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The Sunday Conversation: Romola Garai in a thriving period

The star of Encore's 'The Crimson Petal and the White' talks about the pressure of taking on roles from beloved novels and her stab at Hollywood.

August 25, 2012|By Irene Lacher
  • Romola Garai in 2011.
Romola Garai in 2011. (Linda Brownlee / Encore )

British actress Romola Garai, who grabbed the attention of American audiences with star turns in 2007's "Atonement" and the 2009 Austen miniseries "Emma," returns on Sept. 10 in Encore's presentation of "The Crimson Petal and the White," adapted from Michel Faber's 2002 novel of Victorian London. The Golden Globe nominee costars with Chris O'Dowd and Gillian Anderson as a prostitute who attempts to raise her station in life through a relationship with a wealthy man.

When you starred in "I Capture the Castle," you worried that you wouldn't do the book justice since it had so many fans. Did you feel similar pressure about "The Crimson Petal and the White"?

Very much, very, very much. It's a book with mad passionate fans, and not just people who are interested in Victoriana, because it's such an amazingly researched book. And also Michel, who spent 20 years of his life writing this novel, which is the most extraordinary thing, and you're trying to bring that character to life, and it's a huge responsibility. It was pretty daunting.

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Were you a fan of the novel before you got involved with the miniseries?

Yes, I was very much a fan of the novel and a fan of the writer, Michel, all of his work, but particularly this book. It's certainly his biggest novel, and I think it's the kind of book you can't really compare to other pieces of work.

It exists completely in its own literary box and in its own landscape. It's obviously a piece of really intensely detailed research about the London underworld of the 1860s, but it's also a really, really passionate book about writing and being creative and about a woman being creative as well. It's also a really hopeful book about the emancipating experience of motherhood, which is not really something you hear very often. And I think it has, like really great novels like "Middlemarch" and Dickens, it has huge humanity for all of its characters.

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Speaking of emancipation, your character, Sugar, is a shrewd prostitute who tries to better herself. Prostitution is presented almost as a political choice. Another character says she'd rather do that than be exploited as a factory worker. Do you think that's a modern view of it?

I don't know whether I think it's a modern view of it. I think it's a perennial view, but it's expressed by one of the characters that the economic empowerment they have as prostitutes offers a greater reward than the obvious down sides of the job itself. If the book has a theme, I suppose the theme is exploitation. The female characters are different representations of that. Agnes, the wife, played by Amanda Hale, represents a completely different form of exploitation at the hands of the family unit, and obviously the characters who work in William's factory are people who are being exploited as an underpaid workforce.

Do you consider her a victim or a victor?

I think she's both. That's why it's a brilliant novel. And that was something that was very important to all of us in making the adaptation — that all the female characters are definitely victims of a system that's stacked against them, but they scramble for power in their own right. And Sugar's way of escaping from that struggle is to refuse to force Sophie, [William's] child who eventually becomes her daughter, to replicate the misery of her own upbringing and the unhappiness of her mother's life. And that's how she breaks that cycle.

Your costar, O'Dowd, told TV critics that "These characters are so selfish and actors aren't the most selfless persons in the world, so combine those two things and it had its ups and downs." Do you know what ups and downs he was talking about?

Yeah, it was creatively quite a fraught process. There was definitely a lot of disagreement in it about the way that it should be played and the way it should be represented on screen. But I'm one of those people who thinks you tend to only fight about the things that are worth fighting about, and I don't think that necessarily in the job that I do, having disagreement is necessarily bad. Because quite often it can mean that people are very invested in what they're doing and they care very much about the outcome. And I think with a story where the characters are being represented ambiguously — both Sugar and William are represented as being selfish and cruel and also they have humanity and love in them as well — it's hard for actors to always accept the bad elements of their character. You don't always want to show those.

You've been in a lot of period films and television, including "Atonement" and "Emma." Is that because you're convincing as a pre-modern woman or is that the customary career path for a British actress?

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