At the age of 81, Vanessa Redgrave has no qualms about arriving on the Lido to collect a Golden Lion celebrating 60 years on stage and screen. Not because she feels it’s time to rest on her laurels and bathe in the glow of past achievements, but because her career is still very much in full flow. Last year she made her directorial debut with her Cannes entry “Sea Sorrow,” a documentary about the immigration crisis in Europe, and now she’s playing truant from London’s Theatreland, where she’s appearing in Matthew Lopez’s AIDS drama “The Inheritance” at the Young Vic. A recent film she made, “The Aspern Papers,” is showing at Venice by way of tribute, but whether or not — or even how — this all stacks up as a body of work seems to be of no concern to her. “An actor, or an actress, is always trying to live in the moment,” she beams. “That’s the number one [aim] for my profession.”
It helps that Italy holds a special place in Redgrave’s heart; her husband, “Django” star Franco Nero, is a big deal here, and her resume includes work with some of Italian cinema’s most enduring and diverse talents, from Michelangelo Antonioni, for whom she played “the mysterious girl” in his ’60s masterpiece “Blow-Up,” to Elio Petri (described by Nero as “Italy’s Stanley Kubrick”) and, most surprising of all, erotic cinema legend Tinto Brass, whose “La Vacanza” premiered on the Lido in 1971. Why did she feel such a strong connection here? “Well, Italian was my second language at school,” she recalls. “And that was because, being English and having been in the war, I didn’t feel like studying German. A lot of people felt that way.”
Although Redgrave speaks fondly of past collaborators and masters — Karel Reisz she misses very much as a great director and bridge player, and she confesses to having been star-struck by Luis Buñuel — the actress declines to pick favorites, preferring to lavish praise on “The Inheritance” director Stephen Daldy, who she describes as a “humongous genius.” She also sounds a note of caution there, warning that “there is a darker side to working with great people.” Which is? “You find it very difficult to tolerate people who are nowhere near great. You’ve got to always learn patience. You know that old saying, ‘Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can, seldom found in woman, never in a man’? Well, you only just find it in me, I’m sorry to say. Perhaps I’m partly a man,” she laughs.
Coincidentally, the award marks the 40th anniversary of Redgrave’s outspoken acceptance speech at the 1978 Oscars, where she won best supporting actress for Fred Zinnemann’s wartime drama “Julia.” At the time she was branded a “troublemaker,” but, over the years, that has morphed into “activist” — and she bristles at that label too. “Darling, see, I’m not an activist,” she insists. “People say, ‘Ah, you’re an activist,’ and I ask them: ‘Someone who promotes the knowledge of human rights legislation … and who advocates the conventions that provide for the protection of children, mothers and families … is that an activist?’ Because that’s who I am and that’s what I do.”
Instead, Redgrave suggest that the future is in the hands of the vigilant civilian, and that the more people push back against injustices, the quicker the cracks will start to show. “How does the light get in?” she wonders aloud, referencing the song “Anthem” by her “passion” Leonard Cohen (“There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in”). “I think, really,” she decides, “that the work of any human being is discovering how the light gets in — and we want to help human beings don’t we? We want to help them get a glimpse of the light.”