Arts: Sheer naked talent

'The Woman in White'? At least she's wearing something this time. Tara Fitzgerald talks about nudity, her south London accent, and why she's keen to do some plumper parts
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The Independent Culture
Tara Fitzgerald has been spectacularly miscast in the BBC's forthcoming adaptation of The Woman in White. Wilkie Collins made a signal strike for feminism when Walter Hartright, with his painterly eye for the female form, clapped eyes on Marian Halcombe. "She left the window - and I said to myself, 'The lady is dark.' She moved forward a few steps - and I said to myself, 'The lady is young.' She approached nearer - and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), 'The lady is ugly'!"

The reader had never encountered anyone like Marian before. For the first time, an English novelist relieves his heroine of the duty to be beautiful. Marian is swarthy, big-jawed, with a low brow, a man's mouth, wiry black hair and, just to ice the cake, the makings of an impressive moustache. Marian's plainness, you might think, would offer the makers of filmed versions of the novel a ready-made chance to shock their audiences; film-makers, however, have tended to airbrush the author's bold template by casting a pretty actress in the role. And this new production - the BBC's second crack at Collins's Ur-thriller - is no exception. In the casting of Tara Fitzgerald as Marian, only the black hair survives. Out go the swarthiness, the imperfections of jaw and brow, and in come Fitzgerald's alabaster complexion, girlish lips and hazel eyes. They are unconventional, to be sure - her cheekbones are so splayed they practically grew up in different postal districts - but that scarcely subtracts from her beauty. Fitzgerald concedes that "when I read the book before I went to the audition I thought, 'Oh'." You can hear the wariness in that 'Oh'.

But the thing about Marian is that her ugliness leaves her free to be fascinating, capable, intelligent. Count Fosco, Collins's charismatic villain, describes her as "extraordinary", a worthy opponent for his Euro-dastardliness. And this is where Fitzgerald comes in. I wonder how you actually play intelligence. "I've no idea. And in fact when Fosco says that, I thought, 'Oh, can we see it?' "

Just as it's impossible for Fitzgerald to resemble the original Marian, it's an uphill struggle for her to look anything other than bright, alert and switched on. Even when playing a woman with little formal education, like her bit of taffy tottie who bags Hugh Grant in The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill And Came Down A Mountain, native wit stands in for nurtured cleverness. This year she turned 30, and in the rear-view mirror she can see an array of roles that have called on her to explore areas that many actresses only get to navigate once all those love-interest parts run dry.

A couple of weeks ago we saw her play her brainiest character yet - an American academic - in the BBC's The Student Prince, which foisted a royalty- in-Cambridge drama upon the plot of Cyrano de Bergerac. Fitzgerald's task was to sound as if she knew her way around the English Renaissance poets, and it's worthy of note for two reasons. One, seeing her play American reminds you how English she is, and how she may actually mean it when she says Hollywood is not for her ("I think I'd look silly running around with a gun"). Two, it was a surprising departure for an actress who is normally careful about the roles she picks: last year she went seven months without work because nothing suitable came up. The Student Prince was a last-minute summons, on the weekend before filming started. "They wanted an American actress originally, of course, then they went to Americans living in this country, then English actresses in this country with American roots." In the end, they got an English actress with Irish roots and, in Geraldine Fitzgerald, a thespian great-aunt.

Thanks to her parents' separation Tara was brought up all over the shop, but principally in Clapham, and there is no pretending that she has kicked over the traces of south London. Now and then, Marian refers to Mr Hartright as Mr Har'righ'. In The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte's frighteningly up-to-date tale of single motherhood and wife-battering, Fitzgerald brought a fierce, almost Scandinavian stillness to what is perhaps her most riveting performance so far. But her Helen Graham in the Bronte dropped her "t"s like there was no tomorrow. "I had a very strong south London accent. I've actually got a tape of me and my mates round at someone's house one night. I played it back the other day and it's almost unrecognisable. I drummed it out of myself quite a lot. It is definitely a weakness. When I have to do something with a bit of emotion behind it, that's always when you hear someone's voice relaxing." She recently returned from making a film in Canada, opposite Jesus of Montreal star Lothaire Bluteau, called Conquest. "I had to get worked up in one scene and I went really south London, and the director, Piers Haggard, said to me, 'Where are you from?' And I went, 'Saaf London'. And he said, 'I can hear it really strongly. Try and get somewhere else.' "

We met on her side of the river, in a swish pub in Battersea. She enters wearing a long coat, but in the biting December chill she doesn't seem to have enough on - some sort of feral-print skirt and slingbacks. Anyone who has seen Fitzgerald in anything knows that the wind could blow right through her skinny frame. ("I'd love to do a role where I had to put on lots of weight," she says.) Her hair, fresh from Canada, has been cropped and coppered. She orders a pint of mineral water (good), and smokes perhaps four or five cigarettes in the next hour (v bad). The most striking thing about her is less the sheer familiarity of her face than the pitch of her sludged-honey voice, which is slung way lower than you'd expect. We can't blame the smoking, because it's always been like that. At 15, when she already knew she wanted to act and was registered with a children's agency, "I had this deep voice and it didn't go with my age."

The voice does much to explain why there are few ingenues on her cv. She played a prude in Sirens - this time she was already hitched to Hugh Grant - but prurience is more her patch. The women she plays have usually got to the bottom of their sexuality ages ago, or else they're getting there. This is why Fitzgerald's naked body is as familiar a point on the cultural landscape as Sean Bean's buttocks. When we first met her she was humping Adrian Dunbar in Peter Chelsom's Hear My Song. In The Camomile Lawn she parcelled out her bounty between a pair of identical twins. There was more timorous hedge-betting in The Vacillations of Poppy Carew (she is the perfect Mary Wesley heroine; a goer, but able to do posh). And yet, unlike other actresses whom casting directors will have ticked in a box marked "takes her clothes off", Fitzgerald's nudity occurs mostly unhorizontally, away from the bed, when nakedness is a function of character rather than a going-home present for the audience.

You wonder where this lack of self-consciousness comes from. She thinks it may go back to her training at the Drama Centre, the closest London gets to a hotbed of Stanislavskian doctrine. "A lot of the training is to do with ridding yourself of those kind of inhibitions. You do 'private moments', as they're called. You have to do things in your own domain, which you would feel self-conscious about if somebody came into the room. I did singing, dancing round the room with no clothes on; I don't know if that helped. I assume that's why we were doing it, to overcome those kind of difficulties."

It was quite different when she came to do theatre, after her perfect lift-off in film and television. Her stage debut was in Keith Waterhouse's Our Song, in the West End and opposite Peter O'Toole. "The first night I almost needed a little push," she says, as if she were making her maiden parachute jump. "But I was getting nervous that I might not be able to do theatre, because the two worlds spin in their own orbits." Having failed one RSC audition ("I was bad"), she has done only one theatrical role since, as Ophelia in the Almeida Hamlet with Ralph Fiennes, which journeyed from Hackney to Broadway. Again, she knows how to choose well. She says she's due to do more theatre, "something with friends, perhaps, but small".

Fitzgerald remains, though, a screen animal, with her instinct for economy, for letting the camera nose out her performance rather than posting it through the lens. And, thanks to the lucky-dip of genealogy, the camera is really keen on these cheekbones. I ask her how she describes her face. She pulls up her fringe, looks in the mirror behind me and says, "It's probably a heart shape ... is that right? Someone said to me once, 'You've got a very big head. It's useful for film acting.' Well, I have actually. It is a big head." But not, for all her ubiquity, in that way.

'The Woman in White' is on BBC1, 28 & 29 Dec.