Born in 1937 in Greenwich, London, Vanessa Redgrave is the daughter of the actors Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson. Her birth was announced to an audience at a performance of Hamlet at the Old Vic by Laurence Olivier, as Redgrave’s father was playing Laertes in the production.
After studying at Central in 1954, Vanessa Redgrave made her West End debut in A Touch of the Sun at the Saville Theatre in 1958 in a production that also starred her father. She went on to appear in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Coriolanus at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre under Peter Hall’s direction. Her first major role came in 1960 in The Tiger and The Horse, before going on to appear in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s As You Like It and Cymbeline.
As Redgrave’s career continued, she turned to the screen, gaining her first film credit for Brian Desmond Hurst's Behind the Mask. She was nominated for her first Oscar in 1966 for Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment, and would go on to be nominated for five more Academy Awards, winning one for the film Julia in which she played a member of an anti-Fascist group in the years leading up to World War II.
Redgrave caused controversy when she collected her award, praising Hollywood for “refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums”. The comments came after she narrated a documentary about Palestine. Later in the evening, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky proclaimed: “I'm sick and tired of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards (loud cheers) for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda”.
In more recent years, she has appeared on screen in the films Foxcatcher alongside Steve Carell and Channing Tatum, and The Butler. She directed her first film in 2017, at the age of 80 years old, called Sea Sorrow which is a film about the plight of children caught up in the Calais refugee camps. On stage, she appeared alongside Ralph Fiennes in Richard III at the Almeida Theatre, and Mark Rylance’s production of Much Ado About Nothing at The Old Vic in 2013. Vanessa Redgrave had a cameo role in the second part of Matthew Lopez’s two-part epic The Inheritance, which transferred from the Young Vic to the Noel Coward Theatre.