Romola Garai: ‘Horror films are often incredibly moving’

The actor on being exploited in Hollywood, and ‘icky’ directorial feature debut Amulet

Romola Garai. Photograph: Elisabetta Villa/Getty

Romola Garai. Photograph: Elisabetta Villa/Getty

 

Less than a week after I’ve watched Romola Garai’s unnerving performance in Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s gothic horror Earwig, the actor is sitting in front of me asking for permission to continue with her vegetable soup during our interview. 

She really doesn’t have to ask. I was never going to refuse her anything with the final sequence of Earwig – not to mention Garai’s own chilling feature debut as director, Amulet – fresh in my mind. 

At any rate the actor is such an articulate presence that the soup is surely stone cold before she gets anywhere near the bottom of the bowl. 

“Making Earwig was not something I could ever have imagined would happen,” says Garai, who is something of a Hadzihalilovic super-fan. “When I saw Innocence, her first film, it had a tremendous impact on me. My cinematic education was not as rich or wide as it should have been. When I saw her work, I just suddenly understood that there was a place to put that kind of pacing and that kind of sense of dread and atmosphere. Lucile has only worked in France before now. And it was so hard because we were making a sad film but I was so thrilled to be working with her and to be in one of her films, that I just wanted to shout ‘This is so exciting’ all the time.”

Trust Garai to be au fait with the coolest arthouse directors. The actor proves just as knowledgeable on subjects as wide-ranging as early psychiatry and Olga Tokarczuk. She has long been recognised as a commendably outspoken presence. In 2013 she led a campaign for Tesco to “Lose the Lads Mags”. Since 2015 she has lobbied on behalf of Parents in Performing Arts for childcare on set and against exclusionist practices in the film industry. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Amulet, which marries the domestic psychological shudders of The Babadook with the outlandish Lovecraftian stylings of Andrzej Zulawski Possession, is a work of derring-do. 

Horror, she notes, is a welcoming space for women. 

“Most of our effects were practical. I wanted that British sense of dirty suburbia, with icky things lurking in the environment”

“I find the experience of watching horror films just incredibly powerful”, says Garai. “They’re often incredibly moving; they’re so often about family violence. They highlight and deal with all of these things that women deal with. They’re often tremendously cathartic, whereas true crime, while it allows women to negotiate with the terrifying world they live in, typically foregrounds the killer. That’s a thing I can’t get on board with. Whereas I think horror offers an alternative to that. I think as well, and it wasn’t completely conscious, but I don’t want to do the work that people want or expect me to do. I think there’s a real need in me to buck against that. I don’t want to be told what to make or what the female characters should or shouldn’t do or be like in it.” 

Elevated horror

Amulet is the kind of film that Scream 5 characterises as “elevated horror”. Slaloming between past and present, the film’s main character, Tomaz (Alex Secareany), is the only guard at a far-flung checkpoint during an unidentified European war when he discovers a strange occult figurine. Years later, as a migrant, he survives a fire in an overpopulated Eglish squat, is rescued by a nun, Sr Carrie (Imelda Staunton) and sent to live with Magda (Carla Juri), who cares for her abusive mother (Annah Ruddin) in a dilapidated house, where everything seems to leak and ooze.

“Most of our effects were practical,” says Garai. “I wanted the film to have very practical effects, in that very physical Hellraiser style. I wanted that British sense of dirty suburbia, with icky things lurking in the environment.”

Amulet: ‘I wanted the film to have very practical effects, in that very physical Hellraiser style’
Amulet: ‘I wanted the film to have very practical effects, in that very physical Hellraiser style’

With Amulet arriving on the heels of several well critically acclaimed shorts, Garai joins a growing group of female performers turned writer-directors, a fascinating subset that features Karen Gillen, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, and Elizabeth Banks. 

“It’s still really difficult for women,” says Garai. “Okay, there’s this push to demonstrate that they haven’t been consciously excluding women from film for the past 100 years. But we still live in the society that we live in, and we still want women to tell certain stories and to be certain things in films. People want to show that they’re employing female directors, but we still require a massive societal shift to get to general acceptance of the extreme variety of the female experience.”

Garai, the third of four children, was born to British parents in Hong Kong. Her mother was a journalist with a keen interest in theatre; her father, of Hungarian Jewish descent, worked in finance. The family moved to Singapore before settling in Wiltshire when Garai was eight. 

“I felt quite ambivalent about acting and doing it because it wasn’t something I ever had to pursue. I didn’t pursue it; it pursued me”

“There’s a well-documented connection between people who become actors and being an outsider,” says Garai. “And that was my experience when I lived in the West Country. It wasn’t a place that either of my parents was from. My dad was basically a high-street bank manager and he was sent there. So, even though we were in the UK, we landed somewhere where we don’t know anybody. So I think that I was probably quite used to being in an environment where I had to be somewhat adaptable. And that makes you feel like acting is normal.”

James Joyce’s daughter

She had done some school plays and dabbled in modelling when she landed her first major screen role playing the younger version of Dame Judi Dench in Last of the Blonde Bombshells. From there, things happened very quickly: she was cast as Gwendolen in the BBC adaptation of Daniel Deronda and as Kate Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby. She left university – although she subsequently gained first-class honours through the Open University – to take the lead in I Capture the Castle, an adaptation of Dodie Smith’s book. The following year she made her stage debut playing James Joyce’s disturbed daughter Lucia in Calico. 

“I had not even the slightest sense at all of how unusual that was,” she recalls. “I had nothing to compare it to. And I think I felt quite ambivalent about acting and doing it because it wasn’t something I ever had to pursue like most people have to pursue it. I didn’t pursue it; it pursued me. I was just going around, I went to university, and then I met this agent woman, who had to sign me up to do this job when I was at school. Which I only did for a laugh. Then she called me to ask me to go in for auditions. And I kept getting the parts. It was the reverse of what most people’s experience of it is. And, you know, I don’t think it was a positive thing. Because it made me feel very ambivalent about the job. I love acting now. I would never not want to act. But if you haven’t had to work at something, if you haven’t had to try, then you just don’t really have any sense of achievement when you succeed. I didn’t train. I still haven’t quite worked out what it is I’m supposed to be doing a lot of the time.”

“I didn’t realise that I would be under assault all day, every day, intellectually, physically. I took real exception to it”

There were other reasons behind her ambivalence. In 2017 she revealed that, aged 18, she auditioned for Harvey Weinstein at the Savoy Hotel while the Hollywood producer “wore a bathrobe”, an incident she described as “abuse of power”. In 2003 she was cast in Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights, an experience she has described as “a cesspit of horrific misogyny”. During production, a female producer pointed at the then 17-year-old actor’s thighs and said, “This isn’t good enough”. A dietitian was flown in from Puerto Rico, and Garai was weighed every day to ensure that she stayed underweight.

In 2017 she revealed that, aged 18, she auditioned for Harvey Weinstein at the Savoy Hotel while the Hollywood producer ‘wore a bathrobe’
In 2017 she revealed that, aged 18, she auditioned for Harvey Weinstein at the Savoy Hotel while the Hollywood producer ‘wore a bathrobe’

“I’m slightly hesitant to talk about it as much as I do talk about it,” says Garai. “It’s not that I’m not happy to talk about it, but it was so long ago. It was 20 years ago. And it wasn’t a good experience. It wasn’t that I went into it expecting something completely different. I wasn’t a total idiot. But I didn’t realise that I would be under assault all day, every day, intellectually, physically. I didn’t expect to be co-opted into the machine, a machine that is there to disempower women. I took real exception to it. All of it.”

Playing feminists

Having sworn off Hollywood, Garai has fashioned an impressive career playing historical feminists and – appropriately for a teenager who painted her room green so that she could pretend to be in Jane Eyre – classic literary adaptations, including François Ozon’s Angel, Kenneth Branagh’s As You Like It, Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair, and ITV’s miniseries, Emma. 

“I have been very drawn to doing historical fiction,” she says. “Right at the beginning of my career, I was in adaptations of George Eliot novels. And they were all about the woman question. I’ve played Eleanor Marx and that was all about the birth of feminism. It’s more complicated to talk about feminism nowadays. So many of those kinds of literal obstacles – you can’t vote, you can’t own your home, you don’t have rights for your children – have been taken away. And yet we live alongside the same misogyny. In many ways it’s more difficult to tell those stories now.”

Amulet is in cinemas from January 28th

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