The Oscar-winning actress talks about Letters to Juliet

By Dave Karger
Updated May 13, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s not a surprise that Vanessa Redgrave sounds like she’s in a melancholy mood. “At the moment I’m sitting on the stoop outside my daughter-in-law’s home and looking at a very misty full moon,” she says by phone from London. It’s just three weeks after the death of her brother, Corin, 70, from prostate cancer, and only five days before her 67-year-old sister, Lynn, will succumb to breast cancer. Redgrave lost her daughter Natasha Richardson to a skiing accident a year ago — and now she will have the tragic distinction of outliving her two younger siblings as well.

After Richardson’s death, Redgrave dropped out of her role opposite Russell Crowe in Robin Hood. But a few months later, she agreed to shoot Letters to Juliet, playing a widowed grandmother who travels to Italy to find her long-lost boyfriend. “It struck very much with my own experiences as a very young girl in Italy studying,” says the Oscar winner, 73. “I’ll always remember how in love with Italy I was when I first went there in 1953. And being very prone to wanting to fall in love.”

Redgrave also knew just the man to play her love interest: real-life husband Franco Nero. The pair got together in the 1960s and had a son, Carlo Gabriel Nero, now 40. They broke up, but reunited years later, marrying in 2006. “If you’re acting with a member of your family,” says Redgrave, “it is an added delight in the hours when you’re not working, when you’re taking off your makeup and having a chat at the end of the day.”

Audiences who see Letters to Juliet can’t help but be touched by the sense of loss embedded in Redgrave’s performance. Indeed, her costars were impressed by how she carried herself during such a difficult time in her life. “Vanessa is very present,” says Amanda Seyfried, who plays a young romantic helping to reunite the two former lovers. “I feel she lives moment to moment and allows herself to feel what comes along.”

After going through so much in the past year, Redgrave finds strength in surviving family members. “Love always helps,” she says. “It is love that you count on. The love that you’ve been given through a particular family individual, you count as an extraordinary gift, and you miss that very much. But you know that you’ve had it. And nothing can take that away.”