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LOOKING BACK, SHE MAKES HER CHILD hood sound as if it came straight out of one of those "Hey-gang-let's-put-on-a-show!" movies. "At home we were always presenting plays," says Joely Richardson. "We even had a costume box. Our biggest production was Gypsy. I played Gypsy, and my sister, Tasha, played the Ethel Merman role." Sometimes, she recalls, "even the grown-ups would join in."

Here, of course, is where the makeshift home musical takes on a little starshine. Joely's older sister is Natasha (The Handmaid's Tale) Richardson and the grown-ups included her mother, the ragingly political actress Vanessa Redgrave, and her father, Tony Richardson, the Oscar-winning Tom Jones director, who died of AIDS last November.

Membership in such an august family (which also includes Lynn Redgrave and the late Sir Michael Redgrave) offered other perks as well—like being a 3-year-old extra in Dad's The Charge of the Light Brigade. "Tash got to wear this frilly white dress, but I was a page boy and didn't like it at all," recalls Richardson, radiantly pregnant (the baby is due this month) and resting in her airy London flat.

She didn't give up, however. Today, at 27, she has to her credit a string of London stage performances, among them Steel Magnolias, and a trio of knockout screen notices—as a sexy killer in the British art flick Drowning by Numbers (1988), a princess opposite John Goodman in last year's King Ralph and as a mesmerizing double agent in the recent Michael Douglas-Melanie Griffith spy thriller Shining Through. Says costar Griffith: "I loved her sense of mystery. She's quite an intriguing woman." Proud mom Vanessa observes, "With some actors, you see the wheels going around; with others you believe what you're seeing. Joely has that quality."

This has been a watershed season for Richardson personally as well as professionally. In January, she says, she secretly married English film producer Tim (A World Apart) Bevan, 34, following a 1990 affair with land-rich theatrical impresario Archie Stirling, Diana Rigg's husband. (Rigg and Stirling are currently separated.) Over the past four years, Joely ran into Bevan several times at showbiz gatherings. "I always thought he was pretty cute," she says. "We met up again about a year and a half ago at a party, and at that time we were both free." Now, "it's everything in the world to me, being with this person I love and having a child."

Her current joy, though, is still overshadowed by her father's recent death in Los Angeles. "It's devastating," she says. Although the director was reportedly bisexual, Joely will not comment at length about his life or his illness. "But I'm so glad he had us all there with him," she says. "It was also positive for me to be having this baby because it was his first grandchild. He was happy that I had found a partner I loved."

Divorced in 1967, both of Richardson's parents cultivated warm relationships with their daughters. "My father always treated us as grown-ups," she remembers. As for her unconventional mother, says Richardson, "She is devoted to us emotionally but has lived her own life. Sometimes you'd think, 'Why isn't my mother visiting this School's Day?' but she was an inspiring figure as an actress. And she didn't press her views on us."

Growing up in West London, Joely spent summers in France with her father, and at 14, tennis-mad, attended the Harry Hopman Tennis School in Tampa. (She graduated in 1983 from the Thatcher School in Ojai, Calif.) She went on to London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and a bohemian lifestyle, capped when she declared publicly, "I think it would be nice to fall in love with a lot of men, to have a child by one and then move on to someone else."

Love and achievement have tempered such youthful exuberance. Says Richardson: "Being pregnant has given me a craving for family. I need my mother more." Of impending grandmotherhood, the radical Redgrave says simply, "I'm thrilled to bits." But don't count on Joely to settle into cozy domesticity. "My career is my passion. My ambition is to keep working." Some things, after all, do run in families.

MARJORIE ROSEN
LAURA SANDERSON HEALY in London

  • Contributors:
  • Laura Sanderson Healy.