Romola Garai

The acclaimed actress on 21st century feminism, illegal wars, Nazi sympathisers and the dark directorial art of Stephen Poliakoff

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Romola Garai is an actress who is at home on the stage as the screen, and it’s fair to say that when she is not displaying her acting chops, she is an artist who never fails to divide opinion. This is in no small part due to the fact that she is not afraid to speak her mind on subjects such as The Iraq War and the conflict in the Middle East. These somewhat provocative qualities might be precisely what drew the left-wing, uncompromising and politically astute auteur Stephen Poliakoff to cast her in Glorious 39 – an unusual and sometimes quite surreal film that delves into the uncomfortable and little explored territory of British Nazi sympathisers in 1930s Britain. With the film being released on DVD this week, Dazed Digital thought it would be interesting to find out what it was like to work with the legendary director but in typical style, she wound up talking about a whole lot more...

Dazed Digital: What was it like to work with a legend like Poliakoff?
Romola Garai:
Stephen is terribly bright and knowledgeable about a lot of things, particularly the history of the 20th century. When you meet him, it’s almost like meeting someone in one of his films. He kind of embodies the darkness and the weirdness of his work. He has a very strange outlook on the world and I think he is really able to see the darkness in people. He’s able to see it in England particularly, because he is so fundamentally interested in British national identity.

Dazed Digital: The film gives a very unusual account of Britain in the 1930s. I think we tend to bury the fact that there were Nazi sympathisers in this country.
Romola Garai:
The film definitely tells you a lot about the political mindset of the aristocracy in Britain in the 1930s. I don’t think that they were necessarily Nazi sympathisers but they certainly thought thought that communism was a far greater threat than fascism, and many of them would rather have lived with Hitler than with Stalin. I think that’s quite a shocking fact for people of my generation. We have been fed quite a simplistic line about WW2. I mean, I was taught about appeasement at school but it was always sold to me as though Chamberlain was a peacemaker who simply didn’t want a repeat of the deaths in WW1. In fact, I think it was actually more to do with the fear of communism.

Dazed Digital: What do you think about today’s political arena?
Romola Garai:
The defining thing of my youth has been the left-wing party in Britain pursuing a violent and illegal war. That doesn’t inspire you to be particularly politically motivated.  I think young people feel very disenfranchised and de-politicised. And that’s because many of them actually did come out and protest about the Iraq War and were ignored. If you are ignored, I think that you just tend to remove yourself from something completely. It’s unfair for politicians to create that kind of disenfranchisement and then still expect people to engage with them.

Dazed Digital: You are on record as saying that you would like to play the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Where do you see feminism in the 21st century?
Romola Garai:
I would definitely describe myself as a feminist and I don’t think this is a brilliant time for feminism. I think the problem is that there has been a kind of backlash against feminism. I think women just didn’t really see themselves winning that fight, and I think that probably led to a lot women feeling trapped in a perpetual cycle of disappointment – trying to be feminists and failing to be. They saw feminism as something that made themselves feel bad because it kind of reminded them that they weren’t being what they were supposed to be. We still don’t have an equal society.

Dazed Digital: How does feminism tally with being an actress? You’ve played some quite classically feminine roles....
Romola Garai:
Well, I think like any job, you can make it what you want it to be. I suppose that if you choose to view it in a particular way it could be a terrible thing for a feminist to do, but on the other hand, it is an occupation that has always allowed women a great level of freedom. I’ve always found that if you choose to work with the right kind of people and play the right kind of parts it isn’t a job that is incompatible with being a feminist.

Dazed Digital: You have certainly worked with some amazing people; Francois Ozon describes you as his muse...
Romola Garai:
(Laughs)That was very flattering but I think to be someone’s muse you have to work with them more than once. I think I have yet to see Francois actually live up to that statement! He’s an amazing artist to work with and it was a real privilege to work with him. I think Angel was a very misunderstood piece of work. It wasn’t well received in this country, but I think it’s by far the best work that I’ve been involved in.

Dazed Digital: That film was also the breakthrough role for Michael Fassbender. What was it like to work with him?
Romola Garai:
Michael is amazing. He is the living embodiment of versatility. The role that he played in Angel was a very challenging role for a guy to play because the film is so camp and theatrical, and there a lot of male actors who couldn’t have done that. It’s so far from his performance in Fish Tank or Hunger that when you watch those films it actually feels like you are watching a totally different person.

Dazed Digital: What do you think about actors going to the kind of extremes that Michael went to in Hunger?
Romola Garai:
Well, if you are in a part like that you just have to do it, but I do sometimes feel like this kind of body dysmorphia is employed by actors to communicate to people how hard they are working. I think sometimes that can be cynical, but with Michael it was just an attempt to get as close to the character as possible. Sometimes I think actors feel they need to do things like that just to prove to people that the job is hard, but it’s a very different thing with Michael because his performance in Hunger was so genuine and perfectly detailed – you could tell that it came from a good place.

Dazed Digital: Do you think there is a noticeable difference working with French and British directors? In France the director often gets the final cut...
Romola Garai:
I don’t think it’s just about the cut really. French cinema has just as much of a struggle between the mainstream and the films made by the auteurs. We just don’t see mainstream French films in this country because there isn’t really an audience for them. There are many directors in this country who get final cut, such as Michael Winterbottom and Stephen Poliakoff. Most of the directors I’ve worked with have had final cut...

Dazed Digital: But those kinds of films are still kind of scarce..
Romola Garai:
I don’t think those films aren’t being made. I think it’s more that people aren’t going to see them. In France, there’s a far greater middle ground. There is a much larger percentage of the population going to see more challenging films. In this country you have two groups – you have the people who wouldn’t say they were particularly interested in cinema but who will go and see mainstream movies, and you’ve got people who are interested in cinema who will go and see everything. I think it’s a real shame that there isn’t really that middle ground here.

Dazed Digital: Finally, your first role was to play Judi Dench. Would you like to see yourself having such a long and illustrious career?
Romola Garai:
That part was very small but yes; I would like to be doing this my whole life. I would like to know that I was still going to be employed as a woman well into my 60s. In acting terms, a career that spans a lifetime is a very hard thing to achieve, particularly as a woman.
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