When she enters a room, the gracious Lynn Redgrave exudes an aura of aristocratic poise, but it quickly becomes evident that she is also a lady of tremendous sincerity and warmth. In a recent interview with Back Stage West/Drama-Logue at the coffeeshop in Santa Monica's Shutters Hotel, this renowned actress came across as a remarkably candid and confident creative artist who is eager to share her experiences throughout a distinguished career in stage, screen, and television that has spanned more than 35 years. Redgrave has rightfully earned an abundance of critical accolades, yet even her most ardent admirers will marvel at her astonishing supporting performance as an elderly Hungarian housekeeper in the new film Gods and Monsters, opening in November.
This film is a gripping psychological drama, based on the novel Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram, a fictionalized speculation of events surrounding the tragic 1957 death of real-life film director James Whale (The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man), who achieved fleeting fame in the 1930s. After Whale (brilliantly played by Ian McKellen) was discovered floating face down in his Pacific Palisades swimming pool (à la Sunset Boulevard), his death was termed a suicide due to despondency over his failing health and stalled career. But his reckless habit of cavorting with countless male hustlers and transients led to persistent rumors of foul play. In a career breakthrough role, Brendan Fraser plays a heterosexual drifter who befriends Whale, and Redgrave plays Hannah, Whale's longtime Hungarian housemaid, who openly disapproves of Whale's hedonistic lifestyle yet cares for him like a devoted mother.
Redgrave's eyes sparkled at my suggestion that this her performance merits Oscar attention. Her enthusiasm was infectious as she talked about her various career achievements. She obviously approaches each new role as an exciting adventure and has glorious memories of her career accomplishments and the friendships she has made along the way. The youngest child of acting legends Sir Michael Redgrave and Lady Rachel Kempson, the sister of Vanessa Redgrave and Corin Redgrave, and the aunt of Natasha Richardson, Joely Richardson, and Jemma Redgrave, she is among the sparkling jewels in a regal dynasty.
Making her professional debut in 1962 in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal Court Theatre, she soon became a founding member of Britain's National Theatre. Her illustrious theatrical co-stars include the likes of Maggie Smith, Robert Stephens, Laurence Oliver, Tom Courtenay, Rex Harrison, and Claudette Colbert. She has worked with such directors as Franco Zeffirelli and Lindsay Anderson, and in classics by such masters as Shakespeare, Shaw, Brecht, and Chekhov. She won a Tony nomination for her autobiographical one-woman acting/writing vehicle, Shakespeare for My Father.
Her wide-ranging films have included her Oscar-nominated breakthrough role in Georgy Girl (1966), Tennessee Williams' The Last of the Mobile Hot Shot (1970), Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1973), The Happy Hooker (as Xaviera Hollander; 1975), and the Oscar-winning Shine (1996). She has made countless guest appearances on television variety and dramatic shows and starred in four U.S. sitcoms (CBS's House Calls, beginning in 1979; NBC's Teachers Only in 1982/83; ABC's Chicken Soup in 1989, and the recently premiered, ultra-racy Rude Awakening on Showtime).
Back Stage West/Drama-Logue: I found your multi-faceted character in Gods and Monsters to be absolutely riveting, a character with deep-seated homophobia who nonetheless cares deeply for her gay employer Whale. Your Hungarian accent was impeccable and your physical characterization of a woman much older than you was so convincing that had I not known you were in the film, it would have difficult to realize that this was you. Can you tell me a little about your preparation for this role?
Lynn Redgrave: First let me say that I don't see Hannah as being homophobic in the sense of looking at someone so negatively that you can't even see the person. Hannah thinks of Whale as a good person in all respects except his homosexuality. But she is certain that he will burn in hell. The Catholic church says it's wrong and she's not a person to question her religion. She doesn't approve of serving tea to Mr. Jimmy and his guests at poolside, but she is completely dutiful. I'm sure that she struggles with her conscience and has endless rosary readings.
As for the accent and the aging, I love to transform myself. You don't always get that chance. I had done a lot of accents, but never Hungarian. I have a good ear for dialects, but I do work hard at them. They have to be very specific, otherwise they go in and out and you can't hold onto them. Luckily I have a friend in New York of Hungarian origin. But she grew up in this country, so she referred me to a Hungarian physiotherapist who has only spent nine years in this country and thus her dialect was completely intact. She was wonderful. I got her to teach me all sorts of useful Hungarian phrases that Bill (writer/director Bill Condon) allowed me to use in the film.
BSW/D-L: Is Hannah a real-life character?
Redgrave: Bill said that all of his research indicated that Whale actually had two middle-European servants. In the book, Christopher Bram combined them into a single Latina servant, but in those days, one would be hard put to find a Latina housekeeper. They mostly were from Poland or that corner of the world, and many were Hungarian. That's why Bill decided to portray Hannah as Hungarian.
BSW/D-L: Was this your first time working with Ian McKellen?
Redgrave: No, I've known him since the late '50s, because he and my brother Colin went to Cambridge together. We acted together three times in the 1963-'64 time period. First there was Sunday Out of Season, a film made for British television, a bittersweet romance in which we played boyfriend and girlfriend. We were also in Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theatre and we performed in a radio production of Three Sisters. We've remained lifelong friends, although we don't see each other very often.
BSW/D-L: The two of you certainly have a good rapport in the new film.
Redgrave: You know, I'm not sure that friendship has anything to do with chemistry in acting together. I don't think it can be defined. As a matter of fact, I believe Ian and I do have a good chemistry and I think Bill had a great cast. But I don't believe chemistry on screen is something you can bottle. If we knew exactly what it was, it would be wonderful. We could produce it every time.
BSW/D-L: Speaking of interesting co-stars, I recently saw your TV-movie remake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in which you and your real-life sister Vanessa Redgrave played the bizarre Hudson sister roles so strongly associated with Davis and Crawford. Can you describe the experience of working with your sister?
Redgrave: Although Baby Jane was the first time Vanessa and I acted together, we went to London to appear in Three Sisters immediately afterwards. It was a very intense time, with two real sisters playing two sets of very different sisters. It was fascinating and utterly memorable in both instances. But I don't know if I'm anxious to repeat it. While we both look very different and are very different, there is still a familial thing that reads through, and there are only so many sister roles to play. Besides that, when working with family, it's also a challenge to avoid the baggage that comes with it. It's not always comfortable. However, that doesn't appear to be so when I work with my husband (director John Clark), who directed me in Shakespeare With My Father. Working with him is always a great experience.
BSW/D-L: Acting seems to be in your family's genes. Are your three children in show business?
Redgrave: Not exactly. Our son is an airline pilot. Our eldest daughter trained as an actress in England, did some shows Off-Broadway, and had a recurring role in the soap All My Children. And now she's given it all up and is studying with a Tibetan monk to become a Buddhist nun. My other daughter is a highschool senior who is interested in film, but behind-the-scenes. For a college course, she made and edited a terrific 10-minute film. But I don't know if she will decide to seriously pursue a film career.
BSW/D-L: Let's talk about Georgy Girl, which I also saw recently. What I remember so vividly is that this '60s comedy quickly broke out from the art-house circuit into a mainstream hit. Do you have a theory as to why the film connected so strongly?
Redgrave: I think people identified with Georgy. She was actually the screen's first anti-heroine. To this day, women say to me that it was the first time they saw themselves on the screen. Women of my era felt ill at ease with themselves. Remember the scene at the beginning in which Georgy has her hair done up in a salon and then feels so uncomfortable that she goes into a bathroom to wash it all out? Most women knew what it was like to not be a part of swinging London, not beautiful, and not the one who was going to land the perfect guy. This film was an outgrowth of that angry-young-man/ John Osborne/kitchen-sink movement in British theatre and film of the '50s and '60s, where people no longer sat around in tennis courts wearing silk dresses and sipping martinis. If people were dirty, we saw them as dirty. Georgy was a working-class heroine, and the film seemed to be released at just the right time.
BSW/D-L: Is there a discernible difference between the approaches of British and American directors?
Redgrave: I don't think so. There are good and bad directors in both countries. But I've probably worked more with American directors, because I've been here for so long. I can tell you about a terrible experience with one particular American director who is not very well known, so I'll let him remain nameless. When I was doing a Broadway show, I met with him in a restaurant to discuss a part in a very interesting one-woman play. We had barely ordered our drinks when he told me that he would do all of the research to determine all of the details about my character‹exactly what my character would be eating, what she'd be wearing, and what she'd be playing on the radio. It's not a matter of whether or not he would make good choices. Maybe he would have, but they would not have been my choices. Since he thought that was his job, it was clear we would never have a meeting of the minds.
BSW/D-L: Over the years, are there certain roles that stand out as your favorites or the most personally rewarding?
Redgrave: There are some characters I really miss. Remember at the end of Tootsie, when Dustin Hoffman says he's going to miss Dorothy? That's the way I feel about certain roles. Hannah in Gods and Monsters and Baby Jane are two good examples. After these projects ended, I felt a terrible sense of loss. It's like I'm losing somebody I've become used to meeting every day. It's not that I want to live their lives, but I love being them for a while.
BSW/D-L: Which of your many projects are you the most proud of?
Redgrave: The thing that first pops into my mind is Shine. But I didn't realize it when we were doing it. I didn't know at the time that it would be a great film or that I was working with a great filmmaker. Scott (Hicks) was terrific. Sometimes onstage you instantly know when you're in something special, as in the magical production of Cherry Orchard that I did with Tom Moore in La Jolla. But with Shine, I didn't know I was in a fantastic film until I saw the finished product.
BSW/D-L: You recently performed in a Broadway showtune concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Is there a chance you would do a Broadway musical?
Redgrave: I think I really would, now that I know I can do it. I'm going to an amazing voice teacher in New York and I do sessions with her by phone when I can't get there. I did play Anna in The King and I some years ago in St. Louis, and in the days of TV variety, I did a lot of singing.
BSW/D-L: You've been in four sitcoms in the U.S. and one in England. How does sitcom acting compare to performing on film or stage?
Redgrave: Until recently, I swore I'd never do a sitcom again. Not that I didn't enjoy the people I worked with, but I hate working on the audience shows. People say it's like live theatre, but it's not. It's a horrible hybrid. I'm not going to put myself through that again. They drag people in from the supermarkets whistling and screaming. I know there are people who like it, but I don't. I kept saying no to Rude Awakening, even though I loved the scripts they sent me, because I thought it was going to be an audience show. As soon as I discovered it would have no live audience and use no laugh track, I signed on immediately. You must see it. I play an outrageous character‹a Beverly Hills functioning alcoholic. The show is causing such a stir because it's absolutely wicked, filthily funny. Be prepared to be shocked.
BSW/D-L: What other projects are coming up for you?
Redgrave: I have written a new play‹but not a one-person show this time‹that my husband will direct. Of course, I've written a terrific role for myself. In the film Strike!, a comedy with serious undertones, which recently premiered in Canada and will soon be released in the U.S., I play the headmistress of an all-girl's school. The school is resisting political pressures to become co-ed, and a demonstration is launched. It's a lovely film. I did another film in Canada called Shegala, in which I play a suicidal alcoholic who becomes romantically involved with a young mental patient. This will be released next year. I also have a film coming to Lifetime Cable called Different, with Annabeth Gish, in which I play the mother of a girl who emerges from a coma with a changed personality. I'm now off to Australia to film Red Letter Day with Nigel Hawthorne, a drama set in the '50s.
You know, I would like to say that the film Gods and Monsters is really about the horrible experience of once belonging to something, then suddenly being shut out. In the film, Whale is a filmmaker who takes control of his own destiny when he suddenly finds that Hollywood has turned its back on him. He no longer has a place at the table. I can relate to this because for many, many years after my early successes in the film industry, I found myself with no place at the table.
I'm enormously grateful to be back. BSW/D-L