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Romola Garai

Published 17 April 2008

Were it not for the fact that Romola Garai has spent much of her formative years in the acting profession building a significant number of credible credits, 2007 would be considered her breakthrough year. Not only has she starred in hit film Atonement, she has also spent much of 2007 touring the world with the Royal Shakespeare Company productions of The Seagull and King Lear, productions which have recently opened at the New London. Matthew Amer met the extremely busy actress.

Romola Garai is intelligent, confident and never less than herself in interviews. She talks knowledgably and directly, and is more than ready to enter into a debate if she thinks you are in the wrong. As an interviewer, this is a challenge; an exciting, intimidating, refreshing challenge.

“I have a tendency to get very chippy if I feel undermined,” she admits as we chat, trying to be heard above the din of scenery being fitted at the New London, where she is currently playing Nina in The Seagull and Cordelia in King Lear, “but then, I think that’s probably the case with most people. I’m happier being what I would consider to be a real representation of myself than being effortlessly charming and essentially quite fake.”

How someone so confident, eloquent and well-mannered can have such a low estimation about their ability to hold an interesting conversation, I don’t know, but Garai does not think she gives a good interview. It is not that she doesn’t like being interviewed, she assures me, but that she doesn’t think she is as good an interviewee as she is an actress. Consequently, she was more than happy to dodge most of the media scrum surrounding the global release of Atonement with the ready-made excuse that she was performing with the RSC and couldn’t leave the productions which began life in Stratford this spring before taking off around the world on their way to the West End.

"It's like this animal transformation that he goes through"

It is the first time that Garai has embarked on such a committed theatrical engagement, dominating an entire year of her working life and taking her away from home for vast swathes of time. She had previously appeared opposite Imelda Staunton in the West End production of Calico, but this two month run, though it gave her the taste for working live in front of an audience, was barely an hors d’oeuvre to the feast of this year.

“It’s very very easy to lose sense of yourself and your life when you’re away from home for that long,” says Garai about the touring schedule. She admits to being more of a homebody at heart before returning, in her very matter-of-fact style, to the practicalities of the issue: “It’s pointless complaining about it, because it is what it is.”

Though the touring separated her from home comforts for longer than she would have liked, Garai points out that the benefits outweigh the hardship; strong relationships are built and with so much time to concentrate on a role and a piece, understanding grows with time. Garai certainly felt this about Lear in particular: “It’s such a dense play that I almost feel – maybe it’s just because I’m incredibly stupid – but I almost feel like it’s taken me eight months to get to really understand it and enjoy it.”

For a relative newcomer to the stage, spending that much time in the company of Sir Ian McKellen must also be a distinct bonus and, though I steer away from the ‘what is it like to work with a theatrical knight of the realm’ question, Garai is eager to talk about unquestionably one of Britain’s greatest actors in arguably one of his greatest roles. “It’s like this animal transformation that he goes through,” she says of McKellen morphing into the misguided Shakespearean king. “I think, for me, it’s even better now than it was in Stratford.”

Playing Cordelia, Garai has the pleasure of experiencing McKellen’s work at the closest of quarters. But if the role of loving daughter forced to watch her father’s demise was not challenging enough emotionally, she also has the task of filling an hour and a half of off stage time, while not losing too much of her concentration for her re-entry into the plot. “You could stay in character for an hour and a half, but I don’t. I don’t think I could; maybe that’s a huge failing on my part,” she finishes in self-deprecating fashion. Television, films and even newspapers are out of the question as their temptations are too immediate and too diverting. As she is currently – while touring the world with the RSC – studying for a degree in English Literature, the spare 90 minutes is often put to good academic use, which has drawn raised eyebrows of Roger Moore-ian proportions among the company: “Everyone just thinks I’m a bit of a freak really,” she smiles, “because every time they see me I’m reading a book like ‘Realism’ or ‘The Beginnings of Post-Colonial Thought’, so I always look a complete nerd.”

"Everyone thinks I’m a bit of a freak"

If I didn’t know that she was currently starring opposite McKellen and Frances Barber, if I didn’t know that she has a lead role in one of the biggest movie releases of the year, and if we were chatting in a student union bar rather than the cacophonous surrounds of the New London foyer, in her big beige jumper, casual jeans and natural make up, Garai could be any other English student discussing her current coursework. Except, of course, that Garai is an English student who actually reads the books on the booklist and can’t write her essays through the night preceding her deadline, as she is appearing on stage. “I enjoy study a lot more because I don’t have to do it,” she explains. “I’m not doing it all the time and it’s not being rammed down my throat. It’s something I’m choosing to do. Subsequently I think I enjoy performing much more by dint of it not being academic study.”

Garai was originally supposed to begin an English degree, like most students, after her A-levels, but was faced with a choice; study or the chance of an acting career. “I don’t think I realised at the time how much I was changing my life really,” she admits. “I think I made the right decision, but I am glad I’m doing my study as well.”

Though, before her RSC sojourn, Garai had a number of television and film credits to her name – The Last Of The Blonde Bombshells, Daniel Deronda, Vanity Fair, Inside I’m Dancing – theatre was relatively new to her, with Calico her only professional engagement. It was a brave decision, then, to commit herself to the stage for an entire year. “I knew that I needed to improve in this medium,” she explains, “and I think the only way you really improve is by doing it and I hope that over the course of a year of consistently performing I would get better and certainly achieve more technically.” It was also somewhat of a draw that Garai’s character in The Seagull, Nina, had been at the very top of her ‘roles I want to play’ list, though she shies away from suggesting she is finished with the part just yet: “I don’t think I’ve done the definitive version,” she laughs.

Yet a whole year playing Chekhov and a Shakespearean tragedy could seem an elaborate way to push oneself to the brink of emotional exhaustion. “I do have to sort of get off stage at the end of the night and say ‘pull yourself together’, and get on with life,” Garai admits, before once more playing down her own abilities. “I’m sure some actors are so used to doing it and so accomplished that they can turn it on and off, and it just becomes a tap, but that’s not the case with me.”

Garai’s CV is packed with quality pieces, yet talk of integrity in her project choices is met not with resounding approval, but with a cynicism about the idea as a whole. It would be easy, she argues, to pick work that would look, to the easily befuddled hack, as though you were a very serious actor. “I try and do things that I think will be interesting,” she corrects me. “Sometimes I get it right in terms of the fact that people like it and sometimes I get it wrong in terms of the fact that people don’t like it, but I always try and do jobs which I think will be interesting to me and will help me improve as an actor.”

"I don’t think I realised how much I was changing my life"

The quality of her co-stars can’t hurt her professional growth. Aside from McKellen, Barber and Staunton on stage, Garai has already worked with the cream of Britain’s acting talent: Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Edward Fox, Hugh Bonneville, Bill Nighy, Sinaed Cusack, Brenda Blethyn, James McAvoy, Harriet Walter and, in Kenneth Branagh’s film of As You Like It, Alfred Molina, Adrian Lester, Janet McTeer, David Oyelowo, Richard Briers and Brian Blessed.

The joy that the mere thought of filming As You Like It brings to Garai’s face is electric. Without the experience, she explains, of working with “Mr Shakespeare” (Branagh), she may not have had the confidence to audition for Nunn and the RSC. The set, she says, was a place of laughter, though she stops short of sharing some of Blessed’s many stories as her impression of the national treasure is not quite up to scratch.

Throughout the interview Garai is happy, genial and thoroughly amiable, but is never afraid to give an honest and intelligent answer. She has a worldly-wise head on young shoulders, a real desire to commit herself to an industry she clearly adores, and an understanding of that industry that doesn’t gloss over its hidden pitfalls.

“When you do something like an experience that I’ve just had in this production and, in fact, everything I’ve ever done,” Garai says, “you realise that your allegiance for something, the enjoyment that you have working on it, the pride that you have once it’s finished is almost nothing to do with what anybody else thinks about it. I’ve done pieces of work that people have hated that I’ve been incredibly proud of, and other pieces of work that I’ve done my best, but I, personally, haven’t been very fulfilled by, that people have thought is the best thing since sliced bread.”

Her grounded attitude and her ability and eagerness to argue her case when there is one to argue suggest that Garai has a character strong enough to survive at the very top of this industry. While she talks about balance in her career and the need to produce work for the screen, after a year on the stage, the experience has fortified her love for the live medium and it will not be long before she is gracing London’s theatres once more. br />
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