Old interview #11: “So whose daughter are you?”

The Guardian (London)

January 6, 1999

Portrait: ‘So whose daughter are you?’; She’s the Redgrave you’ve probably never heard of. But not for long. Simon Hattenstone meets Jemma, daughter of Corin, niece of Vanessa (and so on)

BYLINE: SIMON HATTENSTONE

There are certain conventions you have to respect when talking about my family, suggests Jemma Redgrave. Certain preferred words and phrases. ‘Firebrand’, for example, is a must – to describe the politics of Redgrave’s father Corin and Auntie Vanessa, both of whom were active in the Workers’ Revolutionary Party. And then there’s ‘theatrical dynasty’, of course. As in grandfather Michael and grandmother Rachel Kempson, dropping a generation to Vanessa, Lynn and Corin, dropping another generation to Natasha and Joely Richardson (Vanessa’s children) and Redgrave herself.

Jemma Redgrave is all of a black huddle. Black top, black trousers, black suedey shoes and black leathery coat, illuminated by red cheeks and red nose. She could have walked straight out of Chekhov’s cherry orchard. ‘It’s freezing in here, isn’t it?’ she says, giving herself a good cuddle. ‘I’m sorry if I don’t make much sense today. I’ve been up all night with my son. Rubbing his tummy every hour. Poor thing.’

In her new film, Redgrave plays the mother of a baby boy with the brain and speech pattern of a drug-addled yob. It’s based on an Irvine Welsh short story, one of three (from the original 22) that make up the film The Acid House. This highly stylised segment is difficult to describe – part rap video, part kitchen sink drama, part hallucinatory trip. Perhaps gritty surrealism is most apt. It’s a nice surprise to find Redgrave stewing in the contemporary mulch of a Welsh story. After all, she is an actress largely defined by the corsets of period drama, from her early stage work with Lynn and Vanessa in The Three Sisters to the Victorian doctor she played in the TV series Bramwell.

She says that Welsh takes our most ‘subliminal subconscious fears’ and stirs them into a disturbing fantasy. ‘You know, I used to have nightmares when I was pregnant. . .’ And she stops. She tells me I don’t want to know about them, really I don’t, now’s not the time for psychoanalysis. Oh go on! She laughs, and that huge, tender Redgrave mouth opens wide enough to swallow the world. ‘. . . I had these dreams that the child would come out fully formed, adult. You always have a fear, not quite a fear, but you never know what your relationship will be like with your child.’ Her laugh is loud and brutal, with something of the wicked witch in it.

Interviewers often accuse Jemma Redgrave of having a sense of humour, of letting the side down. ‘Well it’s just bollocks, this whole thing.’ What’s bollocks? ‘It’s bollocks. This ridiculous notion that if you’re involved in leftwing politics or you spring from a serious acting family you don’t have a sense of humour . . . It’s just not true. Look at Tony Benn – he’s incredibly cool and very funny and politically committed.’

I’ve been thinking about the Redgraves, thinking that I would not fancy following in all those footsteps. Didn’t the inevitable comparisons make her wary? ‘It was quite hard. It’s ‘So whose daughter are you?’ constantly, like the rector’s wife.’ She tried to think of other career options, unsuccessfully. And yes, naturally, she was worried she wouldn’t measure up, but it would have been crazy to deny her vocation simply because of family history.

Of the third generation, Natasha Richardson has enjoyed the greatest success. The Guardian’s theatre critic, Michael Billington, says all three have inherited the talent – that curious mix of intelligence and strangeness – but Joely and Jemma remain unproven. Earlier this year, Jemma played the messianic Salvation Army leader Major Barbara in the West End, and Billington praised her ‘clarity and purity’. He says that the Redgraves are often late developers and that Corin has only recently matured as an actor, so it’s early days yet for 33-year-old Jemma.

The major influence on Redgrave’s life seems to be her mother, Deirdre Hamilton-Hill. Redgrave’s parents split up when she was nine. Deirdre, the reckless daughter of a naval commander, wrote a book in which she claimed that Corin wanted her to be Mrs Lenin and had banned wine and French food from the house because they were bourgeois. While bringing up Redgrave and her younger brother, Luke, Deirdre opened the house up to any number of lovers, strangers and rock ‘n’ rollers. Even Redgrave described her as flaky.

Meanwhile, the wheel was turning and Redgrave was rebelling against her mother. She became known as the sensible one. ‘At 18, I thought I’d do the ultimate teenage rebellion thing and go incredibly straight. I thought I would vote Tory. I didn’t in the end. I thought that’s not rebellion, that’s just sad.’

She married a barrister (they recently got back together after splitting up for a year), had a son and apart from ironing in the nude in the TV serialisation of The Buddha Of Suburbia, led a quietly respectable actor’s life. There has often seemed something Sensible Shoes about Redgrave’s career.

She says she’s not so sure about being innately sensible; she thinks it is something imposed on her in childhood. Deirdre was so irresponsible that she had to take control. ‘There was a total lack of structure, and I longed for structure so I set about trying to create it.

‘I wasn’t trying so much to impose order as trying to show my mum that certain people were hanging around who weren’t particularly nice.’ She says the house was stuffed with visitors, some of them lovely, gentle people like Who manager Kit Lambert, others just there to exploit her mother’s trust. The trouble with Deirdre was that she found it difficult to tell the difference.

Did Redgrave make it obvious when she didn’t approve of the hangers on? ‘Yeah, I did. Mum used to call me the Attitude Squad. There were always lodgers, and one of them stole and she and her boyfriend had this awful, violent relationship, and I’d break it up sometimes.’

I tell her I wouldn’t fancy stepping into a domestic. ‘I can’t stand violence. But you can’t just stand there, can you?’ There is something open and vulnerable about Regrave, even when she’s talking up her toughness. You get the impression that however streetwise she is, she has also inherited some of her mother’s naivety – but whereas it followed Deirdre like a curse, for Redgrave it is a strength.

She genuinely believes that there would have been no option but to step in and break up the fights. Likewise, she says how could you not be interested in politics – everyone wants better schools, more jobs, social justice.

Did she miss not being mothered? ‘Yes, probably I did.’ When her mother was dying, the roles finally reverted to form and she was allowed to be a child again. ‘Every time she had bad news, she’d absorb it. It took a week and she’d say I’ll beat his, don’t worry I’m fine, and she’d take care of me. She really took emotional care of me. That extraordinary strength. It was incredible. Incredible.’ She stares into the distance as if it’s struck her for the first time.

Redgrave says she spent a lot of her childhood scared. She insisted on going to the grammar school that turned into a private school because she’d heard stories about kids being stabbed at the comprehensive. Didn’t it cause a row between her parents? ‘Yes, Dad wasn’t best pleased. But I was such a coward. I know this all sounds very contradictory. . . there I was, hard bastard telling people to fuck off, but I was quite shy.’

When she got to the school she felt inadequate because she was no longer near the top of her class. She started to comfort eat and became self-consciously plump. ‘Have you heard of the rower Steve Redgrave?’ she asks. Is he a relation? ‘Apparently he is, but I don’t know him. Anyway, he talked of the psychological advantage of being able to see the others behind you and how it’s much more difficult to come from behind. That’s how I felt at school. I struggled.’

When she went on to the stage she loved it, but discovered a new fear. Every first night she considered jumping on to a plane for Australia and not returning. Why did she act if it was so painful? ‘I think it was an escape. . . a means of expression. I wasn’t artistic. I’m still shy, still self -conscious.’ She lights a fag and gives herself another cuddle against the cold.

We talk about childhood and growing up and how you bleed for your children. She’s a very good listener, more relaxed asking questions than fielding them. Is she in a political party? No, she never has been, has never wanted to toe a single line. She’s quiet, mulling over the question of politics. ‘I do think acting can be very self-absorbed, and I find that slightly embarrassing. Sometimes it seems such an uninquiring profession.’

She tells me how her husband Tim is often in court, challenging the Home Secretary’s right to ‘raise a tarriff when the judge has already set one, like in the Bulger case, just because he has received 100,000 coupons from the Sun imploring him to. Tim does really interesting work, and often we’ve been out and nobody’s asked him a single question.’ Redgrave makes plenty of claims for the work of her husband, her brother, her cousins, her aunts, but none for herself. She says she was lucky to get a television series because it gave her a profile, and now it’s finished she’d like to do more stage work, expand her repertoire, discard the corsets.

She shows me how to work the coffee machine, apologises profusely for the cigarettes she’s smoked, apologises some more for her red nose and tiredness, thanks the PR for organising the interview, thanks me for coming, tells me not to worry that the photographer is the best part of an hour late.

I can’t help thinking that sometimes Redgrave must find it difficult with her family. They all seem so terribly confident. ‘Yes. Everybody was always quite confident of their opinions. I didn’t feel as confident or as articulate.’ You sense she gets the jitters even contemplating such words, but maybe this is what makes her so likeable. ‘I mean, I’m still quite chary of expressing opinions. . . unconfident to some extent about my own opinions. I find it quite hard, yes.’ The Acid House is on general release.