Legacy’s Romola Garai: “I’d make a terrible spy – I’m really indiscreet and incredibly stupid”

The Hour actress on the joys of playing an empowered woman in the sexist world of the seventies and why her driving terrified co-star Charlie Cox

It’s not often we see 1970s espionage thrillers with a powerful, career-driven woman at their core. The cast of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is brimming with British acting talent but lacking any leading female parts, while seventies incarnations of James Bond always featured a leggy lady on his arm, but rarely was she instrumental in saving the day.

Advertisement

Legacy is different. With Romola Garai’s character Anna we have an empowered female working within the heart of MI6. She’s the predecessor to a certain 21st-century, balancing her nuclear family with a career where her intelligence and guile more than matches that of her husband. She reads her enemies and keeps her cool.

Garai is cherishing the chance to play this exception to the male-dominated world of 1970s MI6 that The Politician’s Wife screenwriter Paula Milne has created. Anna is the wise sidekick to trainee spy Charles Thoroughgood (Charlie Cox) who is instructed to make contact with old acquaintance-turned-Russian-spy Victor (Andrew Scott) and ‘turn’ him.

We caught up with Romola on the set of Legacy – dressed head-to-toe in fabulous seventies attire – to hear all about learning the clandestine world of intelligence, re-enacting high-speed car chases and why she’d make a terrible spy.

What can you tell us about your character and the part she plays in Legacy?

My character is Anna – we know she works for the agency and she’s more experienced than Charlie’s character in terms of training. Her cover is that she’s a mother, a housewife, but she’s still doing missions and she’s married to another agent. As the story progresses you see their marriage is in a terrible way and although she’s supposed to be working on this mission, there’s a love story that begins to happen with Charles.

How does she fare in the testosterone-fuelled world of 1970s intelligence? Is she a tough cookie?

I wouldn’t say she was, actually. She’s quite an interesting character because she’s living this double life and you get the impression that the home they live in is very well-tended, she’s got these beautiful children and she’s quite glamorous. She obviously has a history working as an agent but they wouldn’t have put women in the dangerous situations at that time. There were women being used in the field but not on high risk missions and so she would have had a history of talking to diplomats, trying to get information out of people.

How have things changed for women in the forty years since? 

The spy we met and talked to for a day said a lot of the time women were being kept out of the field and now they’re very much more popular. It’s almost fifty percent now at MI5 – male and female – because one of the main skills they need people to have is emotional intelligence – you have to be able to look at people, read them well and really listen to what they’re saying and pay attention to the detail of their conversation. It’s not really running around with guns, it’s about knowing people and understanding them and being able to read them. Women are obviously good at that and find that an attractive thing in their jobs so that’s more what my character’s strengths are and what she’s doing in the piece.

Do we get a sense of 1970s sexism?

No. It’s not really referred to at all – in a way I feel like that’s a preferable thing because rather than it being constantly acknowledged how incredibly unusual it is for a woman to be talking and walking and writing things down, it’s taken as an absolute fact that she’s experienced, good at her job and that she’s senior and it’s never really made any reference to. Pete [Travis, the director] has a great history in his shows of writing and directing incredibly good actresses in fantastic roles and you feel very safe working with directors like him, that your character’s not going to be an odd mish-mash of prejudices. Yes, of course she can be incredibly sexy and a good mother and a brilliant spy – those things aren’t mutually exclusive in some way. I’m sure there would have been periods in history where she would have been two characters – there would have been the wife at home with the children and then another woman as the spy. Now there’s a real tendency to be able to have the complexity in one character and that’s much, much more appealing.

Would you make a good spy in real life?

No! It’s absolutely hilarious that I would be cast in a role like this. I’m really indiscreet and incredibly stupid and I can’t understand the plot of anything – even this script I was reading, saying, “I don’t understand”. I spend my whole life pretending so the idea of doing something where you’d have to pretend all the time is not appealing to me. We do enough made up stuff anyway.

Did you get stuck into any action scenes?

I’m in a car chase. I had to drive a really beautiful little 1970s Morris around the streets at 3am. I’m a terrible driver – Charlie was in the front seat going “Oh my god, I’m going to die. Romola’s going to kill me driving this f**king car into a wall.” And I had to look really slick and do all this dialogue and he was saying, “I’ll do the gears, I’ll do the gears”. It was funny afterwards whereas at the time I think he thought this might be it.

You had a training day with a former spy before filming – what else did you learn about the profession? 

It’s very political. You can spend 25 years following Russians and then overnight they’re not your enemy anymore and that’s very difficult for people. He talked a lot about how you have to make personal calls about things – you would be told to get information out of somebody and use any means necessary and then it is basically down to the individual agent how that is interpreted.

Advertisement

Don’t miss Romola in Legacy – tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2