It’s always weird to interview someone you’ve seen naked. It’s even weirder when the movie you’re interviewing them for has them in some pretty hot sex scenes. And it’s still weirder when a question gets asked about those scenes. But that’s all a good kind of weird.
Natasha Richardson, the wife of Liam Neeson, has been a classy presence in film ever since her debut in Gothic. Her new film, Asylum, is a dark love story where her character, the wife of a doctor at a loonie bin, falls for one of the patients. It’s set in 1950s repressed England, and the love affair quickly goes to a bad place.
Richardson doesn’t just star in the film, which is directed by Young Adam‘s David MacKenzie, she also produced the movie. She came to New York City this week to talk about the long road this film has taken to get to theaters this weekend.
Q: Do you submerse yourself in characters to the point that you have to take a break when you come out just so you can get back to your real life?
Richardson: I do completely submerse myself but I’m not the kind of actress that goes home with the character. I mean, you’re thinking about the work or the next day’s scenes, but not staying in character. But as a film goes on, particularly a film like this, you become more and more fragile, emotionally. And physically too, actually.
Q: This is a complex arc you have to play. How did you prepare?
Richardson: I spent so many years trying to get this made that she just lived in my heart and soul and my imagination for a number of years. I kept going back to the book because the book was my foundation stone, my touchstone. I because friends with Patrick McGrath, the novelist who wrote it, so if I had any questions I would go to him. Yeah, I talked to a couple of doctors but it was really about immersing myself in that world rather than reading a load of books. I could imagine it only too well.
Q: You’ve done a number of sex scenes in film -
Richardson: What are you trying to say! I haven’t done any in a while, actually. And none like this. David made it clear he wanted it to be as real as possible. He didn’t want any restrictions whatsoever, and he asked me if I was comfortable with that. I said yes, and I was, because I knew that for this movie to work it had to be very hot and very real, and it wasn’t going to be a case of doing it Hollywood all covered with a nice little sheet.
So I signed up for that, and I thought it was right, but it didn’t make it any easier to do. What’s in the movie compared to what we shot is the tip of the iceberg.
Q: I guess we have to wait for the DVD! You’ve appeared in Patrick Marber’s plays in the past, and he adapted this book for the screen. What do you think he brought to it?
Richardson: He has a dark, witty sense of humor, so whenever there was a chance for some irony he brought that to it. His dialogue is very spare. He doesn’t like a lot of purple prose and he doesn’t like a lot of melodrama.
Q: What was it about the book, and what was it that got you so into the project that you would get involved as a producer?
Richardson: When I first read the book I could not put it down. I thought it was so gripping, such a page turner. I immediately thought this would make a great movie. I felt I’ve been able to explore some of this kind of emotional terrain on stage, and I’ve always wanted to be able to do what I’m best at on film and I hadn’t had that opportunity. I thought this was it and it had my name written on it.
I also knew it was so good that it had to have been optioned. The day after I read the book I was making all these calls to see who bought the book, and I found out that Mace Neufeld had. Then there was this incredible piece of serendipity that sealed the fate for me, in that Liam and I went out for dinner that night just to a restaurant I know of in our hood, and this guy comes to our table. I was thinking he was going to ask our autographs or something and he said, ‘I hear you like my book. My name is Patrick McGrath.’ Of all the joints in all the world – it was that kind of moment!
But I didn’t realize it would take so many years and so many struggles and so many setbacks to get it made. It’s kind of miraculous that I played the part and that they didn’t kick me off – which I am sure they would have liked! – to get a big name, like Nicole Kidman.
Q: Why do you think Stella gives up everything, including her son, to be with this man?
Richardson: I think she’s in this very unhappy marriage. She’s living in this society that – the 50s was still a time when middle class women were not supposed to have a job, they were supposed to stay home, make coffee in the mornings and be ready with a cocktail at the end of the day. Women were not allowed to have any intelligence or creativity or sexuality – they just did not have an outlet, any kind of avenue. Combine that with a very repressed husband it’s like an accident waiting to happen. She meets this man and obviously just gets consumed by him and despite herself can’t help but make the decision to start this affair. Then it becomes a series of events that unravel out of her control. I don’t think she leaves her son, I think that’s one of the hardest things to justify, but I don’t think she thinks she leaves her son permanently. She doesn’t think that she can be a good mother when she’s in such misery and depression without this man.
Q: Were there sources you looked at for this beyond the book?
Richardson: Of course. Many people in my life close to me. Aspects of myself. As well as the imagination. Most of us have had moments where you know you could – and I have certainly played a few women like this – go to the edge of the abyss and look over. Most of us don’t throw ourselves over, but some do, and they just fall and have that self destruct button. I’m not quite sure why I understand it, because so far I’m not self-destructive, but I know where it comes from.
Q: After Ralph Fiennes did Spider, also based on a Patrick McGrath book, he did Maid in Manhattan to make himself feel better.
Richardson: And it did well! It’s so funny that you bring up Ralph because there are so many connections. Of course he did Patrick McGrath’s other novel, and we did Maid in Manhattan and we’ve done this movie The White Countess, this Merchant Ivory film that’s coming out in November.
So do I need an antidote? I do. I played Blanche Dubois on Broadway for five months, and prior to that I shot in Shanghai for three months – artistically I feel I need to recharge the batteries. I feel I need to let my family take priority for the next few months. So I don’t think I’m going to work for the rest of the year. I think I’m going to have to take a rest from sex-addicted, chain smoking, alcoholic crazy ladies for a while.