Vanessa Redgrave

New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre is tucked away at the end of a street of Greenwich Village townhouses that is empty most of the day and intimately lit at night when audiences arrive. Above its 179-seat main stage is a cramped green room whose collection of stained mugs and mismatched chairs gives it the look of a shabby student flat. It is not where you picture one of the greatest actresses of her generation choosing to spend her afternoons at the age of 76.

Vanessa Redgrave emerges from a dressing room, bends her 5ft 11in frame under a low ceiling beam, settles into a sagging pink couch and reaches for a ginger nut biscuit to go with her tea. Since February, she has been appearing at the Cherry Lane in The Revisionist, alongside the play’s writer and co-star Jesse Eisenberg, who was nominated for an Academy Award after portraying Facebook’s founder in The Social Network (2010).

Eisenberg, who appears to have kept the Mark Zuckerberg hoodie for the part, plays an antic, obnoxious young New York author who has come to stay in a city near the Baltic with Redgrave’s Maria, a distant Polish cousin, in a vain effort to overcome writer’s block. The gulf of experience and language between them provides for comic moments but the theme is isolation. Redgrave’s purposeful, detailed portrayal, whether turning a telephone dial, folding a tablecloth or tapping her long fingers before pouring from a vodka bottle, lends an intense grandeur to Maria, a character defined by the family she lost in the Holocaust.

“I may find it rather hard to start to describe what I’m actually in at this point,” she starts, speaking softly, but “when I read it I thought it was the most extraordinary writing.” She likens the script to a core sample, with layers which may or may not all be picked up by the audience. “It’s taken me a long time to pick up some of it. A long time.”

To prepare for the role, which involves extended sections of Polish dialogue, she sought out language tuition at the Kosciuszko Foundation on New York’s Upper East Side and immersed herself in the films of Andrzej Wajda, the director of Katyn (2007). Redgrave, who stood for parliament as a candidate for the Workers Revolutionary Party in the 1970s, briefly gets diverted in discussing the film’s portrayal of the German and Soviet invasions of Poland before returning to the script.

She was never a good musician, she says, “but I know that in a score you’ve got an interpretation but you’ve also got a score that is absolutely precise. That doesn’t mean there won’t be 10 very different interpretations, for those who’ve got ears. Nevertheless, it’s written with a precision that has to be taken on board by the conductor and musicians. I wouldn’t say that a lot of good plays are written like that.” Eisenberg’s script, she says, “is written with a precision, which I find very exciting”. The language makes it challenging too: with each “a” or “the” that Maria’s poor English takes away, “a rhythm vanishes and a truth vanishes.”

Eisenberg approached Redgrave after seeing her portray Joan Didion on stage in The Year of Magical Thinking. He asked whether she wanted to perform The Revisionist in a different theatre but she told him to stay with the Cherry Lane, where he put on Asuncion, another of his plays, in 2011. Camera angles in a film “tell a story as much as the script”, she says, and the Cherry Lane’s small stage evokes the claustrophobia of Maria’s small flat.

Redgrave’s extended run in The Revisionist is due to end this weekend but on May 2 she will appear in a short film for Sky Arts, The Call Out. The writer and director is Carlo Nero, her son from her relationship with Franco Nero, who played Lancelot to her Guinevere in the 1967 film Camelot and became her second, unofficial husband in 2006.

Redgrave’s role is just called “elderly woman” in the film’s credits. “It’s a lovely name, whereas Maria calls herself an old woman, which she is. It’s sweet,” she says. Her character is a confused widow who asks a policeman to investigate voices she is hearing in her bathroom and keeps him there at 2am for tea, sandwiches and a rare moment of companionship. “It’s so long since I’ve had someone over for tea,” her character explains, telling her guest she feels invisible when she walks outside.

Does she see similarities between the two characters? “No, I don’t, otherwise you would have to say every 76-year-old is the same and they’re not,” she replies, with a pointed smile. But the theme, again, is loneliness among the old and young, and isolation from families in particular.

I have been told before the interview that Redgrave does not want to talk about the rest of her family, a dynasty of four generations of actors. The daughter of Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, whose birth was announced on the Old Vic stage by Laurence Olivier, lost her own daughter, Natasha Richardson, to a skiing accident in 2009 when the latter was just 45. The next year, her sister Lynn and brother Corin, fellow actors, also died.

I ask about the experience of being directed by her son in The Call Out. “I respect him immensely as a man and as a director,” she replies. “Perhaps it is odd but I say I loved working with him.”

Redgrave says she has worked with members of her family so often that she has never found it unusual. “I’ve never sought it or tried to make it happen but I’ve been thrilled when it has.” The director of photography on The Call Out is her nephew, Corin’s son Luke Redgrave, whose name she mentions in a meticulous accounting of all the people who deserve credit at the production company, Sprout Pictures, and at Sky Arts, which she praises for backing short films.

It is a format Redgrave loves. “Some of my favourite writing is in the short story form,” she says, citing Guy de Maupassant and Katherine Mansfield. “They seem to bring out, in a very special and particular way, characters. And a brief perspective that’s very penetrating. It doesn’t run along the surface the way we’re all used to.”

Few short films find such an outlet. Redgrave is optimistic and informed about the chances that digital streaming will improve the business model for independent filmmakers but says pessimism about the prospects for new writing is “founded on fact, unfortunately”.

She worries about the implications for younger members of her profession. “The pay will be pretty poor for a long time. Too many lovely, wonderful young people working for nothing, as interns, which I think is abominable.”

Redgrave no longer describes herself as a Marxist but remains a lightning rod for injustice, 35 years after she was heckled at the 1978 Oscars for her support of Palestinian independence and her speech about “a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behaviour is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world”.

She looks downcast as she begins to eat a banana, and seems not to notice that a picture of Edna St Vincent Millay, the activist Greenwich Village poet, hangs on the green room’s wall as I ask what the focus of her activism is now.

“Well, I’ve never had much to do with activism but it is a word I accept is generically used,” she says. I press her to explain and she says the term often implies something “without much thought attached to it”. She will still use her fame (which she describes as “the respect that some people seem to have, just as I have respect for some people”) to get a meeting at the State Department for a pressing issue but the theatre is now “where I put myself”.

Vanessa Redgrave with her daughters Joely (left) and Natasha, 1968

“It sometimes means putting myself in Kosovo and it sometimes means putting myself in the West End and it sometimes means putting myself in Cherry Lane,” she continues. In 1999, she staged a festival of theatre, dance and music in Kosovo with the United Nations Children’s Fund. “But I’m always with a group of people who feel … it’s important. It just is a value we can’t let go and it’s something we care about and love doing. It’s more terrifying than loving, actually.” Redgrave says she does not even consider her stances political but is just speaking out for human rights principles.

She has befriended human rights lawyers, she says, because governments come and go “and they change their minds and they screw the electorate. But lawyers know where they stand and why they work their asses off.” Unprompted, she adds: “I have never wanted to have to do any of this.”

Really? “Of course. I wouldn’t want there to be a reason to have to. [But] in the second world war, we were brought up to think of principles and ethics and what a citizen does and what you must do.” She learnt the horrors of Stalin’s gulags and Hitler’s concentration camps from survivors, first hand.

I remind Redgrave of an interview in which she said, “The arts stop society going rotten and mad.” As she goes to throw away her banana skin, she replies: “I prefer my words now.”

Going over thoughts she says she intends to set down in writing soon, she says the theatre, whether in a basement or a beautiful hall, is vital to society. “Of course the whole of society doesn’t get to see any play, and the tops in society mostly never go to a play – the tops meaning governments and heads of departments,” she says, berating Britain’s lack of a minister devoted solely to culture but exempting business people who finance theatres such as Shakespeare’s Globe. “Whether you’re talking about that theatre or about a place like Cherry Lane, [theatre] keeps people sane. And sanity is a hard thing to come by and a hard thing to maintain.”

Noting her father’s work to keep theatres open in London during the second world war, she calls theatre a means of survival. “That’s why, when spending on what people need for survival is being cut to ribbons in social welfare, which I think is a crime, I’m thinking, well, let’s be on the lookout for what we can do, however small, to keep the yeast warming up, fill the air bubbles and the flour and the water.”

At the 1978 Oscars ceremony

It is this – and the need to pay off a mortgage – that keeps Redgrave working. Does it bother her that so many of the characters she is asked to play are frail or dying? She replies that she has been doing deathbed scenes since Howards End 21 years ago but “it doesn’t matter”.

The difficult time for actresses is not at her age but some time after 40, when producers question whether their age is a selling factor, she says. Hollywood will always be bad at providing parts for women between the time when they are young objects of desire and characterful old ladies, she surmises. But she “adored” Jennifer Lawrence (22) in Silver Linings Playbook, she says, and “we will always want films … that basically are centred on young people, because young people is the way we live on, we older people, insofar as we live on”.

The debate about Hollywood’s attitude to women revived after Seth MacFarlane’s opening sketch at this year’s Oscars, a song and dance number called “We Saw Your Boobs”, where he ran through the assembled actresses’ topless performances. “It wasn’t very good, was it?” Redgrave responds cheerfully: “But I didn’t get offended by that … So many women seem to think that to show as much boob as possible is the most attractive thing possible. I don’t blame them, if that’s what they want to do.”

It is an unexpected response from an actress one reviewer thought too elegant for the role of Maria. I begin to ask Redgrave about The New Yorker’s conclusion that “the comic elements in Eisenberg’s script have freed her from grandness, and from the responsibility of being Vanessa Redgrave” but she cuts me short: “Don’t tell me what it said. I don’t read the reviews.”

Just one short line? “No. No, my brain will pick it up and it will stay there and I don’t want to know.”

Redgrave also dislikes reading her interviews and says she has always hated giving them. “The first professional performance I had, I went to the leading actress and said, ‘Why do we have to do this?’” She was told that she had to help sell seats but she says she would rather be the one asking the questions. Besides, too often “the interview’s only being used to give a coat-hanger to an agenda. But I think a good bit of work deserves to be seen.”

She heads back to her dressing room to prepare for a photoshoot with the words: “Goodbye Andrew. Thanks for making it very pleasant.” Perhaps it is just a line, another performance, but her delivery makes it seem sincere.

Three days later, she sends a text message apologising that “u got short shrift from me”. Our interview had been on the anniversary of her daughter’s death, she explains. “Peter yr photographer got a fairly glum me.”

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT’s media editor

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