Romola Garai was 17, standing in her underwear while a female producer pointed at her thighs and told her: “This isn’t good enough.” She was weighed in and out every day, with a dietician flown to Puerto Rico to make sure she stayed underweight. It was her first Hollywood studio film, a sequel to Dirty Dancing, and it would prove to be her last. “It screwed me up for years. Not only did it completely change how I felt about my body, but I felt like I’d failed because I hadn’t fought back. I felt complicit, because I didn’t say no. I signed off on Photoshopped images and felt terrible for perpetrating this… lie.”
Garai, 34 now, with a busy head-girlishness that makes it difficult to imagine her ever holding her tongue, bites into a baguette with a dark chuckle. “Someone said the only thing that was convincing in the whole film was the look of pure misery in my eyes.” But today she’s thankful for the experience, sort of. “It was my feminist epiphany.”
Garai was born in Hong Kong, the third of four children, and her family moved to Singapore before settling in Wiltshire when she was eight. She gave up university to take the lead in I Capture the Castle, the film of the Dodie Smith book about 1930s girls on the cusp of womanhood. And then came Dirty Dancing 2. “It was a cesspit of horrific misogyny,” she says cheerily. We’re sitting in a slice of sunlight, on a sofa that doesn’t let you slouch.
“I did a bit of modelling when I was a teenager and, even then, nobody asked me to lose weight. It’s different with film, because it’s not about weight, it’s about control. It’s an industry with a clear agenda of ensuring women’s relationships with their reflection on screen make them feel inadequate. I never went back to Hollywood again.” Instead, she went back to university, to work out whether this was a life for her.
It was with period drama that she found serious success in Atonement, The Hour and then Suffragette, a film so suited to her interests that she almost bit through her wine glass when her agent told her the pitch.
Since making the decision to try acting again, Garai has carried her feminism through her work like a banner. She isn’t just a “watched Girls once” kind of feminist, she’s a proper “We’re at the end of one of the biggest overhauls in social care this country has seen that has massively disproportionately affected women” feminist. In 2013 she led a campaign for Tesco to “Lose the Lads Mags”, not long after presenting a Bafta with a joke about the 23 stitches in her vagina following the birth of her first child. Her second child with her husband, the actor Sam Hoare, is eight months old, and she campaigns now for Parents in the Performing Arts, against discriminatory working practices towards parents.
“The liberal industries are seen as so lefty,” she says, “but that masks the unbelievable backwardness of our employment practices – it’s terrible for carers and parents. I recently asked for a four-day week for the first time and I was laughed at.”
And though it’s unlikely she’d be told to lose weight at work today, she still deals with producers who ask her to change. “I’ve had sporadic acne in my life and have extraordinary conversations with them about how I can’t have spots on screen, telling me about the drugs I should take. There’s this idea that in order to propagate visions women aspire to, you have to make other women feel bad.16.04.2017