Vanessa Redgrave is pottering about backstage in the early afternoon, looking for the kettle. She is dressed in the drabbest pair of brown corduroy jeans, long skinny legs planted in worn sheep-skin boots, a stretched brown woolly top completing the ensemble. Her back is a little bent now, although she is still witheringly tall.
At 76, the firebrand of English theatre doesn’t give a damn. Her hair, still thick, is gathered in a loose bundle on her head. She wears glasses with heavy black frames, which she aims at you should you say something that catches her attention. Time has blunted neither cheekbone nor chin.
Although we are in Greenwich Village, New York, a theatre dressing room is her home almost anywhere. For now she is focused on making ginger-root tea, which she deems therapeutic to the voice, for she will be on stage at 8pm.
“The theatre is a family, a lovely family,” she says. “We gather here, we bring pot-luck dinners. It is a cooperative endeavour. And of course I’ve always enjoyed working with my own family.”
This week, Sky Arts broadcasts the latest Redgrave family effort, The Call Out, in its Playhouse Presents series of independent short films. It was written and directed by her son, Carlo Nero, born in 1969 from her romance with Italian leading man Franco Nero. The director of photography is her nephew, Luke Redgrave.
Vanessa had met Carlo’s father on the set of 1967 box-office hit Camelot, on the rebound from her divorce from Tony Richardson, the great Swinging Sixties film director and father of her daughters Natasha and Joely, who both became actresses. She and Franco went their separate ways when Carlo was a boy, his mother spending much of the 70s and 80s with “Bond” Timothy Dalton, but got together again to marry in 2006.
The Call Out is a wry urban tale of the loneliness of old ladies, filmed with a poignant touch from the perspective of a London police sergeant called to the flat of a widow who has reported a burglary. It is a ruse for male company, and he finds himself fending off sexual advances while surrounded by penises on statues, in paintings, and assorted phallic totems. Ahem.
“I just loved the script,” she says slowly, thinking carefully, her well-modulated vowels toned with just a touch of “estuary”. “It’s based on a short story by a great friend of Carlo’s and mine.” That is Leonard Francavilla, a former New York cop. “He was my bodyguard in 1989 when I first came to Broadway. A wonderful guy, Sicilian- American. Lenny is godfather to my grandson.”
Redgrave endured a year of tragedy when first her daughter Natasha died after a skiing accident in 2009, and then she lost to illnesses both her sister Lynn and brother Corin, with whom she had launched the Workers Revolutionary Party in the 70s. It was devastating, but she pulled out of only one project before returning to the larger family that sustains her.
“I’ve worked with most members of my family,” she says. “Carlo made The Fever, a wonderful film we did together, and we’re developing another script, Father Joe, about a very special Benedictine monk. Carlo is rather brilliant, although I know a mother isn’t supposed to say that. Corin and I produced quite a lot of documentaries. Joely and I were in the film Anonymous together, playing the old and the young Queen Elizabeth I.”
Does The Call Out tell us something of the relationship between Redgrave and her son?
“I don’t know,” she says. “It goes deep to practically everybody, especially when you see headlines like: ‘Are your parents alone?’ Well, if your parents are alone, the children haven’t been behaving right. It’s a sad fact that a whole lot of factors have completely changed life and communities and families.”
In New York, Redgrave has been making a splash with The Revisionist at the Cherry Lane Theatre, which has just 179 seats. The New York Times declares it “her finest, fullest stage performance since she won a Tony for Long Day’s Journey Into Night a decade ago”. Her character, Maria, a Holocaust survivor in Poland, is visited by a young Jewish American relative – played by the play’s author, Jesse Eisenberg, not yet 30, who was catapulted to stardom in the film The Social Network. Maria, it turns out, harbours unexpected secrets.
The role has inevitably rekindled memories of the controversy in 1978 when she shocked the Academy Awards audience with her acceptance speech as best supporting actress in Julia. Although in the film she played a real-life woman who sacrificed her life to save Jews from the Holocaust, Redgrave had financed and appeared in – with a Kalashnikov rifle – a documentary supporting the Palestinians, and some American Jews were furious at her nomination. Denouncing them with Oscar in hand almost destroyed her film career. Years later, in 2007, an interviewer for CBS’s 60 Minutes told her she was still referred to as “the woman who hates Jews”.
“Oh no, no, no,” she says, both sad and irritated. “That has so little to do with how I think. I suppose most people just don’t know me at all, don’t know what I’ve done or what I care about.”
When Redgrave talks about her causes, her voice becomes more emphatic, you can see the passion rising. She is “appalled” by the struggles of the young, trapped in student debt, exploited in internships. The fate of the elderly in care homes is “abominable”. Governments “of all persuasions” are to blame.
That’s the thing about Redgrave. Whether it’s about family, work or cause, you can count on her to care.
Playhouse Presents: The Call Out starts tonight at 9:00pm on Sky Arts 1