Joely Richardson talks to Richard Godwin about enjoying her age and embracing the new

It’s a beautiful morning in London and Joely Richardson, 57, and I are up on the roof of a photo studio near King’s Cross. We don’t have permission to be here, really, but I couldn’t resist following the signs to the rooftop – and it seems Richardson can’t resist a little adventure. The first thing she does when we emerge into the sunshine is take a photograph of the skyline for her new Instagram account. Having once forsworn all social media, the actress now regularly shares wild swimming spots and make-up-chair selfies with more than 4,000 followers. The second thing she does? Execute a cartwheel. ‘Did you get it?’ she says, coming over to check that the film I have just captured on my phone isn’t too revealing. ‘Oh, I can do much better ones than that!’ It looks perfect to me. 

It is fair to say that she has had her ups and downs in her long career, which stretches all the way back to her screen debut in The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968, when she was three. Such is the sort of childhood you can expect when your parents are legendary director Tony Richardson and legendary actress Vanessa Redgrave. The ups have included playing Lady Chatterley opposite Sean Bean in the 1993 BBC adaptation of D H Lawrence’s novel, and woman-on-theverge Julia, who flushes her daughter’s gerbil down the loo in the first episode of Nip/Tuck (in its day, the most watched cable TV show in the US). There has also been tragedy: in 2009, Richardson lost her beloved sister Natasha in a skiing accident, which prompted her to cut down on her acting to spend time supporting her nephews Micheál and Daniel (Natasha’s children by her husband Liam Neeson) in New York. 

Actress Joely Richardson, 57, (pictured) seems to be undergoing a mini-renaissance. Blazer, £1,434, and trousers, £756, both Mugler, mytheresa. com. Hat, £560, Ring, £6,950, Shoes, £1,350,

Just now, however, Richardson seems to be undergoing a mini-renaissance. After some fairly patchy parts, the high-quality roles are accumulating: a pathologist in the Channel 4 crime drama Suspect, a sorcerer in Netflix’s worldwide number-one fantasy show The Sandman (‘It’s quite trippy!’), and Mrs Bolton in the forthcoming Lady Chatterley’s Lover movie. 

‘I’m certainly trying to enjoy life and most of the time, I do,’ she says, looking limber and fresh in white jeans and sneakers – she nearly became a tennis professional as a teenager. ‘There’s a lot of loss around for my generation. But it is really important to beat on,’ she says, half-quoting the last line in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ 

Dress, £3,095, Hat, £765, Shoes, £690, Joely believes now is the best time for her to big and bold

Dress, £3,095, Hat, £765, Shoes, £690, Joely believes now is the best time for her to big and bold

What Richardson is less keen to do is meander around in her own past. ‘Can we not talk about the 1990s? It’s 2022,’ she says when I reference a couple of roles from her early career. Articles about her then were just as likely to reference her colourful love life as her place within the Redgrave acting dynasty. She was married to film producer Tim Bevan between 1992 and 2001 (they have a daughter, Daisy, 30), after which she was romantically linked with everyone from Jamie Theakston and Robbie Williams to the newspaper proprietor Evgeny Lebedev. As for her present relationship status, she remains tight-lipped, although she does tell me that, contrary to what has been written, she doesn’t live alone in her West London home. 

I try to make decisions out of love and enthusiasm, not fear

Instead I return to the subject of her career rebirth. She laughs, but agrees that things have improved for actresses in their late 50s. ‘Certainly in the UK, it feels as if there is more celebration of older women, in the way the French always have. It’s like Shakespeare’s seven ages – you want to play all of them.’ What’s really happened, though, is that she has moved from lead roles to character roles, and the variety suits her much better. ‘In a strange way, that is where I’m most comfortable,’ she says. She particularly loves the dressing-up aspect of it. She is not classically stylish, she says, but does love getting into costume. ‘Do you want to see Mrs Bolton?’ she asks, whipping out her phone to show me her forthcoming character in Lady Chatterley’s Lover: the nurse of the paralysed (and impotent) Sir Clifford Chatterley. The contrast between the frumpy nurse in blue and the lustful heroine whom she played in her 20s could hardly be more marked. But it sounds like Mrs Bolton was more fun to play. ‘I found her to be a really lovely character. She was part of bringing these lovers together again. And she’s a cool woman. A little bit gossipy. She has her kinks. But I really liked her. And I just thought, I’d love to be part of this story again. It’s one that people are forever trying to crack.’ 

Corset top, £2,255, and skirt, £1,265, Ralph Lauren Collection, Hat, £865, emily-london. com. Gloves, £845, Shoes, £1,350,

Corset top, £2,255, and skirt, £1,265, Ralph Lauren Collection, Hat, £865, emily-london. com. Gloves, £845, Shoes, £1,350,

I wonder how she found the contrast between the two Chatterley productions. The forthcoming Netflix film is by the French female director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre and stars Emma Corrin (Diana, Princess of Wales in The Crown) as Lady Chatterley; the 1993 adaptation was masterminded by the renowned director Ken Russell, notorious for his on-set volatility. I don’t imagine they had intimacy coordinators back then? ‘Oh no, they so didn’t,’ she laughs. ‘I had already had experience of how intimacy was done on camera but obviously Lady Chatterley was in a whole different league. And Ken Russell was not the most sensitive man. I’m really glad for this generation that there are systems in place to protect them,’ she says. ‘I can’t say it was abusive back in the day in my case, though there were personality clashes. But I did love Ken. He was mad, brilliant and chaotic. He is part of cinema history and I feel lucky to have had that experience.’ 

At the photoshoot, Richardson had rejected all the floaty outfits on offer in favour of avant-garde, sculptural pieces in bright pink and scarlet. ‘Clothes are a form of expression. I think these times are about being big and bold.’ In conversation, too, she is teasing and curious, as well as surprisingly knowledgeable about brain science and psychedelic medicine. She has been reading Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind, about the potential use of drugs such as LSD and psilocybin to treat depression and other mental health conditions. One of his observations is that such mind-altering drugs are wasted on the young. I wonder whether she has dabbled? 

Balaclava, £150, and dress, £1,080, both Joely will star as a pathologist in the Channel 4 crime drama Suspect, a sorcerer in Netflix’s worldwide number-one fantasy show The Sandman

Balaclava, £150, and dress, £1,080, both Joely will star as a pathologist in the Channel 4 crime drama Suspect, a sorcerer in Netflix’s worldwide number-one fantasy show The Sandman

‘I haven’t yet but I am fascinated by them – and probably at some stage I will,’ she says. ‘I think there is a place for it, when it becomes legal and legitimate. Why not explore other avenues?’ This openness and curiosity about the world in her sixth decade would appear to stem from her daughter Daisy – also an actor – and her generation. While Richardson admits to worrying about the ‘many things that are awful in the world right now’, she has great hopes for the future. ‘The younger generation are spectacularly interesting,’ she says. ‘They’re so much smarter, more caring than we were. There’s a great enthusiasm and knowledge.’ 

Perhaps, too, it was Daisy who encouraged her mother to embrace social media. It’s a fairly recent development. The last time Richardson was interviewed for YOU magazine, she was an Instagram refusenik, saying she didn’t want to get sucked in. Now she has more of a ‘try everything once’ attitude. ‘I’d been so staunchly against it and then this year I decided to give it a try. Someone said they looked me up, and that’s something I’d never done myself. And when I did, I just thought: “That’s what’s out there as me?”’ So Instagram is an attempt to show a little more of herself than glammy red-carpet shots. Significantly, she describes herself in her bio as: ‘Second daughter of a Yorkshireman’. ‘I don’t think my father’s side has ever been mentioned in one interview in the decades I’ve been doing this,’ she says. ‘It’s always the Redgraves. I’m a Richardson!’ 

Naturally, she holds both parents in high regard. Once, she was at a charity auction when a pair of Vanessa Redgrave’s leather gloves from Camelot came up. ‘Steve Coogan bid against me and won! I couldn’t go any higher. I mean, who would do that? So he got her gloves. I thought: “Really?”’ She laughs. She does own one prized possession of her mother’s – a satin dress she wore in a production of The Threepenny Opera directed by Tony Richardson – but it’s lost in the attic somewhere. Still, my impression is that she was more of a daddy’s girl growing up. ‘My father died a very long time ago. So in terms of guidance, my mother is extraordinary and has blazed her own trail, but, traditionally, I would have gone to him.’ 

Richardson has a fierce pride in her father’s achievements – he died in 1991 at the age of 63. The son of a chemist from Shipley, Yorkshire, he went to Oxford University and would become a key figure among the ‘angry young men’ movement in theatre and cinema’s British New Wave. His iconic films include Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Tom Jones, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1964. ‘Watch A Taste of Honey and he was 50 years ahead of the game in terms of his representation of sexuality and diversity. It was all there,’ she says proudly. But the influence extends beyond film. Tony Richardson was equally passionate about birds, travel, nature and family. ‘One of his last trips was to see gorillas in their natural habitat. He believed that life wasn’t just about your work. That’s very much a lesson that came through to me.’ 

As we near the end of our time together, I have purposefully avoided asking Richardson about her late sister since I am painfully conscious that the subject comes up in every interview she has done since that dreadful day in 2009. But so, it seems, is she. ‘Anything else?’ she says in a rare pause in conversation. ‘Are there any questions you dread asking but that you have to ask anyway?’ I say I do but they must be the questions she dreads answering. ‘[I don’t] dread answering questions about my mother and sister,’ she says. ‘The only thing is, I feel I’ve said it all. Pithy little sentences to sum up people that I love. Obviously there was a time when my sister died and I had to do press because it’s contractual. So you’re talking about a sci-fi world and then it’s: “Tell us about your sister’s death.” I can’t sum it up. It’s way too big. But many years have passed. I’m not the only person in the world who has lost loved ones.’ 

What has she learned? ‘Only that I know absolutely nothing,’ she says, quoting Kurt Vonnegut: ‘My religion is Our Lady of Perpetual Astonishment. If you’re prepared to be astonished, curious, engaged, then you’re in a good place. So I try to hold on to those things. I try to make decisions out of love and enthusiasm, not fear. But I think most days, I start from the premise that I know nothing.’ The next day, she sends me an email. She has been thinking about love, life and loss, and she remembered a line from the play The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez: ‘Do what they could not – live’. That strikes me as very good advice.

  • All episodes of The Sandman are available now on Netflix. Lady Chatterley’s Lover will be on Netflix from 2 December