The Brit talks about her Tony award-winning portrayal of Sally Bowles in "Cabaret" and surprisingly lighthearted turn in Disney's "The Parent Trap"

Eight times a week in Broadway’s smash revival of Cabaret, Natasha Richardson evokes a moment of overwhelming misery as Sally Bowles, the Weimar-era Berlin chanteuse whose fast life of cocaine and coitus is interrupted by an unwanted pregnancy — most probably the result of a liaison with a bisexual roommate played by John Benjamin Hickey. Near the end of the show, Richardson-as-Sally walks shakily onto the stage and reveals that she has had an abortion. She paints an unflinching portrait of denial, regret, and despair: the knocking knees, the tremulous voice, the vacant stare.

“I wanted to find out what it would’ve been like, what the health risks would have been, and the pain level,” says Richardson, who tracked down a contact whose father performed abortions during that time, and soaked up stories about the emotional and physical perils. But not all of Richardson’s preparation works from the outside in. Her Tony-winning reinterpretation of Sally Bowles (hardly the glamour-puss rendered by Liza Minnelli in the 1972 movie) has loose but unmistakable parallels to her own life as well.

Given the five-year marriage of her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, to film director Tony Richardson, who died of complications from the AIDS virus in 1991, there’s something strikingly nervy in Natasha’s nightly exploration of the limits of gay-straight unions. She says her family history “resonates in all sorts of ways, some of which I’m aware of, some of which I’m not. I mean, my dad never said to me, ‘I’m gay,’ or ‘I’m bisexual.’ Yet it was never a hidden thing. I don’t know, is that denial or total openness?”

As an actress, Richardson has always gravitated toward the dark side — like Paul Schrader’s 1988 biopic, Patty Hearst, in which she spent much of her time blindfolded and at gunpoint, and 1991’s The Comfort of Strangers, as a woman caught in a sadomasochistic endgame. “It’s the light, bright parts I have to work at,” says Richardson, 35, nestling into a pretheater lunch at one of the few Manhattan restaurants that allow her to light up her treasured Vogue cigarettes. “It’s weird, but where I’m comfortable going is where the most emotionally painful stuff is. That’s where I feel a connection I can channel into.”

How the devil, then, did she wind up in The Parent Trap, a frothy affair (opening at malls everywhere July 29) in which she plays a picture-perfect divorced mum to cute twin girls (both played by Lindsay Lohan) determined to reunite her with Dennis Quaid’s dear, hunky old dad? Well, mainly because a funny thing happened on the way to Cabaret.

Back in the spring of 1997, Richardson was set to begin a battery of vocal and terpsichorean lessons for the musical when director Sam Mendes’ favored theater suddenly fell through. It was the start of several months’ bad luck. “Did you ever have one of those moments when everything professionally just goes boom?” she asks, with a blunt sincerity miles away from typical Hollywood bravado.

It wasn’t just the Cabaret revival that blew up in Richardson’s face, which she’d kept more or less out of public view from 1994 to 1997; during that time she conceived two sons (Micheal, now 3, and Daniel, 1) with husband Liam Neeson, 46. Anxious to get off the mommy track, she wound up grinding her gears. As Cabaret languished for a year, she lost a movie deal, then a play.

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