I meet Romola Garai in a velvet-sofaed establishment in central London, which feels radically incongruous. Not because one wouldn’t expect to find an actor of nearly 20 years on such a sofa, but because an hour before, I’d been forcing myself to watch the gory centrepiece moment of her new horror film, Amulet, which marks a dramatic departure into writing and directing.
Amulet lulls you into a fragile sense of security with its arthousey tension, beautiful, subtle performances and lingering shots of decaying wallpaper. When it explodes into body horror – toilets birthing hideous, hairless newborn creatures, a prelude to the worse gestations to come – well, you’d be tempted to cover your eyes if it wasn’t all so horribly compelling.
It is a major shift in subject matter for someone best known for their appearances in period dramas – Atonement, Suffragette, 60s newsroom drama The Hour – but Garai has poured a lot of creativity and self into these scenes. “I’ve always loved horror films,” she says, “they’re a big part of my life. They tend historically to have been made by men. Which isn’t to say that the newborn isn’t a feature of horror made by men, but the baby just arrives: [in] Rosemary’s Baby, Eraserhead, the baby is just handed to you. That’s the male experience, not having grown this creature inside you.” When she embarked on the project, she leaned into the fantasy just to see what would come out, and says in a tone of cool surprise: “I was extremely taken aback, extremely unprepared for the trauma of childbirth. And that’s what was sitting inside me, and crawled out.”
Two things are immediately noticeable about Garai, which have been hinted at since her first major role, in 2003’s I Capture the Castle, a beautiful adaptation of the Dodie Smith coming-of-age novel. First, she seems almost allergic to trivial conversation, and this makes her unusually exhilarating company; second, she’s not at all interested in hiding her thoughts or feelings, which is, again, unusual, at least in the industry she’s in. So maybe I had a surprised look on my face that she misinterpreted – and she was moved to clarify. “Which isn’t to say that there’s a correlation between Amulet and my view on my baby. I don’t think my children are evil. Not all the time.”
Both sides of the maternal hellscape are viscerally and metaphorically rendered; there’s also a powerfully decayed crone, part of, Garai says, “an inelegant history, in horror particularly, for older women to represent ideas of psychological threat. I wanted to do something playful with that.” Inescapably, too, the fear of the crone is the fear of ageing itself, which as an actor “I’m acutely aware of”, she says. “One of the first jobs I ever did, there was a woman playing my mother who was an actress I’d grown up watching on TV. I couldn’t work it out. I was playing the lead and she had two scenes. That’s what you see as you go into the industry – from the very beginning, you’re thinking: ‘That’s going to be me. I’ll get replaced, I’ll become that smaller and smaller part until I literally disappear.’”
A horror film has succeeded when your attempts to describe it come out in bursts of imagery rather than what actually happened. But, for narrative clarity, at the centre of Amulet is a refugee, Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), who has come to London from a shapeless war zone, and at the centre of his story is a war whose horrors we never see and an act of sexual violence we glimpse from as far away as a camera could get. In fact, Garai says, “they were just lying next to each other. Because of the perspective, I didn’t need anyone to perform that act. I just didn’t want to do that to another actor: never mind sexual violence, being paid to portray a sexual act – that line between what is acting and what is sex work – has always been a really big issue for me, very challenging, full of conflict.”
Romola Garai, now 39, was 17 when she got the main part of Cassandra in I Capture the Castle. It was something of a lottery win in terms of breakthrough roles, and she was magnetic in it, really memorable, though she thinks people mainly loved the film because they already loved the book. “Cassandra’s conditioning is that, to become part of womanhood, you fall in love. She’s on the brink of it, and knows that it’s potentially going to destroy part of her true freedom and true identity. These things come at such a cost. I was very much of an age where I was in that conflict myself.”
She had never even really acted before, and the brink she was on wasn’t just child-to-adult but, in social and professional terms, person-to-commodity. “A young woman today would not be as innocent as I think I was, about what it meant to portray other people’s emotions, how commodified your body is as an actor. Not one person takes you aside and says: ‘This will mean that in the public imagination, for the rest of your life, you’re going to partly belong to other people. Do you want that? Do you want to be your body?’ And even if somebody had had that conversation with me, I think I would have been, like: ‘What? But I get to buy loads of stuff!’”
It wasn’t until 2004’s Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights, however, that she had the full studio experience. “A corporation owned my body, owned what went into it. No one had ever asked me to change anything about myself. I’d never really thought of my body that much at all anyway. So it was a tremendous shock.” She pauses for a second. “What a ludicrous film to have had a profound experience of.”
She was much more careful in choosing roles after that, Garai says, although she underlines that judgment can only take you so far: “Every project you go into, you’re jumping into a pool that you don’t know. You may think it’s going to be the most incredible arthouse project of your life, and three months later you’re having somebody psychologically torture you.”
She built up a body of work, characterised by intelligent historicism (2006 William Wilberforce biopic Amazing Grace) or searching, if quite polite, psychological inquiry: Atonement, Kenneth Branagh’s As You Like It. “I did an adaptation of Daniel Deronda early on, these are fantastic roles. Costume drama has a bad rep these days but women tend to have good roles, where you don’t just have to lie sprawled naked on a bed.” But these roles didn’t necessarily represent or encompass her own creative sensibilities. “My tastes are quite dark, my interests are quite dark.”
Garai is on a crusade to get women to watch more horror. “Women do like to be afraid. True crime is almost entirely a female audience. There are amazing female directors working in the genre, and I think the form itself is being affected. Now women just need to start watching it.” More importantly, Amulet marks a transition – “From puppet to puppet master” – that she didn’t realise how much she wanted until she made it. But it’s not a permanent shift away from acting. “I think I’ll be much less of a nightmare for directors now I’ve tried it,” she says. “For years, I thought that acting was a stupid job, and people thought I was stupid for doing it. I hated the perception of actors being morally compromised fools. And I felt quite embarrassed of it. I only understood when I was directing how important actors are, how much they give, and how valuable they are to the process.”
Amulet was released in the US in autumn, and the reception was mixed, a fact I only glancingly bring up because I’ve come to the opinion that everyone needs to watch the film until they love it, or at least can stand to keep their eyes uncovered. But I needn’t have felt so protective.
“I had a lot of success quite early, quite quickly and that is not great for dealing with failure,” Garai says. “You don’t go through the natural path of trying something and not succeeding at it, and having to struggle. People were just like: ‘Would you like a film career?’ And I was like: ‘OK.’ So this has been much more difficult, but I think it’s been very good for me. Worrying about whether people like it, or don’t like it, is the same as worrying about whether they like me or don’t like me. Which is to say … ” She pauses for the right word, and it lands as lightly as a Chinese lantern, “counterproductive.”
Amulet is released in UK cinemas on 28 January.