Romola Garai doesn’t really care if you don’t like her new film. “I’m quite a provocative person,” she says with a shrug. “I wouldn’t mind if some people were angry. I don’t mind if people feel pissed off at the end. That’s the fun.”
She’s talking about Amulet, her brutal, bloody directorial debut, but even as an actor she’s never exactly been the shy, retiring type. The 39-year-old could have made a living playing blushing belles, but she prefers full-blooded roles – headstrong, mercurial women like the sharp-tongued heroine in Emma, the plucky TV producer Bel in The Hour, or remorseful manipulator Briony in Atonement. Growing up in the Wiltshire countryside, Garai felt “the trappings of femininity being foisted on me” – so she has spent her adult life unburdening herself from that. “She is this quintessential English beauty, but she is unlike that at all really,” Rose Byrne, who played her sister in I Capture the Castle, once said. “She is candid and wild and curious.”
That provocative side has also meant that Garai makes no bones in pointing out the film industry’s rotten underbelly. Male directors have been “threatened” by her confidence. Dirty Dancing 2 was a “cesspit of horrific misogyny” for which she was forced to lose weight. Harvey Weinstein made her feel “violated” when he auditioned her in his hotel room wearing a bathrobe. She’s talked about all of this at length because it felt like the only way to make it stop. But now she’s concerned it’s all she’s known for.
“It’s difficult because I feel very strongly about these issues. Clearly,” she says, slowly, across the table in a north London cafe. “But I worry that it’s becoming… the ‘thing’ about me and my work.”
The Brit actor recently moved to this neck of the woods with her husband and two young kids, after 20 years in “the Bush” – aka Shepherd’s Bush in west London. She’s noticed there are more celebrities around these parts, so when she walks her dog around the local cemetery, she tries to look a bit more put together. It doesn’t come naturally. She sometimes struggles to remember when she last showered. Still, she looks very presentable today, in a red roll neck jumper, checked coat, and scruffy multicoloured Converse, with that same vibrant, unselfconscious energy she possesses onscreen.
“I find that I’m still talking about #MeToo all the time [in interviews],” she continues. “I don’t want to distance myself from those ideas – I passionately believe them – but it becomes the only thing that anybody ever thinks or knows about you.” She takes a sip of her herbal tea. “I’m sorry. That’s a bit of a s*** thing to say.” (It’s one of the many things she apologises for, including the drilling that’s happening nearby.) But isn’t it emotionally exhausting to have to relive these things all the time? “No! It’s the opposite. That thing that happened to me… it was 20 years ago. Even after it happened, I didn’t really think about it.” Is she referring to that encounter with Harvey Weinstein? “Yeah.”
In 2017, when the Hollywood mogul and now-convicted rapist was first being accused of sexual misconduct, Garai told The Guardian that he had consistently put young female actors into “humiliating situations” because “he had the power to do it”. That included conducting a sleazy “audition” with Garai in his hotel room when she was only 18. “It has no bearing on my life at all,” she says now, leaning hard on those last two words. “I don’t get up and think about it. At all. OK yeah, I think the industry itself is problematic in lots of other ways, but I’m not emotionally traumatised by it. It was so long ago. I’ve had a great career and now I’m getting to be a director. All those issues and problems are there and I’ve spoken about them at length. And now… I don’t know. Can somebody else talk about them for a bit?”
Let’s talk about directing, then. Amulet, Garai’s first feature film behind the camera, bears little resemblance to the period dramas with which she made her name. For one thing, it’s set in the present day. For another, it’s a horror – one in which the roles of hero and villain, abuser and victim, are constantly shifting. Alec Secareanu plays Tomaz, a former soldier, now homeless refugee, living in a shelter in London. At night, he gaffer-tapes his arms and legs together and dreams of his past life, manning an isolated outpost while an unspecified war rages. When the shelter burns down, a kindly (or is she?) nun (or is she?), impeccably played by Imelda Staunton, takes him to stay with a young woman called Magda (Carla Juri) and her elderly mother, who is confined to a room upstairs and seems to be abusing Magda. All Tomaz must do to earn his keep is spruce the place up a bit, which is easier said than done: it is mouldy, peeling, rotten. He pulls a revolting hairless bat out of the toilet.
As Tomaz becomes infatuated with Magda, he becomes obsessed with the idea of rescuing her. But who is the villain here? And who needs rescuing? Garai has the nerve to hold most of her cards close to her chest until the terrifying final act. I won’t spoil it, but it won’t surprise you to learn that this is not a film about a damsel in distress. It is an examination on gender violence, the trauma of childbirth, the nature of evil and the demonisation of ageing. Think Rosemary’s Baby meets Relic meets something else entirely.
I couldn’t be naked onstage again
Garai was pregnant when she wrote the film and her “profound rage at the inequality of birth” found its way into the script. “I finished writing it and was like, ‘Oh s***, I think I might have some unresolved issues around this stuff,’” she says with a laugh. “People don’t talk about the transformative experience of pain, particularly in terms of birth, because they don’t want to scare people.” She’s right – who could forget the media furore when Garai made an unscripted joke at the 2013 Baftas: “After the recent birth of my daughter, I had the misfortune of having 23 stitches in my vagina. So I didn’t think I’d be laughing at anything for a long time. But tonight’s nominees have proved me wrong.”
Garai smiles about it now. What happened to her is, she says, a “massively common occurrence”. Giving birth “was definitely something that had a big effect on me. And clearly, when I was given the opportunity, that’s what came out.”
Garai was very careful to make Tomaz a likeable, sympathetic presence. “I was trying to write about, not men who hate women being a threat to women, but men who love women being a threat to women,” she explains. “The reverence of women – the idea of an all-forgiving, all-understanding woman – is a threat to women. Tomaz is not a weird outsider, or some kind of social outcast, he’s a man who likes women, you know? But that in itself is the problem.”
So why make a man the focus of a film about gender politics? “I think in the context of a horror film, if you’d made the woman a protagonist, there would be a possibility of a voyeuristic interest in a woman’s suffering,” she says, “which is something I have huge issues with. So all of the horror is placed on him.”
The horror inflicted on Tomaz is vicious, gory, horrific – and Garai forces us to witness it up close. The moment of sexual violence imposed on a woman (I won’t say who) is glimpsed only very briefly; the camera stays far away, then pans up through the trees. “I don’t think anybody needs to see a rape onscreen ever again,” says Garai. “You can do it without putting anybody through that – everybody hopefully understands what happens in my film.” When they shot the scene in question, Garai didn’t even have her actors touching. “They didn’t need to perform the scene because I just think it’s too hard for people. It’s an awful thing to make people do, and can be extremely traumatic for actors.”
Garai is increasingly redrawing her own boundaries as an actor herself. “I’m 40 this year, and there are all those weird things that I had to pretend to do. You get to the stage where you go: ‘I’m not doing that, I’m not doing that, I’m not doing that’, because it’s too affecting. I couldn’t be naked onstage again.”
In 2014, she had a “lengthy nude scene”, as The New York Times put it, in Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink, a stage production about sisterhood, romance and colonial subjugation, in which Garai plays a dying bohemian poet. At the time, the play’s director Carey Perloff said she agreed to the nude scene “without missing a beat”, but it clearly took a toll. “It’s just not something I could do again,” she reiterates. “It’s psychologically too demanding for me. But then that’s problematic, because actually it would be quite good for people to be seeing an ordinary woman in her forties onstage.”
Maybe, but not if she isn’t comfortable with it. “Yeah… There were times when I felt completely comfortable and times where I didn’t. And the trouble is that every time that you didn’t feel comfortable was too many times. But you can’t sign up for a theatre run and say, ‘I’ll do it when I feel comfortable and not when I don’t.’” It would be great if you could. “Yeah, that would be awesome actually, if they could do a theatre run where they’re like: ‘Tonight, the actress has chosen not to be nude.’”
Besides, she adds, it’s not like it’s crucial for an actor to take their clothes off most of the time. “I don’t know that I’ve ever really seen nudity onstage and thought it was totally necessary. That interrogation should happen every single time somebody asks an actor to be naked. Is this 100 per cent essential for the story? And if it isn’t, why are you doing it?”
Garai has always liked to be in control. She battles for her own interpretation of a character, even if it contradicts the director’s – but she’s not sure that’s entirely a good thing anymore. “The act of relinquishing is something I have found extremely challenging in my life,” she says. “There have been times in my career where I’ve looked over at other actors and thought, ‘F***ing pushover. Grow a pair. Fight for your character, fight for your story, go and tell them what you want.’ But actually as I get older, I think it takes a great deal of self-belief and confidence to say: ‘I give myself to you and you will make a piece of art.’ Now that I’m a director, I see actors doing that for me. I didn’t always do that myself.”
Given all she’s learnt, does Garai find herself giving advice to younger actors? She almost spits out her tea. “No! Because I haven’t learnt anything about… I have nothing… I mean, I’m a mess.” She laughs. “I try not to give anyone advice. Because every single life mistake, I’m already making again.”
There is only one public mistake that I can think of – and Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan and Anne-Marie Duff made it with her. In 2015, while promoting the film Sufragette, the actors posed in T-shirts that read: “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”. It was a quote from Emmeline Pankhurst, but it bothered people to see a group of white women decorated with the word “slave”, removed from its racial connotations. She doesn’t look thrilled when I bring it up, but she’s not the type to gloss over things. “I felt, I suppose, embarrassed if that had offended people,” she says carefully. “But hopefully you’re open enough to take on board what’s being said, and you can go forward in your work and think about how not to make people feel like that. It’s been a wonderful learning opportunity for everybody.”
Not that the backlash was exactly fun. “I’m not on social media and I’ve never been on social media because I’m afraid of that kind of…” She trails off. “I say f***ed-up s*** all the time. I’ve spent my life saying sorry to people because I’m garrulous and thoughtless and clumsy about the way I express myself. And I’m always trying to make people laugh, which can be a problem. I wouldn’t be great on social media.”
She’s perfectly fine with that. Apart from missing the occasional birthday party invite, Garai can’t see any particular advantage to being part of the endless scroll. “I’m not constantly being bombarded with an idea of how I should be parenting, or what about my life should be better,” she says brightly. “Because I’m not on it, I’m quite able to just, I don’t know, look like s***, talk bollocks, allow myself to fall apart.” She laughs. “And do so without intense levels of self-loathing.” She won’t like me saying it, but that sounds like pretty good advice to me.