Films > Film Interviews

Interview with Romola Garai

by Outline


The role of Anne in Glorious 39 is a great part for any actress. Did Stephen Poliakoff put you through a tough auditioning process?

I think I auditioned three times. Obviously for any part like that, there’s going to be a lot of competition. And with Stephen as well, he’s one of a few real auteurs in this country. In the end, once he had made his decision, he really pushed for me to be cast in it, so I owe him a lot. He was incredibly supportive.


Did you feel any pressure while you were making it that the film relies on your performance to making the story work?

I obviously realised that I had to do the best possible job that I could do. But she’s a sort of conduit for the audience, which is a different kind of pressure. You’re essentially allowing them emotionally into the story. But fundamentally, the voyeurism, the act of watching, is not on you, it’s on the other characters, like any thriller because the audience is trying to work out whether they are goodies or baddies. So the pressure’s off you in a way, because you’re the one person who’s not having to play two different things at the same time.

How was the experience of shooting it?

It was a difficult shoot. The amount of time that directors have to shoot films is just decreasing and decreasing. When I did I Capture The Castle, which was eight years ago, we had 12 weeks to shoot that. We had six weeks to shoot Glorious 39. That’s halved in the amount of time I’ve been working as an actor. It’s extraordinary how that’s happened. Directors are having to work with much more limited funds and limited time. But having said all that, working with Stephen was a real privilege because he’s a brilliant man.

Were you familiar with his TV work?

I saw Perfect Strangers when it first came out. I remember watching it and even though I was relatively young, being aware of what an incredibly brilliant piece of writing it is. I feel that it really does go Dennis Potter and then Stephen in terms of the baton of the great television writers in this country. It’s a big deal working with him.

This is Stephen’s first film in 10 years. Did it feel cinematic to you?

It is difficult now because people get scripts and they just cut anything that’s a street scene, working out how to make it as cheaply as possible. So you get this script which has been whittled down and then you have to work out how to make it cinematic and that’s when the craft of people in this country really comes to the fore. We had people like Danny Cohen, the cinematographer, and Annie Symons, our costume designer, doing the most incredible things under limited constraints. They’ve made something that looks classy and expensive.

How was it shooting in those gorgeous country piles in Norfolk?

It was great. Everything was shot in Norfolk apart from a week at the end in London. Norfolk’s an amazing county to shoot in. Really, really atmospheric and beautiful. The only trouble was that everybody knows that World War Two started in August but we shot in November and it was freezing cold! I mean, that picnic scene – I will never forget it. Jeremy Northam and Bill Nighy and Julie Christie just shaking with cold, and they’d turn round to do a shot on me and they’d all be like: “Do you need us here? Cos we’re really cold!” The one thing I was really pleased about when I saw it was it doesn’t look like it’s that cold.

Does spending time in those big country houses help you play a character like Anne who grew up in complete privilege?

Well, we did quite a lot of rehearsal because Stephen is keen on character development and fleshing it out, so you’ve done a certain amount of that work already before you get to the location. What’s useful isn’t necessarily the houses so much as the set dressing, because that’s where Stephen gets involved and then you can see another layer of his concept of the character – the way he’s dressed her bedroom, the family areas, the colours he’s chosen. It’s less to do with the houses themselves than it is to do with his imprint.

Did you enjoy wearing the clothes from that era?

Oh yeah. It’s a beautiful era. And I really love costume – it’s my absolute favourite, dressing-up box moment. Annie was brilliant: she made these very strong colour choices for my character. The yellow dress and the red dress – really using primary colours, which you don’t see very often. I think people tend to be afraid of them. When she came out saying, “This is the yellow dress I want you to wear”, I was stood there going, “Very brave choice”. But they were brilliant choices and she’s a very clever woman.

Did Stephen push you in terms of performance?

In my experience, most people who write their screenplays have a lot of notes; they control the entire process in every single detail. Stephen was very like François Ozon, who I made Angel with, in terms of costume, set design, cinematography, your intonation on the third word, whether the candlestick in the background was in the right position... They really control every single element of the process because they’ve also written it.

Did you know much about that period in history, particularly how many British sympathisers there were for the Nazi cause?

What was interesting for me was my family, like Stephen’s family, were Jewish emigres. His family were Russian Jewish, my family were Hungarian Jewish. For that generation, Britain was the great single white knight of Europe; the lone voice in the wilderness and that was definitely the mythology that I have been brought up with. So no, I didn’t know much about the number of people that didn’t think the war was worth fighting. In a way, that’s worse because it wasn’t even motivated by political idealism; it was just selfishness and a feeling that it was nothing to do with them. I did find that very shocking. It’s not convenient; it doesn’t fit with our national identity.

How was it working with the actors playing your father, brother and sister – Bill Nighy, Eddie Redmayne and Juno Temple?

Juno is one of the best actresses I’ve ever worked with. She’s truly gifted and she’s one of those people that doesn’t feel the need to talk about it. It just comes completely naturally to her. Her performance is so brilliant in the film; she’s truly creepy at the end. I absolutely loved working with her. Eddie I knew a bit already, mainly from watching him on the stage; I think he’s the best actor of his generation, I really do. He’s so gifted. I’d seen Savage Grace, which was a film he’d made with Julianne Moore, so it was scary for me working with him because that was a very high bar to meet. He’s the real thing. And it’s superfluous to talk about how intimidating it is working with Bill.

Even though he’d already played your father in ‘I Capture the Castle’?

Yes! Bill has this wall of modesty that means he’s incapable of talking about acting and his process. He just thinks it’s boring. So he doesn’t walk around with an aura of brilliance but when I was much younger, I don’t think I really understood what it was. I didn’t know the work that people did already and I’d never really seen myself on screen before, so I didn’t have any feeling of what was being created in ‘I Capture the Castle’, whereas now I do. I know and it matters more and I tend to want to talk about things. I try and control it, so it’s always amazing for me watching people who don’t feel like they need to.

Do you tend to feel relaxed or tense on set?

Well, I really like my job. I think that helps. I know actresses who fundamentally hate what they do and every day is a struggle for them.

Really? Don’t actors usually think they have the best job in the world?

No way. I think if they could conceivably think of something else to do, then most would probably do something else. I really like my job. I tend to read between takes. I always bring books with me. I keep myself busy. I make sure I don’t just sit around and contemplate my own navel, because that’s really bad for your mental state.

Has starring in a successful film like Atonement raised your profile in the industry?

Maybe. I don’t know. I’m always amazed by people who are very strategic about their careers because I just do not have a strategy. I just get the jobs I get, and that’s as much as I think about. You have a certain amount of control in terms of, “I don’t even want to audition for this because I don’t like it.” I try to be selective at that stage but that’s no control really.

What kind of roles would you refuse to audition for?

I don’t want to be walking around in a bikini in the back of somebody’s shot.

Do you get asked to do that sometimes? Bikini roles?

No. I’m saying I wouldn’t do it but nobody’s asked me yet [laughs]. 


'GLORIOUS 39' is in cinemas from November 27th.