WHEN I meet and interview starlets, I never envy their lives, because it always seems as if success in showbiz comes at too high a price. I make an exception though, for Romola Garai.
The star of the new Stephen Poliakoff film, Glorious 39, has worked with some of the world's most famous directors (Woody Allen, Kenneth Branagh, Francois Ozon) and appeared in a tasteful selection of big-screen hits including Atonement, Vanity Fair, The Other Man and the Irish film Inside I'm Dancing. So far, though, she seems to have managed to do all of this almost entirely on her own terms. And though she will demur and protest about time still spent in the doldrums as an out-of-work actor, and the inconvenient imperative to pay the rent, one can't help feeling that at this relatively early stage in her career, she's got the balance right.
This year, she says, she worked for six months, and had six months off. But in the months she was working she played Emma in the big-budget BBC adaptation and took the lead in the much-anticipated Poliakoff film. That left the rest of the year for hanging out with friends, travelling, doing a bit of writing (a long-standing ambition) and finishing her Open University degree.
Now 28, Garai was born in Hong Kong to British parents. Her father was a banker and her mother a journalist. The family, originally from Hungary and of Jewish descent, moved to Wiltshire when she was eight. She is the third of four siblings, the eldest two of whom are adopted. She was recently awarded a place on a prestigious list of Britain's Rising Stars. Those previously singled out for the list include Kate Winslet and Jude Law. She's often compared to Winslet, especially as she seems to have found a niche in British historical dramas.
Despite her avowedly normal existence, Romola is fast becoming a bit of a big deal. Though you wouldn't necessarily know it to talk to her. We meet in a tiny recording studio in central London. She's warm, but not so charming that you feel as if you are watching a performance rather than meeting a person. She's been a working actor for years, and is no stranger to being interviewed. But she is, unlike a lot of celebrities, not shut off from genuine reflection by the force of her own narcissism. Nor has she listened to herself talking so much that she has developed that peculiar kind of third person self-awareness that precludes proper interaction. She's got the sort of human authenticity that an awful lot of arriviste stars have had ironed out of them.
Not only that, she's properly bright. Not in a gratuitous, over-reaching, "I use long words" kind of a way, but is sharp and thoughtful in the way she interrogates her craft, and its significance to our culture and the world. Though this trait, she reckons, with characteristic self-criticism, comes at some cost to her work as an actor.
"I think acting is about having a lack of self-analysis sometimes. The problem that I run into when I'm acting is that I tend to think about things too much. And most of the time, every actor gets the note that they are always given, like every writer or whatever. And my great thing is: Romola, stop thinking about it, just do it!... I think with the best actors, emotion is something that has no kind of check in them."
Still, for better or worse, self-analysis is her default mode. Though by tempering this with humour, she gracefully sidesteps sounding overly earnest or self-referential. "I'm an actor. And like a lot of actors, it's very important that everybody loves you all the time," she says with stagey emphasis, clearly taking the piss out of herself.
None the less, it seems typical of her that she sees being interviewed as an interesting exercise in self-discovery rather than an irritating contractual obligation. "What just becomes really apparent to you is that there is sort of no truth about people," she muses. "Because I can choose to express myself one way. And you can choose to interpret it another way, and then you see it and you think, this is neither my truth nor your truth, it's something in the middle. It's very odd. And in a way I sort of think, if you do interviews and people don't like you, that's interesting as well. Because that's a mirror up to yourself...
"It's not like I love being interviewed or anything like that, but, to a certain extent, you are interacting with the way that people genuinely see you. If you are at the stage in my career, you don't have control over the way that people choose to. So even if people are like, 'She was a loud-mouth bitch,' then at least you are interacting with somebody's conception of what you are really like."
Romola feels deep ambivalence about the sacrifices that glittering success in her chosen field will bring. On the issue of proper fame, with which she now seems to be flirting, she says, "That's not something I could really deal with. People just have to know their limitations and psychologically I couldn't handle something like that. I'd be la la. They'd be carting me off to a mental asylum within two minutes."
Would she go so far as to turn down a big role if she thought it was going to launch her too much into the spotlight and risk curtailing the freedoms she enjoys?
This is, she admits, the million-dollar question. "It's really difficult, because if somebody said to you, 'I could pay off your mortgage, like you would never have to worry about owning your home again', that would be a huge temptation for me. But I've never been in that position. And then you have to think, how much are my principles worth? But to a certain extent, I think I've been lucky, because I've never had to make that choice. And I'm sure that would be a very difficult decision to make.
"And could you ever go back? And would it change you so much, the experience, that you would effectively become a different person and then you wouldn't want to go back? Which in a way I find more scary. That suddenly I'd want that. Would the misery that that kind of self-analysis and scrutiny and all the rest of it entails, would that be worth as much as owning your own home?
"I think about this stuff way too much," she concludes. "Most of the really, really successful actors or actresses I know don't really think about it a huge deal. They go for what they want. They try as best they can to keep a balance in everything. It's not like a kind of deep psychological conundrum that they are constantly battling. Which maybe is why I'm not cut out for that kind of life -- because I tend to ponder and navel-gaze."
Perhaps she's thinking about Keira Knightley who is a firm friend. It has often been mentioned that she's lost out to Keira on several juicy roles. But it's clear that Romola wouldn't swap places for any price. She is, instead, casting around for more self-determined ways of defining herself outside of her acting career, hence, one imagines, the interest in developing writing as a side line, though not, she is adamant, a replacement for her current job. "I wish I was a more adventurous person in a way. But actually, security is a really big deal for me. And I'm not very cut out for acting. People who are really brilliant at acting are sort of free spirits and will just take the work where it goes. And I'm not really like that.
"I love living here. I love my home. I'm very close to my family and my friends. I just have sort of set up my life the way I like it. I go to galleries all the time and I go to theatre. And it's hard to give those things up. So I don't maybe take as many of the opportunities as I should take because I really love my life. And I find it difficult to trade those things."
And when she puts it like that, it's hard not to see her point.