As she returns to the West End in RSC’s Queen Anne, the actor tells Mark Shenton about her big break on television with Judi Dench, coping with fame after a series of acclaimed film and stage roles, and the pressing need to address the needs of parents working in the industry
There’s a well-known industry tale about a leading director giving a note to an actress, describing her character as feisty, at which point she walked out of the show and the production. It was not Romola Garai, though it would certainly be true to describe her as opinionated, determined and combative. But she’s also warm and bracingly intelligent company, not afraid to speak up for things she cares about. She challenges herself constantly – not just in her own work choices but also the responsibilities that come with them.
Garai has just returned to the Royal Shakespeare Company, where a decade ago she appeared in a double bill of King Lear and The Seagull, which began in Stratford-upon-Avon and toured to the US, Australia and New Zealand before a West End run at the New London Theatre. She is starring in a belated West End transfer of Helen Edmundson’s Queen Anne, which was premiered at Stratford in 2015 and opened at Theatre Royal Haymarket on July 10.
Garai plays Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, the title character’s oldest and closest childhood friend, originally played by Natascha McElhone. “She was not available because she does a TV show [Designated Survivor] in America, so they sent me the script quite a long time ago,” says Garai, speaking in the RSC’s Clapham studios as rehearsals continue downstairs. “The Haymarket had offered this slot and the RSC was trying to fill her position. I was sent the script last October and thought it was a really fantastic play – I read it in one session. I thought it dealt with some very unusual themes, particularly for theatre.
“For me it is predominantly about a female friendship that is destroyed by politics, which is rare. Although its a historical play and you feel that Helen Edmundson has done a great deal of research for it, something at its heart feels very personal and leapt out at me. I found the portrait of two women locked in a highly dysfunctional relationship very moving. Because it has lasted since childhood, it has become quite warped in some ways. They could reassess their relationship in a positive way, but they don’t. Sarah, particularly, doesn’t have the strength of character to bring that about and so it explodes, and politics is the thing that initiates that.”
Politics, both personal and public, remains a big theme as we continue to talk, particularly around gender. The play begins in 1702, when England is on the verge of war and Princess Anne is soon to succeed William III to the throne, as her advisers vie for influence. There is a modern parallel in the way Theresa May’s advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill were sacked after the general election, and the power struggle playing out in the wake of their dismissal. There was also the surprise defeat of Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election.
“It’s interesting to see how women exist in political spheres – particularly with people’s attitudes to women in power,” Garai says. “To do this play now – written by a woman, directed by a woman and with two actresses headlining it – it’s interesting to look at how women take public space. In an industry in which you are literally taking up space and asking people to listen to you, I don’t think you can be a woman and not connect to the themes of this play.”
A play about female agency feels a rare thing. “The problem with a lack of plays featuring strong or interesting female characters, directed by women and written by women, is generated by a number of different issues,” says Garai. “It’s complicated – you can’t sweepingly say it’s because it’s an industry that was misogynistic and didn’t engage with women. That’s not fair. But certain things have stood in the way of plays with themes that connected with women’s lives. Maybe that was to do with having predominantly older audiences, their conservatism and the status quo that people get comfortable with. But it’s positive that people are trying to address that now.”
According to widely reported statistics, women are by far the majority buyers of theatre tickets – even if they are taking male partners, they purchase the tickets. So it is curious that women’s stories are not being told in the theatre. “But then women buy the Daily Mail, too,” says Garai. “Gender politics is not necessary championed by women – it is championed by liberals. Some of the most profoundly feminist people I’ve worked with have been men and I’ve had the opposite experience with women. It’s not a gender split. It’s about attitude to gender across the board.”
But in a world where responsibility for child-raising still falls predominantly to mothers rather than fathers, it is often said that actresses face a particular challenge in trying to combine acting work with raising their families – something, of course, that is not said about male actors.
As a mother of two children, Garai agrees that working in the theatre can be difficult, at least from a timetabling point of view: “My kids aren’t in school yet, but you’re right, when they are and you don’t see them all day and then you’re not there in the evening, it’s hard; but I have found with young children, because I can spend they day with them, it balances out.
“Some things need to be addressed in the industry. I have a real problem being asked to work six-day weeks. I do not understand the need. With filming, it is still common for them to ask for 11-day fortnights; I think that is completely wrong. I don’t think production companies and commissioning houses in the theatre can champion themselves as paragons of liberal values when there is such entrenched prejudice against parents. With every job I go into, I have a fight about six-day weeks. Why do we even have to have this conversation? I have an 11-month-old baby. How can I possibly work to that schedule?.”
Garai’s son was already a couple of months old when she was sent the script for Queen Anne. “I knew I’d be able to do it,” she says. “I also knew a number of people involved in show also had young children, so I wouldn’t be alone in having those conversations. People have been allowed to bring their babies into the rehearsal space, which has been very helpful. I know a lot of rehearsal rooms are very welcoming. There was a chance of doing a job, for instance, while I was still breastfeeding and they were very supportive of it.
“But I’ve found it particularly difficult in productions where you are the only person with children to say, ‘Can we not work Saturday because I want to spend time with my family?’ It should be best practice for all the main theatres not to ask people to work Saturdays. If you have six weeks’ rehearsal, that’s six Saturdays in a row. This discriminates against a lot of people with young children.”
Rising to her theme, Garai says: “Some people say it is easy for me as I have a lot of work – but I’m in a position to advocate for better working conditions for parents. There are people who are not in a position to push back when they get offered a job – they don’t want to lose it, they don’t feel they are in a position to negotiate terms. It is important to try to bring about minute shifts in the industry that benefit everyone – men and women.”
That’s just one example of Garai’s campaigning nature – and she sees prejudice and discrimination in lots of places. When discussing, for instance, how well British actors seem to do in Hollywood, she speaks up for American actors: “If I were an American actor, I’d be pissed off, quite frankly. I do find it a bit strange – all the people who have gone to America and become incredibly successful obviously deserve that success. There’s no question they’re all fantastic actors; but I know a lot of Americans who are also fantastic actors. Hollywood has a lot of Anglophiles. There’s a sense that British actors bring a kind of dignity to things, which is untrue. We’re not more intelligent. It’s nonsense. We’re all just actors. It makes me a feel a bit uncomfortable – it feels a bit like something to do with colonialism.”
Early on, Garai made a Hollywood misstep with a sequel to Dirty Dancing (Havana Nights, in 2004) – “we all have a skeleton in our closets” – but has had a successful career despite being based in the UK. She says: “There’s a point in your career when you try to do that leap to the US. The advantage is that you might potentially get more diverse work: a greater variety of roles and opportunities to do different things. That is always a pull and temptation. Of course I’d love to have a career where I get to work with amazing film directors and play really interesting roles. I’m not going to write that off. But, to be honest, for much of my 20s I had fantastic work here – I didn’t feel bored or frustrated enough to feel that need.”
Q&A: Romola Garai
What was your first non-theatre job? I worked in a cafe when in I was in mid-teens, but basically I’ve never done anything else except act.
What was your first professional acting job? Judi Dench’s younger self in The Last of the Blonde Bombshells on television.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Any time you spend thinking about the way you look or how other people think you look is a total waste of your time and energy.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Since I met my husband, who is a very calm person, I’ve been very influenced by him. He makes every room he goes into a bit happier, whereas I am a bit of dark cloud, full of worry and anger. I was also very influenced and inspired by working with Monica Dolan at the RSC. She has a deep and profound love of acting, she loves to do it and as a result is a very positive person to work with. I also love John Heffernan, Imelda Staunton and Eileen Atkins – acting is the most important thing for each of them.
What’s your best advice for auditions? You’re auditioning them as well. It’s a meeting – two people, who both need to bring something to the table. It’s why I feel very affronted when I’m asking to do a casting tape and not meet the director. It’s rude: there’s such a deep lack of respect shown for actors by the casting machine now.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? Maybe a teacher, a director or a politician.
Working with Judi Dench and Imelda Staunton
Garai explains that her career began as a kind of happy accident: “I had a very strange start into acting, which is not very representative: I fell into it in my late teens – I was 17 – but I didn’t go to drama school, and fell into a television role. The first job I did was a TV movie, The Last of the Blonde Bombshells, with Judi Dench in the lead. It was a non-speaking role. They were looking for someone to play her younger self, and I was at school in London. Our head of drama knew the casting director and she’d come to see a school play. I got the part – but I didn’t have any sense before that of becoming an actor. In order to do my contract, I had to have representation and got an agent, and then that agent started calling me and sending me up for things.”
Bigger roles followed in a TV version of Nicholas Nickleby (2002) and I Capture the Castle (2003) before Garai’s first stage job in the world premiere of Mike Hastings’ play Calico at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London in 2004. “I’d not done any professional theatre – so my first job being a new play in the West End acting opposite Imelda Staunton was crazy,” she says. “You couldn’t have had a better introduction into the discipline of a rehearsal room – I’d never had any sense of that before. Film and television is not nearly as demanding of actors in that sense. I had no sense of what a big deal it was – I thought this was just what happens. I was very arrogant.
“It wasn’t until I was in rehearsal for a couple of weeks that I realised I’d have to do it in front of an audience and would have to be good. Thank God I had Ed Hall directing and very supportive and understanding actors around me. I just tried to watch them and see what they were doing.”
Today, Garai says it was “an amazing experience – for me, the catharsis of doing theatre was so much more than anything I’d had in any other medium”. And she has returned to the theatre between film and TV roles in Amazing Grace, Atonement (for which was nominated for an Evening Standard Film award), Emma (nominated for a Golden Globe), The Crimson Petal and the White and The Hour. When we discuss the merits of her remaining faithful to the stage, she says, “Faithful sounds like it’s a chore. But I love doing plays – you get so much more freedom as an actor.”
Garai’s previous London stage credits include Three Sisters at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2010, Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike at the Royal Court in 2011 and Measure for Measure at the Young Vic in 2015. She is modest about landing these high-profile roles: “I wish I could take the credit – sometimes it is just what is rolling around. Sometimes you get to the end of a telly show and it’s just the next thing that lands.”
Coping with fame
Garai’s film and TV profile has led to a certain degree of fame, but she says she is content with this: “I feel very fortunate to have a high enough profile to play leading roles in things that are interesting, but not so much that it has made a real difference to my life. When I think about people who’s careers I’d like to have, that’s the sort of fame they have.” She is referring to people like Penelope Wilton (“my favourite actress”), Imelda Staunton and Lia Williams – “They will always work, because people know they are good and can do it, but they don’t need to get a facelift.”
Welcoming the increased opportunities that TV affords, Garai says: “Although I’m very proud of a lot of work I did when I was younger, a lot was period adaptations. So I’m lucky to get to play more contemporary things now, and TV is an enormous market. There’s such a variety in television now – of course a lot of it is shit, but within that there are pearls.”
How does Garai keep her public and private lives separate? “I don’t do any social media. It becomes tempting for advocacy, because it can make a substantial difference – but something in me is a bit repulsed by it. I’m totally aware that it sounds ‘holier than thou’, but I find the idea of drawing people’s attention to awards you’ve won really weird.”
Romola Garai’s top tips for aspiring actors
• Work out what actor you want to be and what medium you want to work in.
• See as much as you can – TV, movies and theatre – and absorb as much as you can.
• Be aware that acting is a cruel mistress and might make you unhappy, so work out if you really want to do it.
Should the work just speak for itself? “People say that, but what does that mean?” Garai asks. “You have to promote work – I’m promoting it now. But I feel that we are meeting, and you will write something and that will be an impression of this.”
And my impression is of an actor determined to do the right thing – and unafraid to speak the truth, however uncomfortable it might be. Garai returns to the topic of children and her role as a parent. “The privacy of children is invaded on a catastrophic scale. I think we’ll look back at this period as utterly perverse. I think it should be illegal to post pictures of children without their permission. If you have a private channel to share things among friends, that’s one thing; but I can’t imagine that this generation of children won’t turn around in 20 years and say I didn’t want to be naked in a picture that 3.5 million people saw who I don’t know. Privacy is very valuable.”
As a parent, Garai says: “I try to think about how to navigate the big challenges of the internet. And the only way we can protect children is to inform them, which means forcing people to be honest with them. So that’s potentially a benefit: the wheel is changing, making people speak to their families about complicated issues and bringing them closer.”
CV: Romola Garai
Born: 1982, Hong Kong
Training: Queen Mary, University of London; Open University
Landmark productions: Calico, Duke of York’s Theatre, London (2004), King Lear/The Seagull, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, then world tour (2007), Three Sisters, Lyric Hammersmith, London (2010), The Village Bike, Royal Court, London (2011), Measure for Measure, Young Vic, London (2015)
Awards: London Film Critics’ Circle award for Inside I’m Dancing (2005)
Agent: Sue Latimer at ARG Talent
Queen Anne runs at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket  until September 30