A show of strength: Interview-Tara Fitzgerald

Star of BBC1's Christmas drama, Tara Fitzgerald says she's not good at playing victims. But she is pleased with the strength of her role in `The Woman in White'
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Tara Fitzgerald was not born to play Ophelia, Shakespeare's archetypal victim. "It's the most difficulty I've ever had with a part," she recalls of her celebrated stage performance opposite Ralph Fiennes' Hamlet. "Ophelia's such a victim - and I'm not good at playing victims. I prefer to play strong, feisty women. I kept trying to save Ophelia. Every time the director, Jonathan Kent, came to see it, he'd warn, `Ophelia's getting stronger'. She was becoming more and more ballsy - and completely ruining the story.

If there's a common link between my roles, it's that sense of strength."

You can say that again. From Hear My Song, her memorable debut role which she won two weeks after leaving drama school, through The Camomile Lawn, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Sirens, A Man of No Importance, Brassed Off, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and last month's The Student Prince, Fitzgerald has provided sinew to every story she has appeared in.

That tradition continues with The Woman in White, David Pirie's atmospheric two-part reading for BBC1 of the classic Wilkie Collins mystery. Fitzgerald plays Marian, the strong-willed woman whose sheer tenacity in a male-dominated world helps to unravel the mystery surrounding her good-natured sister, Laura (Justine Waddell).

Marian explains her character to her tutor, Mr Hartright (Andrew Lincoln), by means of contrasting it with Laura's: "She's quiet and I talk. She is sweet-tempered and I am crabbed. She has a high opinion of men, while I... To speak plainly, Mr Hartright, she is an angel, and I am... Well, perhaps you'd better pass the marmalade and finish the sentence for yourself." Marian is a woman of such strong feelings, she cannot even bring her phrases to a timid conclusion.

Gareth Neame, the producer of The Woman in White, is obviously taken with his leading lady - "She's an enormously resourceful actress, one of the few who has the inner strength that Marian has. Tara has a great attraction towards feisty characters. She responded well to the challenge of fighting Marian's battle."

Fitzgerald certainly has presence. Dressed in a black top and a leopardskin- print skirt, she is lively company, with a disarmingly winning smile. She has the sort of magnetism that causes half the room to turn towards her - and that's before she's even opened her mouth. When she does, her deep, husky voice - apparently kept in trim by a strict diet of Marlboro Lights - then makes the other half look in her direction.

It is this allure - and her willingness to display unclothed swathes of it on screen - that has led to some unwelcome "phew what a scorcher"- type press attention. Fitzgerald adopts an admirably philosophical attitude towards it. "The sex symbol image is fairly amusing," she says, trying to muster a smile to prove it. "A lot of people talk about being an `it', a persona. When I look at `it', I find it entertaining.

"The intrusiveness can leave you feeling bereft, though," she carries on. "You have to be an odd type of person not to be worried by that - it's not strictly natural. When you're training, there's no preparation for the media aspect of the profession, which is like another job in itself. But when you become an actress, you become public property. You have to expect certain things. It comes with the territory."

Even her patience was tried, however, by the constant press references to her propensity for disrobing in films. "It did get boring," she confirms, "because, like Greta Scacchi, I was asked about nudity before anything else. The tabloids are like terriers; they hold onto things voraciously. It was all anyone wanted to talk about. I was once accused of being evangelical about nudity - but that's not the case at all," she adds with a throaty laugh.

Although she hit the Big 3-0 earlier this year, Fitzgerald has no plans to settle into motherhood just yet. "Children are a consideration," she admits, "but I'm still having too a good a time, and I'm much too selfish. Also, I'm not sure they don't alter people's perception of you. I can still play early twenties. Once you have a baby, you move into a different area. It's the same when you get married - there's not that element of availability about you. That's why they tried to stop the Beatles getting married."

Nor does Hollywood feature on Fitzgerald's immediate horizon. "I had an `MGM Golden Days of Hollywood' picture in my head," she reveals. "I was shattered when I went there and saw this high-rise wasteland. It's a very impersonal place, not a town I'd want to live in. That's not a political comment. It's just that you wouldn't be able to get in the door to do something like The Woman in White in Hollywood. While there's such lovely work here, I'd be stupid to skip over the pond. The thing I like best about the British film industry is its freedom. Because we don't have a star system, you're not always asked to play the same role because that's what the public wants - like Jack Nicholson is."

Fitzgerald feels equally passionate about the general lack of substantial roles for women. "To put it crassly, it would take a war to change that dramatically," she laments. "What depresses me is the hole that always occurs in an actress's career. The standard line is that we play The Babe, The DA, then Driving Miss Daisy. I hope The DA's a few years off for me yet."

She need have no worries on that score.

`The Woman in White' will be shown in two parts: Sun 28 Dec at 8.50pm and Mon 29 Dec at 9.30pm on BBC1