Romola Garai: no wallflower

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Stylist Team
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Romola Garai is happy to blend into the background when it comes to fame, but Stylist discovers she’ll fight for everything else in her life

Words: Debbie McQuoid Photography: Sabine Villiard

We really hope Romola Garai isn’t allergic to pollen. We’re about to spend the next three hours shooting her up close and personal surrounded by 200 bundles of blooms. If she is, the actress certainly isn’t going to let on. She’s incredibly plucky, sharing the clipped, ‘Let’s get this job done’ tone of her character Bel on The Hour, the BBC drama about the first topical news programme that returns to our screens next month. But whereas Bel has a constant urgency about her, Romola is super chilled. Nothing is a problem. Shall we talk before hair and make-up? Sure, whatever you want. English Breakfast or Earl Grey? Whichever is easiest. It’s a relaxed attitude that is totally contradictory to Romola’s beliefs and standards. This woman has thought about life and what’s important to her in detail. She has opinions; strong ones at that, and I defy you to come away from hearing them and not like her a lot. She’s extremely pretty but this idea of her being a delicate ‘English rose’ is blown out of the water the first time she says the F-word. Feminism.

Throughout the day she also shows flashes of self-deprecation and a wicked sense of humour; a filthy joke about what an anniversary present should be over lunch (which she had with everyone else; an important note when it comes to the star of a shoot), an admittance that the Buffalo shoe played a major role in her Nineties wardrobe, and a down-to-earth response on how to pronounce her surname: “It’s said like ‘Gary’. Doesn’t sound so posh really.”

Roles in I Capture The Castle, Atonement (as 18-year-old Briony) and BB2’s The Crimson Petal And The White followed but it was The Hour that really cemented Romola as an actress we wanted to know. Set at the BBC in the Fifties, Romola plays Bel Rowley, an ambitious TV producer, promoted by her raw talent to select the best story, but ultimately held back by the fact she is a woman. Written by The Iron Lady’s Abi Morgan, the political backdrop of the Suez crisis and Freddie’s (Ben Whishaw) flirtation with death had us gripped, but Bel’s struggle to make it professionally, maintain her personal independence while coping with the emotional strain of being a trailblazer, was what made it real. Bel’s personal choices may be dubious – her clandestine romance with Hector (Dominic West) over the man-she-should-really-be-with Freddie – but Romola plays her with such fight we can’t help but sympathise with her over Hector’s accepting wife, Marnie. As far as the future of Bel’s romantic entanglements go, Romola is saying nothing. What she will say is there is a more domestic setting than the first series, with the threat of the Cold War hitting the headlines and Hector’s embroilment in a seedy underworld of blackmail involving prostitutes as the underlying mystery. “It’s much more about a darker side to London,” she teases.

ABOVE: Romola takes a minute to stop and smell the roses

It sounds grittier…

It is grittier, but it’s also sort of sexier. But we’re very lucky and have a woman at the helm so it’s not so gratuitous. Abi [Morgan] has written an amazing character at the centre of this plot [played by Hannah Tointon] who represents a kind of class of woman we haven’t seen in the show yet. We’ve got Bel who’s an educated woman, Marnie who’s a middle-class housewife, and now a woman who’s earning money from a different background without the same opportunities. I think it’s really evened up the representation of women in the show.

Do you see any similarities in yourself in Bel? She seems very well-rounded.

Well, that’s the same, obviously! [Laughs] She’s very hard working. I’m not. I’m really lazy. She’s ambitious, and she’s a trailblazer and I can’t say with all honesty I would have had the strength of character to be a trailblazer at that time. Those women were really rare and it’s an extraordinary quality which I don’t know I have. She’s a curious mix of strength of character and desperation to be liked. She wants to assert herself, especially as a woman, which is always difficult, but also retain good working relationships with those around her, and come out of it not being hated. I totally relate to that part of her life.

You’re not describing someone from the Fifties and Sixties, you’re describing a woman now.

A lot of us struggle with having emotional attachments to our work… In television now, women are very well represented – as producers (less as writers maybe). So, they give their notes and the amount of times I am given direction that says, ‘But she has to be likeable,’ or ‘Can you not make her sound so shouty?’ It’s like there is a terrific fear of appearing domineering, which I can totally understand. I’m not living in some parallel universe but I do find it weird. I witness male actors telling the director, “I can’t say this because it doesn’t make sense.” And I know deep in my heart that if I said the same thing, as a woman I would get treated in a completely different way. And that is frustrating for me. It’s like there is a different set of criteria that you’re expected to meet. I hope it’s changing, but at the same time I don’t really have any sense that it is.

Bel is striving to ‘have it all’. Do you believe in the concept?

We’re asking questions to the wrong people. We’re asking women whether they could or should have it all. We should be asking society. You can have it all if you live in an environment where you share a long maternity and paternity leave, put the family at the centre of your economy and you say that the creation of a family is the responsibility of both sexes and that is the most important job that society does. If you do that, you will have women who can progress through their careers in the way that men do. But that’s not going to happen

Would that also be your feminist belief? That society should be taking responsibility for feminism, not just women?

Yes. I think there has always been a slight PR problem with feminism. Men have felt very excluded from the movement. Unless men feel included in a movement that is supposed to be making things better for our children that we have together, I don’t think it’s going to work. And while I think that women of the Forties and Seventies and every generation before us did everything they could, it was hard to get men on side. You cannot go into a community and say “We are going to empower women”. You have to go into a community and say, “We are going to empower families”. This is about our children and how we bring them up, and that means making it a community effort. Because if not, it just doesn’t work. It just alienates people.

ABOVE: Dress, £865, Jonathan Saunders (

The roles you’ve chosen share a strength and determination; has this been a deliberate choice?

Yes and no. I have very strong ideas about the kind of work I want to do. But also, I have been very fortunate in that… I’m white. That helps in this country. And I’m sort of posh, and that opens doors to period dramas. I’m very loathe to say that my entire career is a reflection of my choices and abilities because it’s not. But, at the same time, I do think very hard about the work that I do, and I’m only really interested in doing it in a very specific way. And if I can’t do it in that way, I don’t want to do it.

When you first started working, you were given the ‘English rose’ moniker. Did that agree with you?

It was weird. I’d never really thought of myself physically as looking like that. I have blonde hair and blue eyes, but I never really thought of myself as that kind of archetype. And I’ve got this massive personality. Like, really quite aggressive. So it never really seems to fit. Anyone who ever met me would never call me an English rose. My dad’s family were from an immigrant background, they were Jewish. And I lived abroad [in Hong Kong and Singapore] until I was eight.

Is genealogy something that you’re interested in?

My great-grandfather [Bert Garai] wrote a book about his life. He had a very interesting life. He owned a big picture library of photographs on Fleet Street [the Keystone Press Agency] in London during the Fifties and Sixties. He worked with all the great eastern European photographers of the period. Before that was the Holocaust…

Did he talk about that at all?

He died before I was born but there was a veil closed over that part of my family history.

There was for a lot of people and you can understand why…

Especially for people who married out [of the Jewish faith]. If you stay in your faith it goes on through the generations, which it didn’t with my family because [my father] married an English woman and I wasn’t brought up Jewish. It didn’t become part of our family mythology in the same way.

You wrote and directed your first film short, Scrubber, which was nominated for best short film at Edinburgh International Film Festival this year. How did that feel?

It suddenly felt like everybody in the world should make a short film. It’s the best feeling ever. I was very lucky because getting funding for short films is basically like carving blood out of your arm. But because I’d done The Hour, I had enough money to self-fund it. So really I should be thanking the BBC.

So many people, myself included, talk about wanting to do these big things and never do them. You must feel a huge sense of achievement…

I set myself this personal goal: I want to have made a short film by the time I’m 30. And I had about four months to go so was like, “F*ck!” It’s just the most amazing thrill; you’re giving birth to something and you’ve made it and no-one can take it away. It’s not like acting which is an interpretive art form, this is something you actually own.

ABOVE: Dress, £2,365, Marni (

You mention turning 30. Do you feel like you’re developing into someone different with age?

I was mad until I was about 25.

In what way?

Completely out of control with my emotions. Everything that happened to me was a tragedy. I’ve been much happier as a person over 25. That exhausting pressure of having to be beautiful? Thank god that’s over. I can’t wait until I’m 50. I can’t wait until people stop worrying about that. I think for some women it carries on, but for me it just seems to have lifted. Although the parts get fewer, that’s definitely true, they can get better as well, because you’re not playing romantic leads opposite men. You’re playing characters in their own right.

Your character Sugar in The Crimson Petal And The White took part in some explicit scenes. Did you watch any of them back?

I watched it back and was like, “God I look amazing!” [Laughs] I didn’t watch it back, no. I trusted the director [Marc Munden] and I don’t really have a problem being naked on screen. Obviously, people can perv over it if they want to. But it’s all about the way your body is represented. If it’s highly sexualised then that’s not serving the story. Otherwise your body is just part of yourself. With that story, she was a prostitute. The only thing I stressed to Marc was how we needed to make it very clear that this is her job. It’s something she does proficiently but it’s not something she enjoys. All the pleasure she gets out of it, is the pleasure of a job done well. My worry was that when you represent prostitution on screen the mechanics of it are sidelined and it becomes a cipher for women being abused. I didn’t want it to just be something that’s referred to; what happens, how they have sex, what she gets paid, all the stuff to do with contraception was really important.

You don’t take the projects you attach your name to lightly…

I’m very interested in gender politics. So I won’t take parts that are bad or if the message is weird or I’m not comfortable promoting it. I’m not good at lying so if I think something is sh*t, I’m not going to be able to do it. I don’t want the rewards enough to go through that. If you desperately want to make a lot of money and be famous, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s when you will do anything.

A lot was made of your sojourn in Hollywood [to make the not-so-good Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights in 2004]. Did that put you off?

That was like [eight] years ago now. I had a nice enough time, but haven’t been back. I’ve been very fortunate with my career, so the imperative to go and look for work in America isn’t always great if you feel fulfilled by the career you already have. At the risk of saying something that’s going to make me entirely loathed, I haven’t had to worry about work. The longest I’ve been really out of work is four or five months. For my line of work that’s a very manageable amount of time.

How do you fill four or five months?

I don’t have any trouble. When I get a job after a break, I wonder how I will do everything. By the time I’ve done the housework, gone to see friends, kept up with my family, read all I want to read, done my paperwork…

What do you read?

I just finished reading The Memoirs Of A Survivor by Doris Lessing. It was amazing. I’m really into apocalyptic fiction. What did I read before that? I have literary amnesia. But I also go to the cinema and the theatre a lot. I’m always destroyed by jealousy when I see something really good but I’m a real culture vulture. I like swimming too. It’s good if you’re trying to do anything creative. If I just go up and down 50 times, quite often at the other end I’ve got something in my head I think I can create.

Would you say you’re quite present then; not a daydreamer?

I’m a busy person. I’m terrible at yoga. I’m miserable when my mind is clear. I love to be distracted and have lots on. I’m not a person who is happier having an empty head.

The Hour starts on BBC 2 in November