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Playing Emma's a cinch

It's no wonder Romola Garai considers herself a "corset geek". She's something of an expert on them, having appeared in a plethora of period dramas since embarking on an acting career nine years ago, including Daniel Deronda, Nicholas Nickleby and Vanity Fair to name just a few.

"It's become a joke in my own life that I now associate going to work with wearing a corset," says the 27-year-old, laughing.

Romola prefers to remain in her own attire rather than a waist-cinching corset when preparing for a role -- aside from the physical discomfort, she says it's so she can make her heroines accessible to modern audiences.

"So that you feel like it's a character you're creating and not a construct," she reveals when we meet to discuss her title role in the up-coming BBC production of Jane Austen's Emma.

"I think if you can work out who the character is and the world that they're in and you're dressed in your own clothes, then you have a really strong grasp on your character. It's not about assuming a way of dressing or talking, it's about finding the truth of that person."

Looking relaxed in jeans and a T-shirt, Romola appears to be minus any make-up save for a lick of mascara.


She talks in great length about taking on the iconic role of Emma. The fact that she's just completed an Open University degree in English literature has undoubtedly fuelled her passion for literary prose.

Ever since Jane Austen wrote, 'I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like', the character of Emma Woodhouse has suffered some bad press.

Spoilt, meddling and manipulative are just a few of the traits associated with the character, but mention this to Romola and she's quick to jump to Emma's defence.

"I've always found it quite disturbing that Emma is a character that most critics, predominantly the literary canon as controlled by 19th century men, have struggled with," she says with conviction. "For me it's completely obvious why that is and it's nothing to do with her personality, it's because she's rich and because she doesn't have to get married."

Feeling Emma has been "hard done by", she says it actually meant that she could go into the project feeling "like I didn't need to justify this character".

This is the fifth adaptation of the novel. The first was a TV series back in 1960 and then another in 1972. Then came Gwyneth Paltrow's big-screen interpretation in the 1996 film, closely followed by Kate Beckinsale in the title role in a TV series the same year.

Romola is aware she's a woman with an opinion or two and, with a mischievous grin, recalls attempting to tame her views when auditioning.

"I actually had to sit on a lot of what I thought about Emma to allow myself to be properly directed and I had to pretend in the audition that I didn't have lots of ideas that didn't correlate with the director's," she says with a chuckle.


"It's something I've had to learn the hard way -- that you don't always get the job by telling the director in the audition that you have very strong ideas about how it should be played!

So, how does she see Emma? "I suppose one big thing I wanted her to be was joyful. I didn't want her to be kind of thin-lipped," she says. "A lot of those words associated with Emma, in terms of her being manipulative and scheming, kind of imply a sort of snideness and I just wanted to get rid of all that.

"She's actually a bull in a china shop. She goes into every situation completely misjudging every character because she doesn't take the time to do it and that suggested very different things to me physically -- that she was a joyous personality with a big laugh."

Emma begins on BBC1 on Sunday October 4