly the inheritor of that gift.

I remember now, the very first time I saw her, a baby in her mother’s arms, in the house where Vanessa and Tony Richardson lived in Hammersmith, Vanessa answering the telephone, dealing with demands from other people, and to tending her friends, her daughter smiling, glowing, looking up at her mother with adoration. Her mother hugging, kissing her, this blessed child with everything before her.

Peter Eyre is a veteran actor whose 50-year career spans film, television, and the theatre. His stage credits include Richard II, Hamlet, King Lear, Hedda Gabler, Crime and Punishment, The Seagull, and Terre Haute.