When Natasha Richardson starred in Paul Schrader's 1988 biopic, "Patty Hearst," she drew inspiration from a Holocaust-themed tome plucked off a shelf in her father's Los Angeles home. The book was "If This Is a Man," Primo Levi's account of his time in Auschwitz, and in its pages the young Brit gleaned crucial insights into the psyche of her brutalized character.
"There are enormous differences between life in a concentration camp and living in a closet," the tall, willowy actress said during a Journal interview at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pasadena, a Vogue cigarette dangling from her slender fingers. "But I found certain similarities I could use -- the trauma of just trying to stay alive, moment to moment, one day at a time. In all my work since, I've been very affected by the writings of the Holocaust."
Memoirs like Levi's have helped her tap into the despair of protagonists braving "extreme adversity, oppression and fear" -- a woman incarcerated in the sexist dystopia of "The Handmaid's Tale," for example, or the doomed chanteuse Sally Bowles of "Cabaret." They have fueled the urgency she conveys as a Holocaust rescuer in the upcoming CBS miniseries, "Haven," based on a true story from World War II. Richardson plays Ruth Gruber, a Jewish American journalist who fought U.S anti-Semitism to escort nearly 1,000 Holocaust survivors from war-torn Europe to America. She accepted the role with eyes open. She knew there would be the inevitable comparisons with her husband, actor Liam Neeson, who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Holocaust rescuer Oskar Schindler in "Schindler's List."
"And then I thought there might be quite a few people wondering, 'Why on earth did they want this English [gentile] to play Ruth Gruber,'" Richardson said between sips of Diet Coke with lemon. "But after reading the script, I felt compelled to do the movie. I'm fairly well-read on the subject of World War II, yet I had absolutely no idea that the U.S. government went out of its way to keep Jewish refugees out of this country during the Holocaust. I was deeply shocked by that."
As she prepared to play Gruber, Richardson recalled her trip to Auschwitz while visiting Neeson on the set of "Schindler's List." "I am not a proponent of the death penalty, but I was furious to learn that the camp's commandant had been merely hanged to death," she said. "I thought, 'The inmates had to endure agony for months and years, and he died so easily?' I would have liked to have done to him what he did to all those people."
Though Richardson was born in 1963, World War II was a presence in her early life. She grew up hearing her family's war stories and watching the World War II-themed films ("The Dam Busters," "The Captive Heart") starring her grandfather, the esteemed actor Sir Michael Redgrave. During the blitz, her mother, actress Vanessa Redgrave, and her uncle, Corin, then children, were whisked out of London to an elderly aunt's home in the country. "I learned about the rationing and being separated from parents, and my mother's recollection, as a very little girl, of seeing an entire town obliterated by bombs," Richardson said. When Natasha was a teenager, Vanessa starved herself and bloodied her scalp to portray an Auschwitz inmate in the Arthur Miller TV movie, "Playing for Time." But the teen was even more disturbed by the media controversy that ensued when some Jewish groups insisted the virulently anti-Zionist Redgrave had no right to play a Holocaust victim. "It was, and is, deeply hurtful to me that anyone could construe my mother is anti-Semitic," said Richardson, who grew up in Vanessa's radical circles. "I learned more personally about the Holocaust and what happened to the Jewish people from her than from anyone else."
She also learned a thing or two about acting, a career to which she aspired from an early age. She was 4 when she played a bridesmaid in "The Charge of the Light Brigade," starring Vanessa and helmed by her father, the director Tony Richardson. Eighteen years later, Michael Redgrave, then suffering from advanced Parkinson's disease, was taken in a wheelchair to view her performance as Ophelia in "Hamlet." "She is a true actress," he proclaimed of his granddaughter. He died a week later.
Richardson's Tony-winning work in Sam Mendes' brilliant 1998 revival of "Cabaret" taught her what was at stake for the "Haven" refugees. "We had a kind of Holocaust ending," she said. "The emcee, who has a yellow star and is also homosexual, took off his clothes, then the whole stage went white, there was the noise of electrocution and you just knew that all these people were dead. Some nights I would get so upset about what happened to the characters that I couldn't stop crying for half an hour after the performance."
While Richardson kept a copy of "If This Is A Man" in her "Cabaret" dressing room, she surrounded herself with Gruber's books for inspiration on "Haven." She also met for tea with the 89-year-old journalist to quiz her about how she dealt with the sexism and anti-Semitism of U.S. officials circa 1944. By the time she arrived on the "Haven" set in Toronto last year, she could recite the contents of a suitcase of Gruber's that appears in the film but is never opened on camera.
The performer was unprepared, however, for the emotional toll of the shoot. First she learned that her husband had been injured in a motorcycle accident and was in intensive care in New York. Then she was required to shoot the sequence in which Ruth's beloved father falls ill and dies, which transported her back to the horror of her own father's 1991 AIDS-related death. She recalled the weeks she cared for him, changing his soiled sheets and administering sponge baths. After his death, she immersed herself in AIDS volunteer work, inspired by the Talmudic phrase: "He who saves one life saves the entire world."
"My father was my best friend and my rock," she told The Journal, "so his death was just a huge loss, a sense of being cut adrift, and that is how Ruth feels when her father dies in the film. For me, that sequence was all very close to home. I knew it was going to hurt, but the very fact that it did made the scenes better." Like the refugees in "Haven," Richardson also found safe haven in America, where she emigrated to escape the baggage of being compared to her famous relatives. She hopes her two small sons will avoid the family business. "Having lived for many years in the shadow of my mother, a great actress, I know what it's like to have to have to carry that on your back," she said. "I know how hard it is to emerge from those long shadows."
"Haven" airs Feb. 11 and 14 at 9 p.m. on CBS.