October 07, 1985 12:00 PM

They bear a different surname but their looks, their voices, their bond as siblings echo those other great sisters of stage and screen, Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave. The likeness is more than coincidence: Vanessa is their mother. This season the two young actresses have established that the similarity is more than skin deep. Just months after the passing of their grandfather and clan patriarch, Sir Michael Redgrave, Natasha and Joely Richardson are starring in roles opposite Vanessa—one on the stage, the other in a film—and are providing proof twice over that Britain’s preeminent acting dynasty continues.

American audiences were first introduced to Joely, 20, through the movie Wetherby, which was released this summer. Vanessa’s part in that film was that of a tormented spinster whose earlier life is revealed in flashbacks. And who, reasoned director David Hare, would be better suited for the role of the younger Vanessa than her own daughter, Joely?

Unless, of course, it was her other daughter, Natasha, 22. Natasha’s turn to share billing with her mother came in the current London revival of Chekhov’s classic The Seagull. She plays the ingenue Nina opposite Vanessa (as Irina), and the event produced a flood of memories. The same Nina role helped propel Vanessa herself to the top ranks of the British theater 21 years ago. Her director—and husband—at the time: Tony Richardson.

The five-year Redgrave-Richardson marriage broke up shortly after Joely’s birth, and neither she nor her older sister remembers Tony as a live-in father. “That didn’t cause me pain because I never knew anything different,” says Joely (whose name is an anglicization of the French jolie). But Natasha (named for the Tolstoy princess in War and Peace) wanted so desperately as a child to have her parents reunited that “I dreamed up wild schemes of reconciliation,” she wistfully recalls.

Still both sisters agree things weren’t always grim. “We were lucky because our parents remained friends,” explains Natasha. “For us there was never a sense of being pulled one way or the other.” With working parents, the girls frequently were left in the care of nannies. Sometimes, Natasha admits, “I was sad that Ma wasn’t with us more often, but she made up for her absences. She was not the sort who sat in the park with a book while the kids played. She joined in, and she listened to us.”

Vacations were spent with Papa in Los Angeles or at his stone farmhouse near St.-Tropez. From the start Tony insisted on two things: first, that his daughters not be involved in their mother’s well-known penchant for radical politics. In addition, his desire that the sisters obtain the best schooling possible prevailed over Vanessa’s anti-Tory proclivities; both attended the Lycée Français, and then Saint Paul’s Girls’ School, two of London’s classiest private academies.

Neither parent pushed the daughters into acting careers. Yet, as Natasha acknowledges, “When you’ve lived all your life as part of a family whose members are at the top of what they do, it rubs off on you.” At age 4 she began to watch her mother on movie sets and once was pressed into service playing Vanessa’s bridesmaid in the film The Charge of the Light Brigade, directed by her father. In due course she enrolled in London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, where Vanessa had trained.

Joely’s theatrical course was more roundabout. “I tried to stay away from acting because everyone else in the family was doing it,” says the kid sister. She took up tennis and gymnastics seriously in her teens before deciding that she was too tall (she’s 5’9″ to Natasha’s 5’7″) for tumbling and too late for Wimbledon glory. Instead she finished high school as a boarder at the Thacher School in Ojai, Calif, before entering Britain’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Despite her limited experience as a thespian, Joely never sought her parents’ guidance on how to play her role in Wetherby. “I have my pride and have to do my own work,” she says. “I only go to them if I have a big problem.” Natasha accumulated experience by doing repertory plus some TV and Shakespeare prior to The Seagull, consulting her parents each step of the way. “I don’t always agree with them, but it would be stupid of me not to listen. Having a mother like mine, you do know what excellence is.”

In their off-hours the sisters (and their mother) share a clothing style best described as classic rummage sale. Joely still lives at home with her mother and half brother Carlo, 16 (born of Vanessa’s liaison with Italian director Franco Nero), while Natasha has her own flat mere minutes away. Neither sister admits to a steady date but both see marriage in their futures. Joely says she wants “lots of children”—though not necessarily by one husband. Nor does Natasha feel bound to lifelong pairing, preferring to vow togetherness “until it no longer works rather than till death do us part.”

Their sisterly closeness, however, leaves them vulnerable to invidious comparisons, just as their mother and her actress-comedienne sister, Lynn, have been measured against each other. When Joely was tapped for the Wetherby role, there was malicious talk that Natasha must have been passed over. “Rubbish,” Natasha responds in annoyance. “Joely and I sometimes have competitive feelings, but there isn’t any serious rivalry. If we’re good enough, there should be room for both.”

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