An Interview with Romola Garai
Written by Victoria Myers
October 19th, 2014
When we saw the announcement of Romola Garai’s casting in Indian Ink, we e-mailed The Roundabout right away—seriously, like within ten minutes of the announcement—to ask if we could speak with her. Her appearance on the New York stage (she’s British) is one of the most exciting things to happen this season—her work in Indian Ink is brilliant (both in the American and British use of the word). For those not in the know, Romola starred in the BBC series The Hour (Netflix it), the BBC’s Emma, The Crimson Petal and the White, Atonement, and the upcoming Suffragette. She’s appeared on stage on the West End, The Royal Shakespeare Company, and The Royal Court. She’s also written/directed a short film and written a few pieces for The Guardian. And if all of that wasn’t enough to be excited about, she’s also an outspoken advocate for gender equality and carries that passion into her work. If you want an example of what a young female creative intellectual looks like (and we need more of those examples), look no further than Romola Garai, both in performance and in life. She is absolutely delightful and we would advocate for her staying in New York (seriously, has someone started a petition for this? Where can we sign?).
A theme that’s come up in our interviews is that it’s important for people to see stories that have female artists at their center. One thing that’s great about Indian Ink is that Flora is a writer, and that’s actually part of the story. Was that one of the things that drew you to the part?
Very much so. I think it was one of the main reasons that I was attracted to the play—it’s her story. The love story is an element, but I think the real heart of the play is about artistic progression and how you make good art. And her journey to writing great art and her ability to put that at the center of her life is, I think, what the play is really about, and something that I found very moving and very unexpected because that’s not often touched on in plays.
You see her struggling to write and struggling to write as a woman. That’s really unusual on stage.
Yeah. There are two artists in the story. There’s Flora and then there’s Das, this Indian man who is a painter. And she teaches him something very important in the journey, which is if you’re going to make great art, you have to make it at a huge cost—you have to be prepared to sacrifice what other people think of you, other people’s opinions, and you have to make personal sacrifices. You have to really put it at the center of your life, which is something that in the 30s people absolutely believed—that great art had to come at a great cost. I feel like people have slightly lost a sense of that. Now commercial success and artistic success are seen as being not necessarily mutually exclusive. I found it very moving to see a woman standing on a stage saying, “I made enormous sacrifices, I was judged, I was pushed away, my life has been harder because of this attempt—and it should be harder—because I want to make great art.” That always really moves me every time I get to that part of the play.
Another interesting facet to Indian Ink are the sexual politics. In the world of the play, for all of Flora’s talent, she’s still defined in society by the men she’s interacting with. Was that also something important for you to explore?
It’s her narrative and that’s important. She’s definitely an object in the play as well; she’s the object of someone else’s art. That was complicated for me for a while in rehearsals. I had the opportunity to talk to Stoppard [the playwright] about that. I found it very difficult to believe that a woman would choose to be painted nude over being painted clothed as a better way of accessing her soul. But he was very interesting about that in that he considers the muse, someone inspiring great art, to be extremely important and to have a great status. And Flora, as well as being an artist, is also the inspiration for great art. I think maybe a woman would have a slightly more complicated view of that, but I didn’t feel like it was coming from a bad place. I think he genuinely believes that the women who have inspired his art are artists in their own right because of that, and he was trying to elevate her status not only as an artist, but as a muse. And in the end, I thought that’s a noble effort to say that someone who is the subject of a painting is also complicit in creating that piece of work.
You’ve always gone back and forth between doing film/TV and theatre. We’re always interested in the dialogue between mediums. Do you think your work in film and TV has informed your theatre work?
I think they are very different kinds of acting. It’s a different kind of way of communicating. When you’re on stage, you build strong relationships with the actors, but it’s a story you tell with the audience—you have to include them, you have to respond to them, they have to understand the narrative. Whereas with film and television, it’s a story you’re telling with the director—you, the other actor, and the director. So it’s a three-way thing rather than a room full of people, and you all have to tell the story together. It’s a very different kind of acting.
Do you see any themes in your work? You’ve spoken about wanting to play women with jobs and women who are complex. Obviously, we love that.
Well, it is very easy to do work that exclusively focuses on the emotional life of women, but I think I am just very interested in other aspects of women’s lives, inevitably because I’m interested in gender politics. So when I read a script, if the story is one purely of a romantic trajectory for the female character, I do judge that. I think, “Why are you not interested or engaged in this woman’s working life, her spiritual development, her artistic growth, her journey as a mother?” It is very easy, I think, to end up allowing the female character to be a cypher for the male character’s emotional progression, or an enabler for his emotional progression; I’m just not very interested in those stories. So I prefer to do work where there are other things going on.
One of the things that’s come up in our interviews is that maybe even what we think of as “proper structure” is from a male point of view.
In the UK, there’s a real problem with our critical climate only accepting plays that have a narrative that conforms to a more traditional idea of gender stereotypes. That’s a real problem. I think that this whole conversation in the UK about increasing representation of women—in terms of commissioning work by women and including a greater number of women in the plays—is leaving out a real problem, which is the theatre criticism in the UK, where there’s a real issue with who is reviewing the plays and the way they review them.
It’s a problem here too. We talk a lot about how different words are used to describe work by men and women. Like the words whimsical and quirky came up recently.
Yeah, it’s not often words you hear to describe men.
You’ve become known for playing very confident, opinionated women. Those are not words we use to describe men either.
Yeah, confidence is just assumed when it comes to a male character; it’s not really a characteristic it’s just, you know, an identifying part of what they are.
What do you think about that? Because it seems like that description might almost be subverting what you’re trying to do?
I mean I think it’s interesting. When you look at Flora, for example, because it is a play set in the 30s, you can’t take away the fact that she is a woman and she would have faced greater complications and difficulties facing her work. We had a lot of very interesting conversations in rehearsals about how you depict someone who is very strong and who is very opinioned, and I’m not sure that if she were a man those words would have been used. I think the complexities in representing a character who has very strong views, who’s very fun, who’s quick, and who obviously is extremely intelligent and very brave, I don’t think there would have been so much conversation about whether or not she was likeable or not if it had been a male character. And that’s not a criticism of the writer or the director or the cast; that’s a societal problem. I mean, you’re making theatre for an audience, so you have to take their prejudices sort of onboard when you’re making the work. So, I think it is kind of important to direct someone so the character is appealing, but as an actress I find it frustrating because I think, “Why do I have to be more likable than a man would have to be saying the same line?”
It’s obviously important to you to create characters who are complex.
The industry that I work in is incredibly sexist. When I got to about 26 or 27—when I got old enough to understand that was a problem and why it was a problem, and the way that, at the earlier stage of my career, it had enabled me and then was actually disabling me—I think it became very important to me to connect with other people who felt the same way. So I think it has inevitably drawn me towards writers who are writing strong female characters, to casting directors who want women to be at the center of narratives, and to people who have the same kind of concerns.
One of the things we’ve been talking about a lot is how behavior is learned and passed down, and sometimes women don’t have examples of women leading and, for lack of a better word, being confident. Do you feel like you almost had to make up an archetype for the types of women you were playing?
I think I am just a very confident person. I always have been. I think I was quite lucky in that I went to an all-girls school. I was never put in an environment where I had to be the other—the woman as opposed to the man—all the way through my education. I was never made to feel that way at home. So, it was sort of surprising to me that I was suddenly put in lots of situations where people would say to me, “You come across as being quite unpleasant.” And I would try and get to the bottom of that, and often what they mean is that you say what you think. And it seemed to me so profoundly obvious that there was a disparity between the way I was treated and the way the male actors or directors were treated—I mean it’s astonishingly obvious to women in the industry. Almost all women I know would say that. If you’re a woman, especially if you’re a director or a writer, you have to behave in a different way in order to manage the same situations. So I didn’t find it difficult to see an archetype of that. I think what I found difficult is how to choose to just carry on as you are, or whether to try and alter yourself to get what you want. But actually I’m not good enough… I have a very strong, probably slightly aggressive personality, and so that just ends up coming out regardless of what I try to do.
Who are your top five favorite female characters?
1. I really, really liked that film Young Adult. I think Mavis Gary… I mean I am obsessed with that film. She’s just an amazing, amazing character. I loved that.
2. I would probably have to go with Dorothea from Middlemarch. Probably my favorite novel, and an amazing, amazing character.
3. Is it bad if I say Emma? [Editor’s Note: Romola starred in the 2009 BBC adaptation of Emma. It’s totally the best adaptation. So, no, it’s not bad to say Emma.] Because she’s so misguided, but in a brilliant way. And I love reading an Austen heroine who, because she has a lot of status in the story, she’s just really in charge of people. She has no self-doubt at all, which actually, I know the journey of the story is to give her more self-doubt, but I really like her when she thinks she doesn’t have any. She thinks she knows what’s best for everybody and I find that very appealing.
4. Sally Albright from When Harry Met Sally. Again, another fantastic and amazing character. Very well drawn. Really funny.
5. Do you know Blackadder? Miranda Richardson, who is one of my favorite actresses, played Queen Elizabeth, and it was an incredibly, incredibly successful British comedy from the 80s and 90s. She’s my favorite actress because she can do amazing comedy and incredible dramatic work, and moves completely seamlessly [between them]. She was nominated for an Oscar for Tom and Viv. To be able to do that and make it all look like the same thing—she doesn’t do comedy or drama, she’s just is a great actress.
You’ve done a lot of period pieces ranging from The Hour, to Emma, to Daniel Deronda, and even Indian Ink. It’s interesting that so many of these multifaceted female characters have been in non-contemporary pieces. Sometimes it seems there’s a certain literalness prescribed to contemporary female characters that doesn’t let their stories be as expansive as they are.
A lot of the things I’ve done have been adaptations of nineteenth century novels, and in nineteenth century England there was a fascination with the interior life of women by male and female writers; a woman’s emotional, social, and financial progression through life was fascinating. It’s what almost all nineteenth century literature is about – Austen, Henry James, George Eliot—and we do not have that anymore. I think our concentrations are sort of more sexist now than they were then. So, you know, it is sad that you have to do a Henry James adaptation or a Jane Austen adaptation or Thackeray to see a woman at the center of the story and watch her emotional progression being the absolute pinnacle of the story. But more than that, the UK just does proportionally a huge amount of costume dramas, and that is just the industry that we have. Yes, of course I’m attracted to those parts, but also it’s what we make.
There can be really odd reactions to female-centered stories.
I find it really dispiriting that a lot of the journey of cinema, I think, has been towards polarizing men and women in cinema. And then there’s this pressure on female filmmakers to make female-centric stories, which if you’re a female filmmaker is a terrible burden to carry—why is the pressure not on the reverse? Why aren’t we sitting down with the great auteurs of cinema, who are men, and saying, “Why are there no women in your films?” I think it’s very repressive for a woman to be constantly told that she has to make films about women to better represent women, but then the reverse is not found.
Or there’s that thing of women being told how impressive it is that they’ve directed a man and a man’s story like, “How on earth did you manage to do that?”
My friends have this constant thing with me, where I’m just at this stage now where I sit in a film and I count the number of male characters and I count the number of female characters and I just think, “I’m sorry, I’ve had enough.” I’m not interested in going to see films that massively over-represent men over women. It’s like, how much more have we got to say about this? Like men in war and dealing with their masculinity in conflict. I just think we’ve exhausted the landscape. Apparently we haven’t.
It’s so crazy, especially in theatre, since women make up 70% of ticket buyers.
But there is that research—obviously psychological research is always up for debate, and whether it’s truthful or not—that women don’t question themselves when they enter into a story that has male characters, but men do question the validity of a female narrative. I’ve done a lot of jobs with women at the center of them, and I know that they do [think that way] because I sit down with people who have seen the show, or I’m being interviewed and they go, “She was a very strong woman,” and you sort of go, “Oh, God. Yeah.”
How do you think the media can be better towards actresses in regards to these issues?
I think visual representation is a big problem. That’s just a constant theme. When you go for photo shoots you don’t own the photos—unless you’re Angelina Jolie, and then you probably do control the images—so you can’t control whether or not they trim them or how much photoshop they do. If you’re an actress and you say, “I’m not going to do any kind of press where people are going to take photos of me like a fashion shoot,” then that would severely harm your career. Fashion and film have morphed into one, and actresses have become models, essentially. They do all the big fashion campaigns; the worlds have become much more conjoined. I think you should have the right to say whether or not you want the images doctored or not. And I have had experiences where I’ve been approached and they’ve said, “Do you want to do a shoot?” and I’ve said, “Yes, absolutely. I would love to, but I don’t want the images to be doctored,” and then I’ve been dropped. And I have found that a bit dispiriting. And then you sort of lie there in bed and think, “Oh my God, am I really harming my career?”
We’re always interested in what shapes artistic sensibilities. You started working as a teenager. What’s it like, especially as a woman, to be in the entertainment industry during those formative years? How did that impact you figuring out what type of creative life you wanted to have?
I’m thirty-two, and I started acting professionally when I was seventeen, and I cannot believe that I was on my own on a film set on the other side of the world for months and months and months when I was nineteen or twenty years old. You’re thrust into this industry that has an extremely complicated relationship with women, and particularly young women. When people come through that experience really well, I’m sort of amazed by them, because I didn’t come through it well. I found it really hard at the beginning. I kind of ran home and exclusively worked in the UK, basically, for all of my twenties. I never wanted to come back to America, just because I didn’t feel comfortable being part of the machine. I found it really hard. But people do come through it well, but then other people don’t come through it well, and you sort of think, “What are we doing to these people?”
How do you think that shaped your identity, especially as a woman in the world, being in that environment?
I think it left me, in absolutely no uncertain terms, very aware that I was a commodity. Any highfaluting ideas that I might have had about being an actor or what it meant, and my craft and all the rest of it, were completely destroyed by my early experiences. I understood that for the people who fund film, primarily, it’s a business. They make money off it, it’s an investment, and it could be anything—it could be soap, it could be construction—they don’t have any sort of artistic goals. And people sit in a room, and they put down pictures of young women on a desk, and they go, “She’s hot, she’s not, she’s hot, she’s not.” That is what it is. And I just felt very uncomfortable being a part of that. Even if you’ve come out on top of all of that, why have you come out on top, you know? I very quickly got to a stage where I was like, “That is not a conversation I want to be part of.” I had enough “fuck you” in me to go, I don’t want to be a photo on that desk with some fifty year old guy calling judgment on whether or not I’m attractive enough to be his investment. It creeps me out.
What was the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
Probably Little Women. That was my favorite book. I was obsessed with that book. And then, when I was in late childhood or very early teens, there was a movie [adaptation] that came out that Gillian Armstrong directed—that came out, I think, to a fairly mild reception at the time—Winona Ryder was in it, and Susan Sarandon. I fucking loved it. I saw that movie 150 times, and that’s not an exaggeration. I still watch it all the time.
It’s really, really good.
It’s amazing. It’s such an underrated piece of work. I was googling one night and the reviews at the time were like, “The film made in the 40s is like the classic,” and I was like, “I’ve seen that movie, and it’s great, but it’s extremely dated.” I loved her adaptation of it. And I think it was so important for me to see at that age because it’s a story about a woman trying to be an artist. And it’s a story about female relationships being so positive and so loving and so funny. That was probably my earliest kind of crush on a piece of work.
It has an amazing score too.
Oh my God, the soundtrack is so exquisite.
When was the first moment you felt like a grown up?
Oh God. That’s really hard. Does anyone say that they’ve had that moment? I mean, there have definitely been lots of times where I’ve felt like, “This is what a grownup does,” you know? But that’s not the same as feeling like a grownup. In a way, that’s the most infantilizing moment when you’re like, “I really look like a grownup.” When I became a parent, I think, there were times when I was like, “I’m having to make decisions that impact on somebody else’s life, about how much I work and don’t work, and how they’re brought up.” That’s when you’re like, “The fun time is over.” Like before if I fucked up, it would just be me, and now if I fuck up it’s like, “Oh my God, I’m fucking up someone else.”
What other areas of culture affect your work?
I’m a huge listener of the radio. I listen to a lot of This American Life and RadioLab and The Moth. I listen to the radio all the time. I’m also—I really hate this expression—a voracious reader. I do read a lot. A lot of contemporary novels. I go into a bookstore and I buy like fifty paperbacks and I read them all. I go to the movies a lot—I love the cinema—DVDs are great, but like I go to the cinema and watch a movie the old-fashioned way.
We love people who do more than one thing. You wrote and directed a short film, Scrubber. Would you mind telling us about that?
I always wanted to write, and I think I slightly have that—this sounds very “poor me” and I don’t mean to sound very “poor me” at all—but I like really good writing and I was never writing well enough to be really pleased with myself. I would always write things and throw them away, and get into that horrible thing of saying, “It’s not good enough,” and I would start again. But I made a vow to myself that I would try to make a short film by the time I was thirty, and I got to within six months of my thirtieth birthday and I was like, “I just have to do something, even if I don’t think it’s good enough.” So I did. It was good to set myself that goal. And it’s not perfect, but I did it and I’m happy with it, and now I would really like to make a feature. Thinking about the next stage of my life…
We were going to ask if it’s something you wanted to do again.
Yeah, I would. Having had experience working in film at lots of different levels—low budget, mid-budget, not like really high budget, but I’ve worked in some very different things—I’m very attracted to the idea of making films cheaply because you have more control. So then that becomes its own kind of limiting aspect while you’re writing like, “How can I tell a story that is very intimate?” And then obviously I want to write a story that has some sort of appeal, but then my taste is probably quite rarified so… it’s an ongoing thing.
What issues are you interested in exploring on film?
I really like ghost stories. A lot of my favorite novels deal with the supernatural in some way or another. I’d like to do something that’s sort of a cross-genre piece. I really like films and plays that cross over different genres. So, I’d like to do something that you think is a drama, and then you think is a supernatural thing, and then becomes a drama again. That’s very vague but…
You’ve also written some columns for The Guardian, which seems cool.
Yeah, I’ve written a few little short things.
It’s cool. It’s something we don’t see a lot of.
Well, you know, it’s very easy for people to laugh at you. I think there’s a wealth of, to a certain extent, justified dislike of people in a position, using their position to espouse their political opinions. Of course, you’re going to come in for a certain amount of criticism. But when I really started thinking more seriously about my industry and how it treats women, I thought, “I would rather say stuff and have people laugh at me than say nothing about it at all.”
There have been a lot of gender parity in theatre conversations in the UK too. Are there any initiatives going on over there that you think are really great?
Well, yes, there’s a fantastic initiative. Tonic Theatre in the UK is doing a really big push with some of the major commissioning houses like Sheffield, the Almeida, and the RSC. They have signed up to an effort to try and examine their gender parity for the next year. I think Daniel Evans at Sheffield is going to try and do total gender parity for their commissioning for next year. Rufus Norris is taking over at The National—I know that he said gender parity, and getting their parity with ethnicity, is going to be his big goal for The National in the upcoming year. I think that’s really important, because I think it’s the only way we’re going to force people. We have an aging audience in the UK and a critical climate that, I think, is extremely unaware of these issues. I don’t think a lot of the critics in the UK are really aware of the problems and the lack of parity and gender inequality in the work. So I think the commissioners basically saying, “The only work we’re producing is going to have more awareness of these issues,” then those will be the only shows that they go and see—so they’re not going to be choosing between this play that tackles these issues and this play that doesn’t, but they’re all going to be more representative—it’s going to force the whole conversation to be a bit better. There was a fantastic book that came out recently that was really brilliant, [by] Lucy Kerbel, and she did 100 plays with great central female characters in it [100 Great Plays for Women]. She just wrote a book and was like, “Here are 100 plays,” and she sent it to every single commissioner in the UK. And they’re not all by women, but they all have great central female parts and big casts for women.
What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
I would really encourage people to write to reviewers when they read reviews that they think are sexist. I mean, I read reviews all the time where I’m like, “Are you fucking kidding me? Like you’re actually talking about this actress’ body in the review?” I think we need to have more of a dialogue about that. I mean even in reviews that I’ve got, whether they’ve been positive or negative, I’ve found them offensive in some way or another. I did a play a few years ago, which dealt a lot with women and sex and their sexuality, and I really felt like whether the reviews were positive or negative, I’m not sure the conversation was quite what I would have liked it to have been. So, I would say to people, if you read reviews that you think by their very nature are not respectful of the actresses involved or not appreciating the work as it should be, I think you should write to reviewers or comment and say, “Are you kidding me?”