Mads sat down with Golden Globe winner and Academy Award-nominated actress Lynn Redgrave to discuss the current exhibit at Vassar that documents her struggle against breast cancer. The exhibit is based on Annabel Clark’s book of photographs, Journal: A Mother and Daughter’s Recovery from Breast Cancer (2004, Umbrage Editions). Ms. Redgrave spoke about playing the most important role of her career: herself.
Mads Vassar: You were on campus last week for the opening of the exhibit. What did you think of Vassar?
Lynn Redgrave: I had never been on campus before. I was very impressed with it. I really wasn’t aware of what a great performing arts program you have there, and the wonderful people coming in. And the buildings themselves, the actual look of the campus is just beautiful.
Mads: How did bringing the collection to Vassar come about?
LR: It came about through Stan and Jeanne Cohen of the New York Stage and Film program. They have known Annabel for some time and have been enormously supportive of her work. What I’ve loved is how it’s a bit like in the old days. You know, you read about people in the 18th, 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries being patrons of young artists, being enthused by their work and deciding to step forward and give them more opportunities. It was Jeanne who knows somebody in Miles of Hope, who sponsored this exhibition. Miles of Hope got excited and Vassar got excited about it. I gather it is the first time there has been an exhibit in the theatre there. There is this wonderful curved space that is actually the perfect gallery. It brings you in close enough touch with the photographs because you can’t step back too far from them. They’re probably at their most powerful if you’re face to face with the image.
Mads: The exhibit consists of photographs and texts from your daughter’s book. Did either of you intend for this to become something more than just a book?
LR: I didn’t intend for it to become something more than just for the family. I was diagnosed right at the end of 2002, and I had surgery and then six months of chemo radiation in 2003. Annabel was then a senior about to graduate from Parsons School of Design as a photography major. She asked me, “Could I photograph you?” and I at the same time was going to ask, “Please would you photograph me and document it?” I thought I was helping her because the only experience she had of a friend having a mother with breast cancer was that the mother died. And so until you get to know more about cancer, the first thought is death. Later you discover that is not so. I thought it would help her look at me and see me as a project. So there was a whole purpose, but we didn’t intend to share it.
A little while into treatment she asked me if I would mind if she brought the photos into class to show a professor. At this point I was still trying to keep it a secret. It wasn’t public knowledge that I had cancer. I thought, well nobody’s going to recognize me without hair and eyebrows, so that’s fine. Then she said to me, “How would you feel it I made it my senior thesis?” I’ve always been against censorship of artists. I just think it’s all wrong. I said, “Absolutely.” Then she came up with the idea to make a book to have on a stand next to the wall, but she didn’t want to just have captions. She said, “I know you’ve been keeping a journal, would you let me use your journal entries?” I find writing in a journal very cathartic. You take it out of yourself and stick it on the page. I never said no to any image. I can totally trust her. She’s my daughter.
So she made this prototype book and soon after had an interview with The New York Times Magazine photo editor. A year later they contacted her and gave her six pages. A friend of hers saw it, gave it to a publisher, and that’s how it became a book.
It happened bit by bit. By the time it became photos in the magazine I had been outed by the National Enquirer and decided I would take control of my own outing by not wanting them to have the last word. I got enormous feedback from people. I got emails from total strangers saying, “Thank you for telling your story.” And so we began to see how people by seeing somebody else going through it, it helps you. At the [Vassar] reception some of the survivors were saying, “I could have stepped right through the frame and that was me.”
It’s been a very rewarding thing for us both, in that we took something as devastating as cancer and found that you can turn it into something that maybe has helped other people. I guess there’s a reason for everything, you know? Maybe that was my role to be one of the ones to open up and make it less fearful for other people to talk about.
Mads: You’re used to being in front of the camera and onstage. Were you hesitant to put yourself out there like this?
LR: Actually, I don’t particularly enjoy being photographed. I have a shield, a public persona, that sometimes comes into play. My daughter said, “Don’t smile. Don’t do anything.” I’m used to performing for the camera and that’s neither what she wanted, nor what I really wanted either. These were as if she wasn’t there. It’s not posed; it’s just there.
She [Annabel] has a miraculous way of managing to disappear. That’s how she gets the shots. It’s extraordinary. She’s just got this quiet way. She just vanishes and somehow gets the shots. I stopped noticing that she was taking the pictures.
There’s one [photograph] where I’m really smiling. It was my final day of radiation. I said, “Please let me smile. It’s my last day!” and she said, “Of course you can smile!” I’m very fond of that picture.
Mads: What do you hope people will take out of the exhibit?
LR: It doesn’t romanticize it in any way. Cancer has absolutely nothing pretty about it. They say knowledge is power. If you can look at a picture, of me looking at my scar, it’s not so terrible. If men and women can look at that and say, “So that’s what that is,” it takes some of the fear away. It will be okay.
I hope that people’s eyes will be opened and if they meet somebody who has it they can act with compassion and support, but not pity. Hopefully this helps people see the real face of it, and see that there are bright days and good days just by going through it. I see the world differently just by realizing how important life is and how important it is to just live today really well and to really look at what’s around you and what’s important to you. When you face a life-threatening disease you see things differently.
Cancer doesn’t have any respect for whether you’re famous or not, whether you’re well off or not, whether you’re from a fabulous family or you’re out on the streets. It doesn’t actually care who you are. Some of us get it, some people don’t. In a way I suppose I become potentially “everywoman” as opposed to a famous actress.
Mads: Have your real life experiences, such as the one documented in the exhibit, shaped your acting?
LR: It has set me free as an actor more than I was. I was always somebody who took risks and never held back, but it took away any of my bad nerves. Having gone through and faced my own mortality, I feel I have absolutely nothing to lose. It’s made opening nights much easier. Why couldn’t I give it my best shot? I could be dead, but I’ve been given another year to do this, and another year, and so on.
I’ve recently developed a faith. I’ve always had kind of one of those nondescript faiths, but I started going to church. I don’t know what God is, but I like the concept of there being some higher power. Every night since I had cancer I go on stage since and I say thank you for letting me be here another night, because it’s what I love to do, and what I dreaded losing.
Mads: You have two films coming out in 2009, Confessions of a Shopaholic and My Dog Tulip.
LR: My Dog Tulip is an animated film, really for adults. It’s this wonderful animator Paul Fierlinger, and he’s animating it cell by cell, not by computer. I actually recorded my two roles two years ago.
Confessions of a Shopaholic I have a wild, insane cameo in. It’s for director P.J. Hogan. This is my fourth time working with him. I play a drunken socialite in this big comedy. I had a lot of fun. That will come out next year.
The exhibit is at the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film until July 31st.
Photo by Annabel Clark, courtesy L'ETOILE MAGAZINE.