Photograph: Hege Saebjornsen for the Observer

Ker-flunk, ker-flunk. Romola Garai thumps across the wooden floor of the photography studio with the grace of a flat-footed Cyberman. She seems unable to control her shoes – a pair of Christian Louboutin platform heels. She looks so elegantly beautiful from the ankle up that her clod-hopping progress is particularly amusing. In the end the photographer comments.

“Yeah,” says Garai and stares dispassionately at her feet. “I can’t really do shoes.”

Garai, it transpires, has very firm ideas about what she does and doesn’t do; the way life should be lived, what’s important and what she can really do without, thank you very much. This attitude would be admirable in any 28-year-old, but it is particularly interesting in an actor – a profession synonymous with insecurity.

“Acting is a strange job because your control is very limited,” says Garai, cheerfully. “Unless you’re at peace with that you’re going to be unhappy. I think it’s harder for men to accept they’re just a tool, they’re not the generator of art. I don’t struggle with it. I feel happy and lucky. In fact I honestly can’t think of actresses who are my direct peers whose careers I want. This year I’ve got amazing roles in things I really believe in. I mean, what more could you want?”

Though Garai is perhaps best known for her roles in period dramas such as Atonement, I Capture the Castle and the 2009 TV series of Jane Austen’s Emma, her upcoming projects are juicy and diverse. First up is the four-part BBC adaptation of the much-loved Michel Faber book The Crimson Petal and The White. Garai plays Sugar, a Victorian prostitute who becomes a wealthy man’s mistress and is eventually introduced into his suburban household.

“I read a lot, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a character so absolutely conjured as Sugar,” says Garai. “I wanted to portray her to the best of my ability and very respectfully. She is so complex, full of paradox. She is also very damaged.”

The Crimson Petal director Marc Munden – whose work includes The Devil’s Whore and The Mark of Cain – says that Sugar’s opaqueness would have made it difficult for audiences to engage with her if weren’t for Garai’s skill as an actress. “Romola has such intelligence and lively thought going on behind her eyes that she keeps us compelled and seduced, despite Sugar giving little away. She is a great technical actress who also understood instinctively Sugar’s guile, her status, her damage.”

Playwright Lucinda Coxon adapted the book for the small screen, which pleased Garai. “There’s a lot of sex and nudity involved so it was important for me to know that the person making the piece was going to talk about prostitution in a serious and responsible way, because that doesn’t often happen.”

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