"There she is," someone murmured.
Vanessa Redgrave made her entrance, briskly walking onto the small PBS sound stage here with cigarette in hand. She seemed tired and frail - even vulnerable. Her red hair was dyed a brassy blond. She was wearing dark brown contacts over her blue eyes, bedroom slippers and a frumpy black dress with a multicolored print.The actress looks like she stepped out of a Tennessee Williams play. And she has.
Redgrave reluctantly has come in this Sunday morning, her one day off, to pose for publicity photos for TNT's production of Williams' drama "Orpheus Descending," premiering tonight (6 p.m., 9 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.). Despite her rather sullen demeanor, Redgrave begins to cross her eyes and mug for the camera. A small group of onlookers laughs at her clowning.
Last year, Redgrave, 52, scored a triumph in "Orpheus" in London and on Broadway as Lady Torrance, a lonely Sicilian immigrant wife whose life changes when a stranger (Kevin Anderson) wanders into the tiny Mississippi town where she lives.
Redgrave, Anderson and director Sir Peter Hall had descended upon Jacksonville, Fla., earlier this year to film "Orpheus" for TNT.
George Manasse, producer of "Orpheus," said that he found Redgrave to be "a consummate professional."
"She damaged her knee on Broadway and had microsurgery on it," he said. "I was slightly concerned, but yesterday she had a scene on her knees and I came in and she was kneeling on the concrete floor. There is tremendous dedication there."
That dedication helped make "Orpheus" a critical and commercial hit on both sides of the Atlantic, though the original 1957 Broadway production closed after just 68 performances. Even the 1959 film version, "The Fugitive Kind," which starred Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward, failed.
Redgrave's controversial political beliefs have nearly overshadowed her numerous artistic triumphs. A member of England's radical Workers Revolutionary Party, she caused a furor during her 1978 Oscar acceptance speech for "Julia," when she called Jewish protesters "Zionist hoodlums." Her convictions have cost her jobs.
Redgrave now refuses to discuss politics or her personal life with the press and insists most journalists sign a contract agreeing to those terms. Her self-imposed silence, though, has paid off. The actress now works almost non-stop. "I am making up for lost time," is all Redgrave will say on the matter.
So what drew her to "Orpheus Descending"?
"The story tells, and the particular characters show, an extraordinary understanding of the situation of dispossessed people. The Sicilian dispossessed can't find jobs or keep their families together and have to immigrate to America to find a life.
"They can't find (the life) here and become trapped. This (situation) comes together with the situation of the Indian people and the black American people and the situation of poor white sharecroppers, which is a reflection of the vestiges of a feudal society still there (in the South) at the time he (Williams) wrote it. We are talking real history, and you have to know that real history to appreciate it when you are studying what he wrote. "