All Fired Up

Whether she’s talking Hollywood sexual politics or Paw Patrol, Romola Garai isn’t here to play. Lucy Pavia meets the star of the BBC’s adaptation of The Miniaturist for a very lively chat.

A lot of people stuck their head above the parapet this year to call out the deep-rooted misogyny of the entertainment industry. But if 2019 is the year the battle got going, it’s worth paying homage to the women in the vanguard. Romola Garai has been calling bullshit on Hollywood for years. ‘It’s an industry that hates women,’ she shrugs, as we sit post-shoot on the sofa in an east London loft.

‘I think most actresses, whether they’re public about it or not, feel this very intensely.’ Thirty-five-year-old Garai is a great interviewee – she’s warm and open, and doesn’t mince her words. You might have caught a flavour of this watching her present an award at the TV BAFTAs a few years ago, when she woke up the audience with a joke about having 23 stitches in her vagina after giving birth (she’d rejected some blander wording given to her by the ceremony’s organisers).

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Then there’s the brilliant disruptor roles she excels at, like 50s TV producer Bel in The Hour, Alice in Suffragette and, her latest, as Marin in an upcoming TV adaptation of Jessie Burton’s bestselling novel The Miniaturist. The latter is set in 17th-century Amsterdam and stars Garai opposite Anya Taylor-Joy and Alex Hassell as a trio of characters who resist the norms of Dutch society in their own individual ways – on the surface a Christmas-friendly BBC period drama, but one that ditches a traditional romantic storyline to explore sexual politics, race and gay rights. In other words, something right up Garai’s street. Have you always been a staunch feminist or was there a specific experience that crystallised your views?

‘It’s something I’ve always felt strongly about. For a long time, I was too afraid to speak about it publicly, but a lot of things happened to me in my career which made me feel like, “Oh my god, I am working in an industry that denigrates women.”’ We’re very under-represented, so are always in a minority on set. It’s also an industry that massively advantages young women and disadvantages older women, so [young women on set] can’t see how older women are dealing with it. Then, not only are you isolated but you’re also put in situations where you’re preyed upon or manipulated.’ You had a bad encounter with Harvey Weinstein in the early years of your career [Garai was summoned to his hotel room at the age of 18 while auditioning for Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights; Weinsten has denied that non-consensual sex occurred with any of his accusers]. How did you feel when the story about him broke in early October?

‘When the first New York Times piece came out, someone called me and said, “Has anything weird ever happened to you with Harvey Weinstein?” And I was like, “Of course.” You could ring any actress working and they would tell you something odd about him. But it wasn’t until the rape allegations that I thought, “Oh god, that was obviously different from my experience in very substantial ways.” People kept saying it was an open secret – it wasn’t even a secret; it was recognised that he was an extremely dangerous man who preyed on young women. [But] I don’t think I knew he was an alleged rapist. And that just makes me wonder why have I internalised this kind of blame, like it’s my fault? People say, “Why did no one say anything?” But they did. Everybody knew, so it’s weird when these news stories become part of the news cycle. Why now when this has always been the case?’ Do you think we need to put words into action? ‘Yeah, I sort of feel like the kind of feminism we’re talking about, that people interact with on a superficial level, doesn’t really filter out of a lot of the mainstream media.

I don’t think most women, if they were reading about what happened with Harvey Weinstein, would be surprised. Every woman who works in an office or on a construction site, or wherever, is going, “But of course.” Are you the sort of person who gets into heated debates with people at dinner parties? ‘Weirdly, I don’t. My husband [actor Sam Hoare] always says, “You are the least confrontational most confrontational person I’ve met.” I have profoundly strong opinions about things, but I don’t like picking fights about stuff. I think I should do that more – we all should – because I feel like, as a nation we’re just…’ Silently furious at each other…

‘Yes, and it’s so unhelpful and tense. It’s like being in an unhappy marital home where people live in separate wings.’ Have you felt gender inequality more keenly since becoming a parent? ‘Not really. There are more things you’re aware of, like kids’ television, which is a joke. With [TV show] Paw Patrol, until recently, there were six boy dogs and one girl dog, and it’s like, “Why? Do you hate women? I don’t understand!” Obviously [becoming a parent] widens your experience, but I was pretty fired up already! [Laughs.]’ You made a joke about having your first baby at the TV BAFTAs. How do you feel about the ongoing debate surrounding natural birth?

‘Women should be presented with a range of choices. I went to NCT classes and felt like I was a bit lied to about what childbirth entails. I think there is now pressure for women to forego pain relief, in what I can only see as a weird form of machismo [that’s] made childbirth competitive. The last thing you need to feel when you’re going through that experience is that you’ve let yourself down, though I do think the natural birth movement was borne out of some really important things…’ The first wave of feminism in the 70s… ‘Yeah, it was about giving women choice. Before then if you had a baby, they’d shove you on your back and shave off your pubic hair so that the doctor could see what he was doing. It was important to give women a strong sense of control over labour, but I question the efficacy of having a [natural birth] pressure group when it’s so individual.’

You’re not on social media. What are your objections to it? ‘Well, a) I find all technology boring; b) I don’t know how anyone has the time; and c) It gives the opportunity for a million people with mental-health problems to call you a whore. Why would you want that in your life? There’s a huge amount to be said for trying to create a system whereby people can have face-to-face debates. We need to air disagreements in person, because no one is going to have a decent conversation or political discussion on Twitter.’ You’re about to star in the BBC adaptation of The Miniaturist, which was a huge bestseller. How faithful is this series for fans of the novel? ‘It captures everything about the book that I loved, which is that it’s a very unexpected novel. You enter into a well-established genre [and so] you expect the protagonist to be on a journey of romantic fulfilment, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about society and living with extreme prejudice, and it’s about gender. Those were things that I was really interested in, so to do that in the guise of a BBC period drama is great.’

You’ve also just finished a critically acclaimed run on stage in Queen Anne. Do you get a kick out of live theatre? ‘I do. There’s something silly about every aspect of my job, but something particularly silly about theatre, where we’d do this serious play yet be sitting in our dressing gowns beforehand, having cups of tea and giggling. There’s a camaraderie to theatre which, in an industry that’s very lonely and highly competitive, can be really nice.’ Have your career aspirations changed as you’ve got older? ‘I think what I essentially want has probably stayed the same, which is to do work that has some kind of positive impact. I started [acting] when I was 17. A lot of people don’t really get going until their mid-twenties, by then my career was quite established. The disadvantage of this was that I didn’t realise how rare it is to play great roles, what an achievement it is for a production company to get an interesting project over the line and have any female characters in it at all. I’m more grateful now, and that’s sort of reduced my ambitions in that all I want to do is interesting stuff that I don’t hate myself for doing. That happens a lot with women as we get older – we want work that interests us and we don’t care so much about being “successful” in the abstract sense.’

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