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Vanessa Redgrave on Her Early Career, ‘Howards End’ and Ismail Merchant’s Cooking

vanessa redgrave Career Big Break
illustration: michael Hoeweler; photo reference: Gregory Pace/BEI/Shutterstock

You might say that Vanessa Redgrave was born to be an actress. Laurence Olivier, who was performing alongside her father, Michael, in a 1937 production of “Hamlet” in London, announced her birth from the stage after a show, telling the audience: “Tonight a great actress was born.”

In a career that has spanned seven decades, Redgrave has won an Oscar, a Tony, two Emmys, and two Golden Globes. She received her sixth Oscar nomination in 1992 for her role in the Merchant Ivory film “Howards End,” which is screening in a newly restored print in New York and Los Angeles. The 79-year-old actress remains as busy as ever, performing on stage and in film and television. She can be seen in the James Sheridan film “The Secret Scripture,” which premieres at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 10. Her first mention in Variety was on June 25, 1958.

In 1958, Variety polled London critics about their favorites from the previous theater season. You and Albert Finney were named “most promising newcomers.” 

I know I was a “promising newcomer” along with Albie Finney. I think Maggie [Smith] and Joan [Plowright] were “most promising geniuses.”

Did you all know each other then?

I acted with Albie at Stratford-on-Avon in the 1959 season. We in the acting company tended to hang out at the pub known as the Dirty Duck.

What was the best thing about that time for you?

There were some brilliant new writers, directors, designers, and composers. It was very exciting. I consider myself hugely fortunate to have worked with [these] people.

When did you know you wanted to be an actress?

When I knew I was too tall to dance in classical ballet.

Your parents were both actors, and you grew up knowing some of theater’s biggest names. Did any of them give you advice on building a career?

The notion of “ building a career” had never been heard or dreamed of when I was young.

Did you have to audition much in the beginning?

In my early days, I auditioned a lot. Mostly, I didn’t get anywhere. I could have been a really good Sally Bowles [in the original West End production of “Cabaret”], I believe, but I chose a song — “The Girl From Ipanema” — that was way out of my reach. My sister Lynn would have been a fabulous Sally Bowles, and got a callback; Judi Dench got Sally and was brilliant. I got my first film break because the director Karel Reisz saw me at a small theater party.

Is the life of an actress fundamentally the same now as it was in 1958?

No, everything is different today. The pressures are huge on the young actresses. In the U.K., we have lost most of our repertory theaters, thanks to a whole lot of governments. These theaters grew several generations of performers, dancers, choreographers, singers, directors, and writers.

You worked with producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory on several films. In “Howards End,” your character sets everything in motion. How was your experience on that film?

“Howards End” is my favorite of the fabulous E.M. Forster novels. I was so happy to be asked to play Mrs. Wilcox. I adored Ismail and James, and they assembled a terrific crew, heads of departments, and a very, very good cast.

Merchant wrote about cooking for the cast and crew. Did you get to eat one of his famous meals?

Ismail was a superb cook. Yes, he cooked up a few banquets for us all, and this was the first time I understood the delight and delicacy of the cooking in the various regions of India.