December 12, 2005 12:00 PM

Ask Joely Richardson what it’s like working with her famous mother, Vanessa Redgrave, and she’ll draw your attention to that over-the-top scene on Nip/Tuck this season when the two of them shared a giddy, marijuana-induced high. “That was a total blast!” says Richardson, who stars as Julia McNamara, the recently divorced wife of a hotshot plastic surgeon, on FX’s provocative, acclaimed dramedy. Redgrave has a recurring role as Julia’s overbearing mom, Erica Though a harmless herbal substance was substituted for the pot, “I was p—– off,” she says, laughing, “because my mother was much more natural at it than I was!”

So was there tension on the set? “A little bit,” says Dylan Walsh, who plays Richardson’s ex-spouse Dr. Sean McNamara, “and yet they’re very sweet to each other.” It’s a relationship that has deepened over time. Richardson’s mother and father, British film director Tony Richardson (Tom Jones), split when Joely was a baby. Though Redgrave, a 1977 Oscar winner for Julia, built a formidable film career, “I think she regrets that she was not there, really, for our childhood,” says Richardson, who along with older sister and actress Natasha Richardson and half-brother Carlo Nero (Vanessa’s son by Camelot costar Franco Nero) was groomed to be “incredibly self-sufficient.”

Richardson has maintained that independent streak to this day. Divorced since 1997 from film producer (Pride and Prejudice, Four Weddings and a Funeral) Tim Bevan, she enjoys hanging out with their 13-year-old daughter, Daisy, who attends school in England and spends summers with her mom in L.A., where Nip shoots for five months. Daisy eventually wants to settle in the States. “She’s unlike me,” says her mom, “in that she’s able to cut off from her roots very easily.”

Richardson’s theatrical roots run deep. Her grandfather was the prolific stage and screen actor Sir Michael Redgrave. Joely herself graduated at 20 from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. “I did regional theater,” she says, and auditioned for other roles. “But I was turned down a lot more than I was accepted. I took the rejection way too personally.”

During Richardson’s early career setbacks, her mother didn’t meddle. “I didn’t feel I could give very good advice,” says Redgrave. “What I tried to give was confidence to Joels that she should and could set out to do what she wanted to do.” That sometimes meant forsaking films for the stage. One of Richardson’s favorite projects was Lady Windemere’s Fan, a 2002 revival of the Oscar Wilde play in which she costarred with her mother in London’s West End. Richardson says she was drawn to the project by a sudden sense of mortality, brought on partly by 9/11 and partly by age. “I just thought, ‘I’ve never really worked with [my mother] and what if it was all over tomorrow?'”

Richardson’s outlook on aging is a lot sunnier these days. Since turning 40 last January, “Eve spent all year doing the things I’ve put off,” she says. “Like I knew I had to give up smoking.” And so she quit cold turkey. Also, “I’ve always wanted to rent a beach house,” she says. “It’s quite an extravagance, but I thought, I’m going to do that.'” As she nears her next birthday, “things have opened up rather than closing down,” says Richardson. “I know it sounds strange—I feel like I’ve had years of experience—but in many ways, I think I’m just starting.”

Mike Lipton. Strawberry Saroyan in Los Angeles

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