Interview: Romola Garai

Romola Garai is an acclaimed actor, writer and director, twice nominated for Golden Globe awards and BIFA awards. ‘Scrubber’, which she wrote, directed and produced, was released as part of Soda Pictures’ New British Cinema Quarterly in 2012. Since her breakout film role in I Capture the Castle (2003), she has appeared in – among others – Vanity Fair (2005), Angel (2007), Atonement (2007), and One Day (2011). Her television roles include  The Crimson Petal and the White (2011), and glass ceiling-shattering television producer Bel Rowley in The Hour (2011-12). Her most recent film is the forthcoming Suffragette (2015), and she appears in Measure for Measure at the Young Vic this summer.

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Money aside, theatre is much more conducive to a positive child-rearing experience than film or television… I took my baby to work in the theatre in a sling when she was months old and in general people were supportive and understanding.

 

You’ve worked in film, television, and theatre as an actor, and directed a short film. Do you think that one mode (or role) is more friendly to being an actor with a family than another?

Television and film are extremely difficult careers for parents of young children to progress in for a number of reasons, not least because of the huge length of production hours. A normal production day is 11 hours but with prep time that usually extends to 14, 15 or even 16 hours. It can mean a 4 or 5am call for transport, production, locations, hair and make-up and actors etc and overtime is a matter of course. So, obviously, nursery care is out as no nursery could accommodate those hours. In order to afford full time childcare you obviously have to be earning over a certain wage which no one but the top tiny percentage of people in the industry earn. Apart from which not many parents I know are comfortable doing those kinds of hours and being away from their children for that length of time during the early years. Of course as actors you might not be in every day but ‘nominated days’ (where the production can only use you on specific pre-arranged days) is contractually unusual as production companies are unwilling to limit their options in terms of changing the schedule and as a result it is impossible to book childcare in advance as you might be told at 9pm in the evening that you’re going to work the next day. You can, and I have sometimes, arranged to bring your child with you to set but film sets are not really child-friendly environments.

Theatre, on the contrary, is much more predictable in terms of hours. The rehearsal day is a normal business day (with usually the later start of 10am until 6pm) and then once you’re open, you work in the evenings or matinees but you can easily work out your schedule in advance. The flip side of that is that, with the exception of West End, you usually earn very little. I have found, money aside, that theatre is much more conducive to a positive child-rearing experience than film or television and I know so many women whose careers in film and TV have been seriously negatively affected by having children. I took my baby to work in the theatre in a sling when she was months old and in general people were supportive and understanding. However, if your focus is film and or television and not theatre then having full time childcare, one partner at home or at least working in an industry with normal business hours or a very committed relative is pretty much essential.

 

You have been excellently outspoken about gender politics in the British cultural and creative industries. Was motherhood the prompt for you to become outspoken?

I have always been extremely passionate about issues surrounding gender politics and the policed conformity of gender since as far back as I can remember. Like anyone who feels that their true self is not represented by the gender expectations of their society, I have always felt that there was something inherently wrong with the way men and women are viewed as having universal traits dictated solely by their sex. I think it is obvious that to demand that men and women squeeze themselves into these gender prisons is psychologically traumatic and unhelpfully limiting in terms of building a happy, productive society.

In terms of talking publicly about these issues, I was definitely talking about sexism in the industry in interviews before I became a mother and I think it was more that becoming older emboldened me and I cared less about how I was perceived in interviews and whether or not my career was negatively affected by criticizing the industry I work in. Having said that I think that becoming a parent obviously makes you particularly concerned for the needs of children and the effect that the media’s entrenched misogyny has on girls and boys. And, particularly, how the insistence on heteronormative gender behaviour and appearance pervades.

 

Becoming a parent obviously makes you particularly concerned for the needs of children and the effect that the media’s entrenched misogyny has on girls and boys.

 

How do you think that parenthood interconnects with gender issues in British film and television?

I think that the deeply family-unfriendly working conditions of the film industry has the particular effect of sidelining the careers of women and as a result we are in the position we are in where women are terrifically under-represented in all but a few roles in film and television.

 

With Suffragette, was there a difference working with a largely female cast and crew? Did you share stories with each other?

It was great to be working with such amazing committed female creatives and to see the lives of women who died fighting for equality foregrounded. But even Suffragette, with its female producers and writer and director was not a majority female crew. No film I’ve ever worked on has had anything like gender parity in its crew although I do think this is changing and the routine sexism of film sets is, thank god, becoming rarer in my experience.

I have had the great good fortune of working with a disproportionately large number of female directors such as Mira Nair, Lone Scherfig, Tinge Krishnan, Sandra Goldbacher, Catherine Moorshead, and Sarah Gavron on Suffragette. So Suffragette is not alone in my experience of being a project directed by a women. I’ve had many conversations with directors over the years about how they managed to forge ahead with their careers whilst simultaneously raising children. With female directors, as with all women, there’s a huge variety of tactics. But I don’t ever remember someone saying that it hadn’t had a profound effect on their career.

Sarah Gavron for example told me she only worked on projects where she could travel with her family for a number of years. Travel, and the demands of long periods away from home, is another major issue for parents in the film and television industry. A great friend of mine, a wonderful costume designer with children and working as a single parent, has routinely had to take jobs abroad and leave her kids at home as they are in school, which is a hugely stressful situation for a family to deal with. And many actresses I know are forced to take jobs abroad because of need, and then have their travel dates shifted around a great deal which makes maintaining childcare almost impossible.

 

It is producers, as holders of the purse strings, far more than directors who truly impact the working conditions of parents in the industry. And women are well represented as producers

 

Did the production company offer any kind of childcare?

I’ve never heard of childcare as a cost budgeted by production for the whole crew to utilize. But what I would also say is that it is producers, as holders of the purse strings, far more than directors who truly impact the working conditions of parents in the industry. And women are well represented as producers (even if they are still disproportionately reporting to male executives) so I don’t think that it is necessarily a lack of female perspective that has resulted in the poor opportunities for parents working in film and television. It is simply an industry that traditionally has had a very antiquated attitude in favor of long strenuous working conditions and these things are hard to shift. As long as their is no legal imperative to provide for working parents, production companies will most likely not choose to make financial allowances for childcare or go out of their way to support the parents working for them in terms of flexible or reduced hours.

I also think it is worth stating that in my experience there is no gender split in terms of female producers being more supportive and male producers being less so of working parents. Whilst in no way am I saying that this is universally representative, I have known hugely sensitive men and women producers who care passionately about the health and wellbeing and happiness of their employees and men and women producers who cared about bottom dollar, returns and results and nothing else. It’s more about changing attitudes across the board towards working parents than just assuming that projects which are led by women will, de facto, improve conditions.

 

Do you have plans to direct more films after making your first short ‘Scrubber’?

I would love to direct more! I’ve been writing my first feature for the last couple of years and I’m hoping to move into directing some time in the next few years. I actually wrote and directed ‘Scrubber’ before I had my daughter and I think there is no way I would have had the mental, physical or financial resources to write, direct and produce my first short whilst looking after her. When I hopefully get off the ground with my feature… I definitely won’t be producing!

 

Becoming a mother was an incredibly inspiring and creatively energising thing as you have a whole new well of emotion to draw on.

 

When you set about combining family life and filmmaking, did you feel that you had any role models?

I’m lucky and have always been employed by powerful directors and writers who have combined being committed parents with directing, so I was in the fortunate position of being unaware for a long time of how difficult it is. Now, I wish I’d understood how hard it is and wished they’d complained a bit more!

But I also think that if you close off your emotional life and give yourself over totally to ambition that it shows on the screen, in the type of films you want to make and in the way you make them. So often my best directors, the most supportive, collaborative, creatively adventurous and open have been people who commit to their personal lives as greatly as their professional lives, not just as parents but as well-rounded human beings. As for a lot of actors, for me becoming a mother was an incredibly inspiring and creatively energising thing as you have a whole new well of emotion to draw on and I think the directors I’ve loved the most are directors who truly understand and aren’t afraid of emotion and the truth of life.

 

What effect do festivals and press junkets have for you as a parent? What could the film industry do to make things more practicable/possible?

‘Scrubber’ did the festival circuit, and I was pregnant and then had a new baby throughout. It was a shame I couldn’t travel more and go and support the film at festivals. Even if I had had her later, I still think it would have been a difficult and strenuous thing to have traveled extensively with her to festivals. I think that festivals could and should be welcoming working parents and making concerted efforts to welcome filmmakers with children by providing childcare for those they invite and by allowing parents to bring their kids with them to screenings if they so wish. My friend told me about attending a very inspiring screening and Q and A with the absolutely brilliant Sarah Polley where she had her baby in a sling throughout. Hero. However, I think the real emphasis on this issue should be concentrating on the working conditions of parents who work in all the departments than acting or directing, those who might not attend festivals perhaps but who have to be on set at the crack of dawn and are expected to work unbelievably long hours without support from production.

 

My friend told me about attending a very inspiring screening and Q and A with the absolutely brilliant Sarah Polley where she had her baby in a sling throughout. Hero.

 

Do you think that it will change cinema if more parents and carers are able to participate fully and tell their stories?

Absolutely. I think that if the demographic of film sets were changed then the directors, writers, executives and actors who advanced through that would subsequently choose to tell different stories and that would have a dramatically positive effect on our society. For example, as we enter blockbuster season, the paradigm in which white males save the world from some interchangeable foreign threat is absolutely a force which contributes to misogyny in our world, and a shift in this paradigm could come through new generations of filmmakers with different expectations of gender on screen.

 

And finally: where are you heading next?

My next project is in the theatre, Measure for Measure at the Young Vic. I’m very lucky in that my family help out a great deal in helping with childcare. And if something falls through the cracks my daughter can always come with me and watch me shouting at people in a nun’s habit… now that’s a lifetime of therapy right there!

 

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