Vanessa Redgrave has had a tragic year. In March 2009, her daughter, actress Natasha Richardson, died in a skiing accident; this April, her brother Corin Redgrave passed away after a short illness. And two days after speaking to TIME for this interview, her sister Lynn Redgrave died of breast cancer. Amidst this personal turmoil, Redgrave's latest film is a moment of romantic respite. In Letters to Juliet, opening May 14, she plays Claire, an elegant, widowed grandmother who returns to Verona to search (with the assistance of Amanda Seyfried) for her long-lost Italian lover, Lorenzo. (In a nice twist, he's played by Redgrave's real-life husband, Franco Nero the Italian actor she reunited with decades after they first met on the set of the 1967 film Camelot.) Redgrave talked to TIME about family, film, true love and overcoming loss.
Letters To Juliet is based on the real life people who write to a statue of Shakespeare's Juliet in Verona to help them with their love problems. Have you ever been tempted to write?
No, I didn't come to Verona until much later on in life. I was already in love so it didn't enter into it.
Each of the Verona women who respond to the letters on behalf of Juliet have a specific advice specialty -- heartbreak, finding romance, etc. What would your specialty be?
I would try for what I'm least known for. I'd try for the job of telling people to look for the humor no matter what. I don't know if I'd be a good counselor. But that's one area I'd like to have a go at.
In this movie you reunite with your lost love, played by Franco Nero. In real life you reunited with your lost-love who is your now-husband, Franco Nero. Was getting together after years apart as romantic as it was on film?
We're both very good actors, you know. So no matter what, we'd have made a wonderful scene. It was a great delight for Franco to play Lorenzo in the movie. We loved that scene.
What have you learned this time around to make the relationship work?
To listen to each other.
Was any part of your story placed in the movie?
No, the movie is about very specific characters. It just so happens that it is also our story. I guess the producers and the director thought we were right for it.
You met Franco on Camelot originally, that's definitely meeting cute.
That is rather fun too. Franco thought I was a fright and couldn't understand why I had been cast as Guinevere. So that's our fun side of it. But [director] Josh Logan said to him, "wait to you see her onscreen!"
I'm sure your husband regrets those words.
No he doesn't, he still tells that story for fun. I think it's a nice story too.
Was it true love that brought you together after so long apart?
Concepts are empty until each person finds what's true about them. True love is what has endured and come through lots of things tragedies or upsets or violent temperamental disagreements. Some people find true love much earlier and keep it. In my own case, true love comes with constantly learning about the people you love and keeping your eyes open and caring about them and listening to them. And rediscovering them. Whether it's friends or family or children. Or a husband.
Working with Amanda Seyfried, you had a great scene brushing her hair. Did the mother-figure stuff continue off-set?
Absolutely not. No way. We were very close. We loved working together. And she and I spent a lot of time with each other.
So you wouldn't have scolded her for wearing satin shorts to the New York City premiere of the movie?
Well I wouldn't say it even if I thought it. But I probably wouldn't think it because Amanda looks super in anything. I didn't see the pictures.
You're also playing Queen Elizabeth I with your daughter Joely Richardson in Anonymous.
It's a film about the writers and actors and noblemen involved, in one way or another, in Shakespeare's writings. My daughter Joely plays the young Queen Elizabeth and I play the very old. It was lovely.
There has been so much in the news about your personal heartache and loss. What is it you tap into in times like these in order to get through?
All the other members of my family and friends who loved my daughter and my brother.
So everyone works together to pull everyone through these times?
I wouldn't put it that way, but I guess that's what it is.