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For The Aspern Papers costars Vanessa Redgrave, 81, and her daughter Joely Richardson, 54, acting is a family business: Redgrave’s father was Sir Michael Redgrave, her sister was Lynn Redgrave, and her late daughter was Liam Neeson’s wife Natasha Richardson (who died in a 2009 skiing accident).
Redgrave’s family is all over The Aspern Papers: In 1959, her dad wrote the play (from Henry James’ novella) and played the protagonist, who’s hunting for some letters penned by the late, famous poet Jeffrey Aspern. In 1984, Vanessa won an Olivier Award playing Aspern’s Miss Tina, who may know where the letters are. Now Joely plays Miss Tina, and Redgrave ascends to the part of Aspern’s tragic lover, Tina’s elderly, secretive Aunt Juliana Bordereau, who has retreated to a faded Venetian palazzo.
“It’s a wonderful coincidence,” says Richardson of playing her mom’s old role in grandpa’s drama. “Three generations have gotten to be part of James’ The Aspern Papers.” When it played at last summer’s Venice Film Festival and Richardson won the Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award, says Richardson, “It was also lovely.”
“And I was so thrilled to see Joely transform doing Miss Tina,” says Redgrave. Speaking by phone from London, their intonations are almost identical — only the faint quaver of Redgrave’s voice distinguishes them. Asked what it was like to act with her mom, who’s earned 24 Oscar, Golden Globe and Emmy nominations with five wins, plus an AARP Movies for Grownups award, Richardson says: “Interesting. Vanessa is formidable. I remember working with Glenn Close in 101 Dalmatians and she had to be Cruella DeVil. Vanessa had to access a similar level of intensity, and it was extraordinary to see."
“What I noticed with Mum,” she added, “is that she'll try quite a few different approaches, whether because of exploration or nerves. And, then, at the last moment, she jumps in. And, oh my God, how did she access that?” How much does her mother's process reflect her own? Richardson laughs freely and says, “We all turn into our mothers. I've started to realize that a lot of the really interesting things happen when you just let go. I see that in Vanessa. You free-fall."
"There's no one process,” Redgrave says.
"Our processes are ever-changing,” Richardson concurs. Their soundalike voices interweave, exquisitely attuned to each other’s feelings.
Did their mother-daughter relationship seep into the interplay between Juliana and Miss Tina? “I don't try and characterize,” says Redgrave.
"I love my mum,” says Richardson.
"I love my Joely,” says Redgrave without skipping a beat.
"We know each other very, very well,” says Richardson. “We can tweak each other in the wrong places. Both of us can give as good as we get.”
But their personalities are scarcely identical. “Mum is great fun and can have a wicked sense of humor, of the absurd,” says Richardson. “She can remember the date of everything. I'm almost dyslexic. Our relationship is more on an even path than that of the Bordereaus."
And how do the women pass the time together when they aren't working together and feeding the flame of their family’s fame? Last weekend, they learned how to make sponge cakes.
"We do like cooking,” says Redgrave, adding appreciatively: “Joely makes fantastic winter soups."