By Patricia Freeman Kristina Johnson
October 17, 1988 12:00 PM

When director Paul Schrader decided he wanted Natasha Richardson to play the lead in his new movie about the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, executives at Atlantic Entertainment Group had grave doubts. Who needed a highbrow 25-year-old with two offbeat films to her name? Sure, as the daughter of actress Vanessa Redgrave and director Tony Richardson, she had a dandy show business pedigree, but whoever heard of her? And how could a stage-oriented Brit be believable in a movie about a California girl who gets abducted by radicals and winds up as a machine-gun-toting bank robber?

Schrader, who had screen-tested Richardson, wouldn’t budge. “I had my feet in concrete,” says the 42-year-old director (Blue Collar, Hardcore) and screenwriter (Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ). “I needed an actress who had the skills and the right look but also had a mystery about her so you could watch her for two hours and not feel you had used her up.” The Atlantic execs finally gave in, and when Patty Hearst opened at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Schrader was vindicated. “Astonishingly fine,” wrote Vincent Canby in the New York Times of the lead performance. “With Patty Hearst, Miss Richardson acquires her own identity as a major actress on the international scene.” Three weeks ago, Patty Hearst opened nationwide to similar acclaim for its star.

The prospect of emerging from the shadows of her famous parents, who divorced when she was 4, pleases Richardson, whose relationship with her mother is publicly guarded. The outspoken Vanessa makes it a policy not to discuss Natasha or her other actress-daughter, Joely, and Natasha admits that she and her mother “only talk if we’re around the same place at the same time.” But, Natasha says, “she’s the actress I admire most in the world.” Hearst offered Richardson her first meaty film; her only previous movies had been A Month in the Country and Ken Russell’s Gothic, which her father calls “a terrible film that Natasha survived, miraculously.” Hearst traces its heroine’s evolution from her 1974 abduction by the Symbionese Liberation Army to her conversion to radicalism and arrest, and Natasha saw “a great opportunity for a fabulous part.” She began soaking up material about the case and came to see Hearst as a dependent child who would do anything to be accepted by her captors and, additionally, “was in fear for her life.”

The actress and the kidnap victim she portrays make a striking study in contrasts. Richardson, called Tasha by her friends, is calm, confident and beautiful; at the time she was seized, Hearst, named Tania by the SLA, looked pale, uncertain and on the verge of prettiness. Richardson’s voice is gentle, warm and sexy; Hearst’s is a bit affected, with a low, raspy California twang. “I didn’t want to look like a replica of Patty—I couldn’t, anyway,” Richardson says. “But I wanted the voice to be very similar. “To get the twang down, she listened to tapes Patty made during her capture, and the result is astonishingly accurate. “When I first heard that voice, it was quite a shock,” says her father. “It was so unlike the other voices I’d ever heard Tasha use.” Yet the two women met only once, over lunch in New York. “I’d imagined her to be much more emotionally scarred, a bit vacant and not too smart,” says Natasha. “But she was an incredibly together person with a sense of humor.”

“We are very different,” says Hearst. “I wanted to check her out. She’s an attractive girl, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s nice. They must have something reasonable in mind.’ ”

Now that her publicity tour for Patty Hearst is over, Richardson is back in the London duplex she shares with her boyfriend, theater producer Robert Fox, 35. They are rarely together these days. “My work now takes me away a lot—I live on Pan Am,” she says. “But it’s worth it. I feel so lucky, I’m frightened by it.” She has one other concern—that her role as a revolutionary will increase the irritating frequency with which people ask whether she plans to follow in the footsteps of her politically active mother, Vanessa. The subject came up during Richardson’s one meeting with Hearst. “You don’t know what it’s like to be surrounded by ideologues 24 hours a day,” Patty exclaimed at one point. “Yes,” Natasha replied, “I do.”

—By Patricia Freeman, with Kristina Johnson in Los Angeles