Miranda Richardson, from the Fox Searchlight Films “Belle,” recently sat down to talk about the period film that is grabbing the attention of audiences around the world with its fresh script and exquisite direction.
Richardson, a two time Academy Award nominated actress with a BAFTA and two golden globes under her belt, embodies, the social climbing navigator, Lady Ashford.
A matriarchal matchmaker looking out for the advancement of her two very eligible sons, Lady Ashford is “intensely practical,” somewhat malleable when it comes to money matters as the boundaries of acceptable and need become blurred when the bank account dazzles.
Meeting Ms. Richardson, at the New York Palace Hotel we spoke on the challenges of film-making, her first thoughts on the script and of course the wickedly interesting, deeply committed, and assertive Lady Ashford.
Below is our interview:
Janet Walker: Well, it’s been quite a day.
Miranda Richardson: Yes I think so. But this is the nature of the beast. You haven’t done it for a bit. But that’s what you do.
JW: Let’s talk a bit about, obviously, the film. So tell me when you first got the script?
MR: How long was it before we started shooting? I think it was really early in the year and we did not start until August. I can’t remember the exact timing; I do remember there was a delay. Not everything was in place, money terms, and Amma, as you know was a force of nature, very determined, and upbeat, and she was sure it was going to happen. And she was right.
She got everybody she wanted. I thought she was terrific. I though the script was really fresh. I was amazed by the story. I didn’t know anything about it and thought this is something that needs to be seen. Appalled I didn’t know anything about it. So that’s how it was.
JW: Before I get into the character development, I want to ask you a particular question about your character. As the mother of the two sons, you had a particular responsibility to further the name and the estate, it’s a cattle call, and it’s the most beefy young women with the biggest or the size of the dowry becomes the cattle call. How did you look at it?
MR: In terms of character Lady Ashford is intensely practical. You get where everyone is coming from in the time it is set. She does have a trajectory in this, if you like, even though it is money based. She is, if you will, prepared to take on the young girl and risking the censure of society.
However, the Lord Chief Justice (played by Tom Wilkinson) himself has brought her up so there must be something in it, you know, so it becomes more acceptable as a notion. Of course, then it is a big slap in the face, when the little upstart turns around and says she doesn’t want to marry your son.
He is genuinely upset as he is feeling affection for her. She is accomplished, talented, beautiful, graceful, in accomplished, quite apart from being monied, and all that sort of thing.
I think what was fascinating was the power the women could wield. They could work on their husbands, while they were at off to work, and we see it in Austen all the time, but while they were off at work, they were the ones doing the matchmaking.
So, I don’t think, if you’ll pardon the expression this was a Black and white situation.
Developing Lady Ashford
JW: Describe your process in character preparation?
MR: We were quite fortunate, in that Amma had provided very good production notes, just about the time, feeling [of society] all of which you can do for yourself, anyway. It’s very nice to know that commitment is there from the director.
And what I say essentially ‘You don’t sweat.’ Anything that you want it can be grafted to the work. The most random thing can be grafted into the work.
When it comes down to it, you’re doing the script and it’s the interrelations between all those characters. So it’s that really. Its script study and not in a vacuum, there is no point learning your part without interacting with other human beings from where I come from it just doesn’t work.
I just remember somebody asked me about a challenge on the movie. Actually, it was a huge challenge in the end. It was the scene in the carriage. It doesn’t have to do with building of character. What you’re forced to do sometimes in filmmaking.
We had 15minutes to do the scene in the carriage at the end of a night shot and we couldn’t go over. There would be all sorts of hell to pay and she said ‘can we do it?’ And I said, ‘we have to.’ If I get it all in one go that would be nice. Terrible pressure. It wasn’t a trip a off the tongue scene, I have to say. You just sort of use anything and everything. If it gets you a bit pissed off than that can work for you. We did get it done. And she said, ‘you make my words sound great.’
Corsets, Costumes and Customs
JW: Gugu [Mbatha Raw] and Sam [Reid] mentioned they had to participation in etiquette classes for preparation. Did you have to attend?
MR: Okay. No. Smarty pants here. No. I’m sure I could have if I wanted to. I went to Bristol Old Vic Theater prep school and you kind of run through the gamut of theatrical history which would include restoration, what your bearing is, how your costume effects you, things like that. What is appropriate, what a turn of the hand meant, what a fan gesture means, what if you turned your foot out.
All that kind of stuff and it’s all fascinating and it somehow goes into the back of your brain somewhere. So if you’ve got a fan, it’s up to me, but if I do something with it, make it mean something. The costume does so much for you anyway. The corseting makes you stand in a certain way, if you slouch in a corset you’re going to feel it at some point during the day. And you just think the time it took to be made ready for the day. And you think of the time it took to make every one ready for the day.
JW: How long were you in hair and make-up?
MR: Hair and make up about an hour and half. And then costume allowing for a preliminarily pull in do something else, and then another pull-in so about 20 minutes in all. And then you’ve got the elements and things and all those things to worry about.
Our weather isn’t always clement, so you have to dress pinned up with crocodile clips, very carefully because they’re silk, and rain capes and bonnets and all that and then you have to get into a modern car.
Which And you’re very lucky to have a car, and you’re understand you were in a carriage with your hair and hat maybe, you go upright and there’s room for your hair and you get in the car and you’re going literally like this, (she stretches out in her chair to almost flat,) and then you are ducking under the lid with your hair and your hat maybe and you’re sitting almost like that to get down to set all that peripheral stuff all necessary to do your job. And they have to ferry you place to place so risk you so you won’t get splash or moaning you’re not taking care of. It’s a funny business.
“Belle” is a wonderful film, eloquently written and brilliantly brought to the screen. Produced by Damian Jones, “Belle” stars Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Gugu Mbatha Raw, Sara Gadon, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton, and Sam Reid. “Belle” was written by Misan Sangay and directed by Amme Assante.
“Belle” is playing in theaters everywhere. Check your local listings.