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In spite of Romola Garai’s considerable résumé in her native United Kingdom, she might still be best known to U.S. audiences as the lead of the ill-fated Dirty Dancing sequel Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. But her work has been wide-ranging, taking her from film to stage to television. She’s been in many of the best literary adaptations of the past decade, including Joe Wright’s film of Ian McEwan’s Atonement (where she played the young-adult version of Briony) and the BBC’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma (where she played the title character). Her occasionally ethereal nature contrasts well with the grittier characters she’s usually asked to play, and that’s especially apparent in the British miniseries The Crimson Petal And The White, in which she plays self-described “destination prostitute” Sugar. The two-part mini, based on the novel by Michel Faber, debuts tonight on Encore. She’ll also pop up on American television screens in the second season of BBC America’s ’50s period piece The Hour, where she plays the ahead-of-her-time news producer Bel Rowley. That series will debut in America in November. The A.V. Club sat down with Garai at the recent Television Critics Association summer press tour to talk about both works, what she gleaned from Faber’s famously descriptive novel, and just why Bel Rowley is so lonely.
The A.V. Club: You do a lot of work in period pieces, where clothes are integral to your role. How does the costume affect your performance?
Romola Garai: It varies from job to job. I think with some adaptations that I’ve been in, especially adaptations of 19th-century novels, what the character is wearing is maybe not described that much in the book and in the script, so you can choose to wear different things, and they don’t have a huge impact on your character development.
With Crimson Petal and The Hour, because they’re contemporary pieces written by contemporary writers, maybe [there’s] more of a focus on costume. And in both cases, costume was very important. In Crimson Petal And The White, Sugar is exhaustively described in the novel. I mean, hundreds of pages are devoted to the way she looks. [Laughs.] And it was very important to get that right.
Then in The Hour, we were dealing with quite a complicated figure. A woman that [screenwriter] Abi [Morgan] had written as being very sexy and beautiful and spirited, but in truth was working in an exclusively male environment and would have had to conform to a very specific dress code in that environment. So we had to kind of marry those two things in her costume. So she’s wearing suits most of the time, but we express her character through very, very strong color. With Sugar, we had all of the beginning of the story where she’s working as a prostitute, an explosion of liberty. She doesn’t have to conform to social convention, because she’s a sex worker. She wears, like, cowboy hats and masculine tailoring, an extraordinarily huge range of things. And then as soon as she becomes a governess and starts working as a member of William’s household staff, she’s just in a black uniform. There’s a massive change.
AVC: Sugar possesses a lot of confidence, and so much of confidence is physical. How do you project that in your performance?
RG: I think it’s complicated to say that she has confidence, because she’s a deeply unhappy person. She’s been working as a prostitute since she was a child; she was sold into prostitution by her mother. These are monumental damages, but she gets a great deal of status from her job. She’s very good at her job, and has become a destination prostitute. She has a certain amount of economic freedom through her profession, and she can pick and choose her clients.
On the one hand, you have someone with a certain amount of status. Then on the other hand, someone with a huge amount of damage. The primary challenge of the story for me was to try and mold those two things together, and it was really difficult. I look at some parts of the story, and I think I succeeded, and I look at other parts of the story, and I think I really didn’t. I tried to let Marc [Munden], the director, lead me through it, and he’s a brilliant director.
AVC: Was there a part where you felt like you started to understand what she was all about?
RG: Lucinda [Coxon]’s adaptation focuses very strongly on the relationship between Sugar and Sophie [the child in her care]. And in the novel, I’d seen the story as Sugar’s individual journey toward freedom. In the adaptation, Lucinda had made it about Sugar [being] really liberated by motherhood, being a mother and being given the opportunity to raise a child in a way she was never raised. She can’t really love in a male/female relationship anymore, because she’s so damaged, but she can experience love as a mother, for a child, and that really liberates her. When I read the adaptation and really started to explore the relationship with Isla [Watt], the girl who plays Sophie in the story, I thought, “I really understand something I hadn’t understood about the character before.”
AVC: What did you draw from those long passages of description you mentioned?
RG: A lot. [Laughs.] When you’re working with material, sometimes directors say, “I do want you to read it,” or “I don’t want you to read it,” so you have to take your cue from them. Marc said, “I do want you to read it,” so I got out my highlighters, and I normally sit down and start marking up the book in terms of what I can use for my own work. And within about 50 pages, I had basically highlighted every line. I mean, it was an impossible task. Every piece of information [Faber] gives you about Sugar is useful and important and could flesh out the character further. In the end, I had to sort of abandon it and work largely from the script, because it became so overwhelming, trying to build the character from the novel.
AVC: The novel is so thoroughly researched about the world she lives in as well. What were you surprised by or interested in when reading it?
RG: Oh, everything. It’s a fascinating historical novel about the period. There’s a famous story about how the Victorian Society in London started to get pages and pages of requests for information from an unnamed source, online, through the blogosphere. They’d be like, “Who is this guy, and why does he want to know whether Victorian prostitutes would have had access to Ovaltine?”
So it is extraordinarily detailed, and there were so many things that were fascinating to me. He talks a lot about the history of contraception, which is fascinating. I mean, they think that maybe a fifth of the women in London at that time were working as prostitutes. There were hundreds of thousands of prostitutes, and they must have had a way of trying to control their family size. The book goes into extreme detail about douches and sponges and abortion and all of these kinds of things, which are extraordinary things you never really think about. You see sex in period films, and you think, “Oh, they’re having sex,” and you never stop to think, “But how are they actually doing it? What’s the mechanics of this?” So all of that stuff was pretty eye-opening. [Laughs.]
AVC: At the TCA panel for this miniseries, you said you and Chris O’Dowd’s characters are enemies in a way. How so?
RG: It was a difficult relationship to portray, because what can happen a lot when you’re working on set, and I think most actors would agree with this, is that if your characters are friends, you often become friends. And relationships where your characters have opposing goals are more difficult. Not only are Sugar and William’s goals completely different, and they never overlap throughout the course of the story, but on top of that, they are also always lying to each other. There is no honesty in their relationship. It is completely duplicitous from start to finish. But also, it’s never openly duplicitous. It’s constantly awash with this veneer of affection, which makes it really cruel. It’s a very cruel and unhappy relationship. It’s a really twisted relationship.
It was difficult to find a way for our egos as actors to be satisfied, so our characters were coming out of it looking good and positive, and also to be true to the truth of the relationship, which does not reflect well on either character, and there was conflict about that. But in all honesty, I think it is one of the most successful working partnerships I’ve ever had on the screen. Which just goes to show, sometimes maybe it’s good to have that kind of conflict, because it really works, I think. He’s amazing in it, and it’s such a difficult part. I think he had a more difficult role than me in lots of ways, and I feel like it worked.
AVC: Turning to The Hour, you said in the panel for that show that Bel is going to be very angry this season. What was that experience like?
RG: [Laughs.] It was more like in the promo that they cut together, in every shot, I’m like shouting at Dominic [West]. I started to think, “My God, do I do that all the way through the series?”
But it’s true, she is much more confident this year. Confident in herself, and more people show confidence in her. She’s much more in command of the show. She’s had a long period of time without a head of news, so she’s been working as producer of the show, and basically, head of the department, in the time between season one and season two. Then she gets a new boss, and she’s not really sure what his motivations or his allegiance are. So yeah, in the first two episodes, you see Bel really go to war at the workplace. She’s very, very strong in that environment, and I had a lot of fun doing that.
AVC: Bel has some strong relationships, in her friendship with Freddie and her relationship with Hector, but she’s also isolated in a lot of ways. How is that to play?
RG: I think what’s really interesting to me about her as a character is that she is a commitment-phobe, and to see that represented in a female character is very unusual. She’s emotionally quite a withdrawn person, and extremely self-protective, obviously to a much, much lesser extent than the way Sugar is, as well. It’s rare to see that in female characters. She doesn’t like risking herself. She works in a very exposed environment. She’s a woman in an almost exclusively male workplace, certainly at the level at which she is working, and that makes you feel extremely vulnerable and exposed. I think she is quite a lonely person in some ways.
AVC: We learned a lot about her in season one through seeing her mother. Did you know her backstory?
RG: No. When I auditioned for the part, I’d only read episodes one and two, so Verda doesn’t come in until episode two of season one, I think. I knew it was hinted at, but I didn’t know the extent of their relationship until I got the role, and then Abi submitted more episodes. So no, I wasn’t really sure. It really was revealed over time, but it’s very useful, and I’m glad that was there during season one, because in season two, their families are not in the story at all. Freddie’s dad and Bel’s mother are no longer in the story. It was useful for us as actors to establish those things in season one, so we had a greater understanding of who these people were, the class, where they were educated, important things we needed to know about them.
AVC: What else is coming in season two?
RG: Well, Bel has a new love interest. And that ties into the whole issue of the birth of ITV, which is the first commercial television station in the UK, and it was a huge change in the television landscape of the period, because up to that point, the BBC had not only been a government foil, essentially, but had had a monopoly. To have competition in the face of a commercial network was a huge change. And she has, initially, a very fractious, then gradually flirtatious relationship with her direct opposite at ITV, a character called Bill Kendal.
I think the emotional heart of the story, though, is Hector’s descent into alcoholism and the pull of ITV and the possibility of becoming a light-entertainment personality and really not having the kind of gravitas that being a newscaster gives him anymore, and also talking about the kind of deceit at the heart of his marriage to Marnie. I think it’s really his journey toward the denouement of his marriage and his professional crisis, which is the engine for the series.
AVC: Both of these stories have a lot of interest in class and the class system. What interests you about stories that are involved in examining those economic strata?
RG: Oh, they’re very interesting. I think what Crimson Petal really focuses on is money, and it talks about class, but I think it’s correct in its understanding that true class is about financial freedom and how access to money, or not having access to money, utterly changes you and molds your brain, so you almost become a different animal. I mean, Sugar’s desire to be able to feed herself every day, and William never having to think about that, means they have nothing, no overlap in their emotional or psychological landscape at all.
Interestingly, in The Hour, because all these characters are coming from a smaller class difference—it’s less about money, and more about education. So for example, Bel and Hector are privately educated, Freddie went to a grammar school, and it’s really about the social minutiae of the different worlds they grew up in. That’s much more to do with the schooling than it is to do with the money.