Vanessa Redgrave doesn’t mince her words. To speak with the 81-year-old actress, as THR did by phone at her home in Italy, ahead of her Aug. 30 lifetime achievement award ceremony in Venice, is to be constantly taken aback by her candor, by turns gently arch ("Scotto, Scotto, Scotto, not so fast," she chides after one poorly phrased question) and disarmingly blunt ("The politicians, across Europe and the United States, with very few notable exceptions, are working to destroy people's lives, plain and simple").
After making her screen debut at age 21 in the forgettable medical thriller Behind the Mask (her father, Michael Redgrave, was the film's lead), Redgrave went on to collect virtually every acting honor available, including an Oscar for best supporting actress (for Julia in 1978), a Golden Globe, the Emmy, the Tony, the BAFTA and awards in Venice and Cannes.
But she originally planned to be a dancer. "I wanted that more than anything, but it became clear it wouldn't work, that I would be too tall," says Redgrave, a stooped 6 feet in stockings.
She's been at the center of several of cinema's most influential movements, from Europe's new wave of the 1960s with films like Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) (“Antonioni is a terrific man and a real artist. I felt he was somewhat glorious.”) to the avant-garde cinema of Ken Russell and his anarchic Catholic drama The Devils (1971). But for Redgrave, her most memorable role, and the only one she still rewatches, is in Josh Logan's musical version of Camelot (1967).
“I was thrilled to bits to get that role,” she says. "It was a huge thing for me.”
For her stage work, both Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams named her "the greatest living actress of our times," and in Britain she's counted with the likes of Judi Dench and Ian McKellen as a national treasure.
Beyond acting, Redgrave has never been afraid to leverage her influence to champion political causes, no matter how radical or unfashionable they might seem at the time. Redgrave demonstrated against the Vietnam and Iraq wars; ran for political office in Britain as a member of the Trotskyist Workers Revolutionary Party (she lost); and, at age 80, directed her first film, the documentary Sea Sorrow, exploring the plight of refugees to Europe.
She faced an intense backlash after her 1978 Oscar acceptance speech, in which she congratulated the Academy for standing up to "a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums" who had attacked her for producing and appearing in a documentary about Palestine (some in the audience gasped, and others booed).
Her comments were directed at extremists in the Jewish Defense League, who had not only burned her in effigy but had offered a bounty to have her killed. There was even a firebombing at one of the cinemas showing the documentary. But the phrase “Zionist hoodlums” discredited Redgrave for many — even if she concluded her speech promising "to fight anti-Semitism and fascism for as long as I live."
Forty years later, Redgrave is unapologetic.
"I didn't realize pledging to fight anti-Semitism and fascism was controversial. I'm learning that it is," she says, chuckling. Turning more serious, she notes that she has always felt a responsibility to speak out, no matter the consequences. "I had to do my bit," she says. "Everybody had to do their bit, to try and change things for the better. To advocate for what's right and not be dismayed if immediately you don't see results."
Redgrave points to her parents — actors Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson — as her earliest inspiration, but also credits writers of the day, including the poet Cecil Day-Lewis and Howards End writer EM Forster, for shaping her political consciousness. Of the people she's worked with, she names African-American actor and activist Paul Robeson. One of Redgrave's first acting gigs was a “walk-on role and understudy” in a 1959 performance of Othello in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Robeson played the lead.
“He was wonderful, wonderful,” she recalls, “Paul played Othello and Tony Richardson directed it! So I have a sackful of people to admire and look up to there!”
Redgrave credits Richardson — “whom I married, as you know” — as having the greatest influence over her life as an actress, alongside Karel Reisz, the pioneering British realist director who cast her in such films as Morgan! (1966) and Isodora (1968).
“I hugely respected Tony and I hugely respected Karel Reisz. I took their points of view on film, on everything, to be remarkable. I just want to be associated with that and be worthy of it. It was more than just the work. It was more an attitude to life itself.”
That attitude, in part, is what's kept Redgrave working well into her eighth decade.
She recently wrapped up a starring run in Matthew Lopez's play The Inheritance, directed by Stephen Daldry, at the Young Vic in London, and a selection of her upcoming film work includes Adrian Nobel's Mrs. Lowry and Son co-starring Timothy Spall; The Aspern Papers from director Julien Landais, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers and her daughter Joely Richardson, which will premiere in Venice; and Christoph Waltz's directorial debut, Georgetown.
“I have a big mortgage, so I have to pay the bills!” Redgrave says matter-of-factly, before noting what a privilege it is, still, to be offered the chance to do good work. “It's still so rare. If you have the chance, well, you have to keep going at it.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.