Romola Garai: Dancing Queen

Romola Garai is hailed as one of our brightest movie talents. Not bad for a young West Country girl who never planned on becoming an actor, hates most roles and was told she was too fat for Hollywood. But with the release of 'Inside I'm Dancing', Craig McLean discovers, she's finally made a film she actually likes

Sunday 10 October 2004 00:00 BST

The comparisons are inevitable but Romola Garai is not the new Keira Knightley. It's hard to imagine Garai playing the lead female in a wonky blockbuster like King Arthur. And it's impossible to imagine her accepting, as Knightley did with the King Arthur poster, the digital enhancement of her bosoms for marketing and publicity purposes.

Although still only 22, Garai has already been traumatised by her experience making the sequel to 1987's Dirty Dancing - Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights. She says she spent five lonely months in Puerto Rico, which stood in for Cuba, being given grief for being overweight. For the record, Garai is tall and slim. But in Hollywood terms, at over nine-and-a-half stones, she was "20 pounds overweight".

The filmmakers "were obsessed with having someone skinny. I just thought, why didn't they get someone like Kate Bosworth [American actress and fiancée of Orlando Bloom], if that's what they wanted?" An actress like that wouldn't worry about whether or not the political ideas were being sensitively or subtly dealt with. They'd do the job, smile and look pretty on the cover of Teen Vogue. There I am, 135 pounds and trying to make art! I was so wrong for it!"

This is the kind of talk which, it will transpire, is typical Garai. As she's the first to admit, she's a standard representative of the newbie British acting ranks: product of a public school and a "secure, secluded, well-educated, middle-class upbringing". Aged 17, she even did the modelling thing (a soul-sapping, penurious slog, she says). But rather than coddle her, this background has fired her up. She's a full-force blast of passion, enthusiasm, soapboxing and tangential chat, with added swearing - she uses the F-word like most people use the telephone.

Thank the Lord. A beautiful young British actress with something to say for herself. Someone not afraid to criticise the beauty parade that constitutes much of the life of a young actor, male and female, nor to confess to her own professional missteps. An avowedly over-earnest young woman whose says her ideal film role would be to portray proto-feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft.

As with Samantha Morton, one of her acting role models, Garai's off-message pronouncements are not the outpourings of someone trying to gain attention by any means necessary. She has the fearsome skills to match her fearlessly opinionated character and a smorgasbord of character-building roles behind her - from the sublime (her on-stage role as James Joyce's daughter Lucia in the West End production of Calico, and last year's excellent film, I Capture The Castle) to the ridiculous (Dirty Dancing 2) via the obvious (the obligatory period melodramas, in her case Daniel Deronda and Nicholas Nickleby). And now, thanks to two new films - Inside I'm Dancing and Vanity Fair - Garai is about to graduate to the premier league.

It is a sunny late-summer's day in St James's Park, central London. We're eating fabulous food on the terrace of Inn The Park, Oliver Peyton's swank new eaterie. Garai, a committed foodie and enthusiastic clipper of recipes from magazines, has been dying to come here for ages. She would have a glass of wine but she has a driving lesson later. So she chain-smokes Marlboro Lights instead. And yes, she is wearing big, glam sunglasses but only because the sun is shining in her eyes.

She has two agents and the requisite high-powered Hollywood publicist but has travelled here from her single-person's flat in London's Shepherd's Bush on her tod. Garai doesn't do movie-star fuss.

She's just back from the New York premiere of Vanity Fair, the new film by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding), in which she stars as best friend to Reese Witherspoon's Becky Sharp. The film - which opens in the UK early next year - is a handsome epic in which Garai more than holds her own against stellar, established talents such as Witherspoon, Eileen Atkins, Bob Hoskins and Jim Broadbent.

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Having been impressed with her turn in Daniel Deronda, Nair cast Garai without an audition. "She is luscious and intelligent but has no vanity about her," the director says. "And her style of acting is fantastic: very natural, very real, and very much based on a foundation of truth."

So, the rustle of posh frocks, the roar of the crowd, the smell of the paparazzi - was the premiere a good night out? Garai pulls a face and sighs. Her elder sister - she also has an elder brother and a younger sister - works for a photographic agency and has just e-mailed her a picture of herself on the red carpet. You can see that she's "palpably nervous. I don't know," she sighs, "I [showed] my tits and teeth. I'm useless at it. About 40 per cent of success as an actor is now based on whether you're good at being interviewed and how you conduct yourself. And I'm really bad at that."

All this reckless woman-of-the-world intellectualism - let's blame the parents. Garai was born in Hong Kong, where her dad worked for a British bank. She spent her formative years there, with a two-year interlude in Singapore. The family shipped back home when she was eight. "Expat culture is full of very bizarre * communities of people," she says. "Ever so slightly Empire of the Sun - nothing's as good as it was in 1936. There was definitely a feeling of a hangover from the Empire. I certainly remember that tennis was at four!"

Growing up in Wiltshire, she and her siblings were carefully shepherded by their literature- and arts-loving parents. Her unusual first name, however, is nothing to do with the minor George Eliot novel of the same name; it's the female version of Romulus, and is obscure even in Italy. Her mum just liked it. Despite schoolday nicknames which included Romster and CD-Rom, it could have been worse: she was supposed to be an Octavia. Her second name, meanwhile, is Hungarian. Great-grandfather was Jewish émigré Bert Garai, who founded the Keystone Press Agency in London in 1924.

Mum, a journalist before she had her children, sought to protect her offspring from the over-commercialisation of childhood. TV was a reward, not a constant. So earnest was young Romola that her parents seemed to have few fears when she moved to London aged 16 to finish school and live with her student sister.

Acting was never a burning ambition. When she landed her first acting role while still at school, in a TV drama called The Last of the Blonde Bombshells with Dame Judi Dench, it was "a bit of fun. It was like I'd won a competition or something - a novelty." It wouldn't last. She would still study English at university and persevere with her ambition to be a journalist.

Even when she got an agent and began to pick up more roles, she stuck to the plan. It was only after landing the lead in I Capture The Castle - the adaptation of Dodie Smith's cherished book about girls on the cusp of womanhood in the 1930s - that she reluctantly decided to leave her RTI (Reading Theory and Interpretation) course at University of London. She still regrets it, and thinks she might go back one day to finish her studies.

"Now, realising what the limitations of my career are going to be - I'm never going to be Nicole Kidman - you realise you only get one shot at life, so you've got to do what you can to fulfil your potential and do something that's gonna use your brain."

But why won't you be as big as Kidman?

"A lack of ambition and... I don't think people quite realise how much being an actor is about being in the media and dealing with that and selling yourself."

A few weeks later, I encounter Garai again while she's ensconced in a grand hotel for the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Her latest film, Inside I'm Dancing - in which she plays a young careworker to two disabled men, both of whom fall in love with her - is up for the Audience Award (which it will win) and Garai says she loves the Festival, but is "a bit shagged" that she can't stay longer. This is because she is required at the Venice Film Festival.

Directed by Damien O'Donnell (East Is East), Inside I'm Dancing is a charming piece, though it has already caused some controversy on account of the hiring of able-bodied actors (James McAvoy and Steven Robertson) to play the male leads. While the issue of casting was nothing to do with Garai, she points out "there were a lot of people with James's and Steven's characters' disabilities who advised on the film and were involved in their portrayals".

That said, she's keen for the film to raise questions. "I'm so proud to be in that film," she says, brimming. "It's the only thing I've done where I'm like, 'I'm in that!'"

"Romola's just a brilliant actress," O'Donnell says. "She's got an incredible maturity for her age and comes across as a lot more worldly-wise than you'd expect from someone who is only 22. She's very intelligent and emotional in her acting, which is really all you can ask for."

"It was amazing to work on something that is, for want of a better word, an 'issue movie'," Garai says. "It just opens up a can of worms. What you're dealing with is no longer 'material', you're dealing with politics. It's a different dynamic to work on a movie when there's that much riding on what it is you're presenting."

Though she seems in bright enough spirits, it's the end of a long day of promotion, and Garai's still shaking off a hangover from the premiere party the night before.

There's no time to put her feet up, though. When she is finished promoting Inside I'm Dancing here and in Venice, she's off to Australia to shoot Mary Bryant, an ITV drama to air next autumn, in which she plays the titular heroine.

Bryant was a 17-year-old Cornish woman sent to Botany Bay on the first penal convoy. She had a child on the boat, and another within a year. Faced with starvation she, her husband, children and two other convicts escaped by rowing 4,000 miles to the Dutch colony of Timor. A vengeful British Navy tracked them down. Bryant - her husband and children now dead - was sent back to England for trial. It is quite a saga of feminine derring-do, and perfect for Garai. And, as with Vanity Fair, Romola Garai once again didn't even have to audition for the director to give her the part.

Perhaps this habit of walking into roles other young actresses would sell their souls for has something to do with a story Garai tells me about her audition for Calico, the West End play that was a fictionalised exploration of the budding but doomed relationship between James Joyce's daughter Lucia and a young Samuel Beckett.

"I was very, very passionate about that part," Garai says. "Cinema has become incredibly male in its perspective. Just look at Lord Of The Rings: 18 characters and two girls who appear on the poster but are only in the film for two minutes! So it's really hard to find anything that isn't somebody's love interest or the totty, and Calico so wasn't that.

"Lucia was genuinely disturbed and the mental-health aspects are really important. What was interesting about Inside I'm Dancing is that, while our society is obviously still full of prejudice, it has an awareness of disability it doesn't have with mental health. So," she says, finally pausing for breath, "[at the audition] I banged on in this vein for about 40 minutes! At which point, I think in order to shut me up, they gave me the role."

So now what? I ask her. You said you weren't going to be Nicole Kidman. How about, in the British context, being, say, Kate Winslet?

"Well, my personal favourite British actors are Tilda Swinton and Samantha Morton." She's also full of admiration for Emily Mortimer, who has been busy writing her own screenplay. Instead of "bitching about there being no female roles", Garai is all for creating your own projects. To this end she is working on her own scripts, intent on writing her own luck.

"Emily Watson makes a living and everything she does is great. The publicity hasn't become her life. You don't see her on the cover of everything. People know her and respect her."

This, then, is the Romola Garai model. Perhaps this is why she's so good at the profession she has found almost by default. She loves it, but can't stand so many aspects of it.

"I'd like this to be my job," she nods firmly, "but not feel that it's my life."

'Inside I'm Dancing' opens on Friday

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