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Born to Act : Movies: Natasha Richardson, starring in 'The Comfort of Strangers,' comes from solid film stock.

March 28, 1991|DAVID WALLACE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ever wonder what it would look like if one of those sexy Calvin Klein "Obsession" perfume advertisements came to life? In a central scene in Paul Schrader's new movie, "The Comfort of Strangers," that's just what it seems like as a young couple (Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett), bathed in the same blue light as the ads, indulge in some of the hottest, most obsessive lovemaking ever seen in an R-rated movie.

Richardson, 27, the daughter of director Tony Richardson and actress Vanessa Redgrave, is cool about doing those hot scenes. She says she doesn't argue with directors about whether she'll take her clothes off for a scene; she wants to know from them how good they're going to make her look. "(In "Comfort"), she says, "I think I looked pretty."

Her memories of making the film are less positive. "The Comfort of Strangers" (opening Friday) is based on a novella by Ian McEwan about a young couple who become ensnared by the wiles of a depraved older couple (Christopher Walken and Helen Mirrin) who resort to ever-more-dangerous thrills to rekindle their own passion. The screenplay is by the theater's dark poet, Harold Pinter.

"Bizarre," Richardson said, during a recent interview at her father's Hollywood Hills home. "I found the story and screenplay quite disturbing. I like to do things because a story speaks to something inside me. This didn't do that."

It was the film's director, Paul Schrader, who gave Richardson her first major film role in the 1987 movie "Patty Hearst," who overcame her concern.

"I really . . . like working with him and I thought 'Well, hell, a Harold Pinter script, Schrader is going to direct and it's got this great cast and we're shooting in Venice. I can't turn this down.' "

Although Richardson has nothing but good things to say about her co-stars and Schrader, working with Pinter--who also scripted last year's "A Handmaid's Tale," in which she starred--wasn't exactly a vacation.

"You realize you're dealing with a formidable presence," she says of Pinter, who showed up for three days of cast rehearsal. "If you are reading a script and you miss an 'are' for 'been,' he picks you up on it immediately. He's very precise in how he works. He wants you to stick to the script, and he doesn't work in a psychological way, which I do.

"When I'm playing a person, I have to feel what makes them tick," she says, "and I asked him to tell me the story of these people, why they got involved. Pinter said: 'I don't work that way, I've never worked that way and I'm not going to start now!' He gives you no clues."

London-born Richardson was certainly better informed about her chosen career. "I wanted to be a ballerina when I was little," says the auburn-haired actress. "I was always dressing up in fancy dress, and I loved visiting movie sets. . . . For me, it was like going to Disneyland, seeing my mother in wonderful costumes and my father directing."

Richardson's parents divorced when she was 3, soon after the birth of her younger sister, Joely, who is now an actress living in London.

"There was a moment when I was about 10 that I wanted to be a stewardess or a secretary. My favorite TV show was 'The Waltons,' and I had this image of a very sane existence. That lasted only about six months."

Richardson was educated at London's St. Pauls School for Girls and, after attending the Central School of Speech and Drama for three years, she broadened her classical experience at the Young Vic. In 1986, she won the London Drama Critics' "The Promising Newcomer" Award for her performance in Chekhov's "The Seagull," the only time she has appeared on stage with her mother.

Last year she returned to the Young Vic, playing the lead in a highly praised production of O'Neill's "Anna Christie."

"The stage is an actor's medium," she says, "and film is a director's. But I rarely enjoy going to the theater--sitting through a bad play is a very painful experience but you can sit through a bad movie and it kind of washes over you."

Richardson's first film role was in "a very bad movie," playing Mary Shelley in Ken Russell's "Gothic," but that's where Paul Schrader spotted her talent. He flew to London where she was then appearing as the spoiled American Tracy Lord in a stage version of the MGM musical comedy "High Society" and cast her as the spoiled American Patty Hearst in his film.

"It's so ironic that I did a lot of comedy on stage, but not in film until now," she says, seemingly much happier talking about her just-finished first comedy, "The Favor, the Watch, and the Very Big Fish," than "Comfort of Strangers." "I had got to the point where I was wondering 'Is nobody going to ask me to do a comedy? Am I going to have to get on bended knee to do a comedy on film?' "

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