Natasha Richardson in CBS Miniseries

Thursday, February 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Natasha Richardson describes Ruth Gruber as someone who ``sees the positive.''

Natasha Richardson describes herself as ``resilient.''

A unique kind of dignified spunk infuses both the actress and the woman she portrays in ``Haven.'' The CBS miniseries recreates Gruber's struggle to get the United States government to accept refugees from the Holocaust and allow them to become citizens. It airs Sunday, Feb. 11, and Wednesday, Feb. 14 (9 p.m-11 p.m. EST).

Commonality of spirit helps explain the casting choice. As Richardson is first to point out, it is something of a surprise that the moviemakers wanted ``this English shiksa to play Ms. Gruber.''

Despite residence in America, Richardson is still very British. Gruber, now a vibrant 89, is Jewish-American with a Brooklyn accent. Richardson is tall. Gruber is short. Both have strong, fine faces, but Richardson is naturally fair, while Gruber — back in World War II — was dark-haired.

``I was blond, blond, blond and I went dark to play her and now she's blond,'' Richardson says with a chuckle, noting her own hazel hair compared with Gruber's current blond coif. She is filled with admiration for the feisty, stylish ``sharp as a razor'' senior citizen, still an active writer and journalist, who had joined her earlier in the day at a press conference.

In 1944, as a special assistant to Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes, Gruber escorted some 1,000 refugees to America, only to witness their incarceration in an armed camp in Oswego, N.Y., where they were denied the right to join relatives and faced the prospect of being returned to their countries of origin at the end of the war.

Like so many TV movies these days, the re-creation of these events was filmed in Canada, on locations outside of Toronto, where production costs are cheaper.

``You can't fake a story like this and I thought, `Canada? How are we going to pull off some of these locations?''' Richardson says. ``But they had a very talented production designer and they spent a lot of money and with computers now what they do in the background is amazing.''

Capturing Gruber's accent wasn't much of a problem.

``I like to think I have a good ear and I am quite good at accents,'' says Richardson, who nevertheless worked hard with a dialogue coach not only to inject the Brooklyn into Gruber's English but also to correctly pronounce the Hebrew, Russian, Polish and German that the widely traveled foreign correspondent also speaks.

Director John Gray says he chose Richardson because he's admired her work since he saw her in the title role in the 1988 movie ``Patty Hearst.'' He describes her as possessing ``an amazing chameleonlike ability to thoroughly inhabit a character.''

Gray views that as a Redgrave trait. Her mother is Oscar-winner Vanessa Redgrave (herself a second-generation star, daughter of Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson). Her father, the late Tony Richardson, was the Oscar-winning director of ``Tom Jones.'' Aunt Lynn Redgrave and various other family members also act.

Richardson is aware that she sounds very much like her mother; the voice is a distinct concoction of honey and steel. She may look cool and patrician but her laugh is surprisingly hearty; her hazel eyes warm. She thinks the one distinctive quality the extended family shares is resilience: ``We've all been through it in one way or another and so we've had to be strong. Also we embrace life. We are not cynical about life.''

Born in 1963, her first real awareness of the family business came when she saw her mother in the 1967 film ``Camelot.''

``She was so beautiful. I still look at that movie and I can't believe it. It still makes me cry, the beauty of it. I could go on and on — in that white fur hooded thing, when she comes through the forest for the first time. You've never seen anything so beautiful!'' she says with a sigh.

Richardson always planned to be an actress, apart from one brief childhood moment when she wanted to be a flight attendant — ``wonderful irony now since I hate to fly and have to take a pill in order to get on a plane. I'm so terrified.''

But she would have leapt aboard any plane to be at the side of husband Liam Neeson when he was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident last year while she was in Canada filming ``Haven.'' But no flight was available, so ``truly hysterical,'' she had to be driven to New York, where Neeson had been hospitalized with a broken pelvis.

He's recovered now and is back at work, filming ``Gangs of New York'' for director Martin Scorsese.

She says family discussions about what roles to take are usually quite matter of fact. ``If he reads a script he likes, my first question will be, `Where does it shoot and when does it start?' He does the same to me. I read a script the other day and he immediately said, `What about the children?'''

Richardson and Neeson were married after they co-starred in the play ``Anna Christie.'' They have two sons, Micheal (spelled the Gaelic way), 5, and Daniel, 4. They hope soon to star in the movie ``Asylum,'' adapted from Patrick McGrath's novel about a love affair between a psychiatrist's wife and a mental institution patient: ``I don't know if you'd call it a horror story or a thriller, but it's very dark, very sexy,'' says Richardson, with a teasing smile.

Meanwhile, Richardson, who won a 1998 Tony for ``Cabaret,'' will be seen this spring in the British comedy ``Blow Dry'' and in ``Wakin' up in Reno,'' a road movie. She also has a role in ``Last Word on Paradise,'' Ethan Hawke's film about a day in the life of a New York hotel.

Her immediate plan is to stay home in New York with the kids. She's never really believed in working for the sake of working. As a mother, she's even more sparing in her choices. But, she says, ``I love a challenge. I only turn down the easy stuff!''


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