NEW YORK — It is refreshing to learn that Natasha Richardson, veteran thespian and member of the Redgrave clan, British acting royalty, is not immune to the charms of a low-brow summer popcorn flick. Case in point: her recent viewing of “Batman Begins.”

“Chris Nolan is so talented,” she says of the director. “He makes things that are totally implausible seem plausible.”

Richardson knows something of this art, for despite her disarming, playful banter in person, her recent acting roles have veered toward the dark and despondent. This past spring, she starred as Blanche in a Broadway revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and her latest film, “Asylum,” directed by David Mackenzie and co-starring Martin Csokas and Ian McKellen, opens here this Friday. In it she plays Stella, a frustrated British housewife and mother in 1959 who moves to a psychiatric hospital when her husband is given a post there. She soon falls madly in love with one of the patients, beginning an obsessive affair that jeopardizes her marriage and physical safety.

Richardson was immediately drawn to the character when she read the Patrick McGrath novel, on which the movie is based, over seven years ago. “Though I don’t think I’m a particularly self-destructive person — apart from the fact that I smoke — there’s something about the nature of self-destructiveness that I feel I understand,” she says, between languid drags on a Vogue Slims cigarette in an Essex House hotel room. Her preparation for playing Stella was perhaps less rigorous than for Blanche (she isolated herself for several hours each day from her husband, Liam Neeson, and two sons by taking a separate New York apartment), but Richardson did undergo some physical changes.

“There was pressure from one of the producers that I should look as physically good as possible because of the amount of nudity and sex scenes, so I almost got too skinny, and I think you could see the gauntness of my face and the pressure of doing this film,” she explains. “In a way, it was kind of aging. For the only time in my life, I had to go on a campaign in the middle of a shoot to start putting on weight, which is something I’ve never had the luxury of in my life. Normally, I’m someone who has to fight to keep the weight off.”

This story first appeared in the August 11, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Despite her slim physique and smooth complexion, aging is undoubtedly an issue for Richardson, 42, as it is for many Hollywood actresses. At times, it can seem like a losing battle. Although “Asylum” and “Streetcar” mark some of the most complex, challenging roles she has ever had, critics claimed Richardson was too young and beautiful to play Blanche.

“You can’t win. In fact, there are endless references in the writing that she’s 35 and going around just about getting away with pretending to be in her late 20s at a time when if you were 30, you were finished,” says a frustrated Richardson. “I’m not only hurt by that, I just think that that’s not knowing what the play is.

“It seems like young actresses who are 23 can play DAs,” she continues with a laugh. “That’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination. But then they start talking about an actress in her early 40s, and how unusual it is for her to play a sexual role.”

Richardson’s next film, Merchant and Ivory’s “The White Countess” with Ralph Fiennes, out this fall, still has a sexual story line — she plays a Russian countess in Thirties Shanghai who must support her family through prostitution — but it allowed her to indulge her romantic side, one thing she shares with Stella. “She’s sexually unfulfilled and a hopeless romantic. I have that in common with her — a hopeless romantic, though not sexually unfulfilled,” she quickly adds, with a wry smile.

As for any future, perhaps more lighthearted, projects, Richardson is planning some much-needed downtime. “All I will say is, I obviously need a break from playing chain-smoking, alcoholic, sex-addicted crazy ladies,” she laughs.

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