Romola Garai often finds the most interesting female roles in period dramas.
Her TV producer character in “The Hour” fights sexism and spies during the Cold War. The prostitute she plays in “The Crimson Petal and the White” finds her power in 1870s London. As the title character in “Emma,” she’s one of Jane Austen’s most beloved heroines of the early 1800s.
Now the Hong Kong-born British actress stars as a 1950s nurse in “Churchill’s Secret.” The “Masterpiece” presentation airs at 8/7c Sept. 11 on PBS. (Check local listings.)
Based on a true incident, “Churchill’s Secret” dramatizes Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s 1953 stroke and how his family and the government dealt with his illness and recuperation.
Garai plays Nurse Millie Appleyard, one of few fictional characters in the story. Millie is summoned to take care of the ailing leader (Michael Gambon) at his country home where she also bonds with Lady Clementine Churchill (Lindsay Duncan).
Garai and I briefly spoke in January at the TV Critics Association winter tour in Pasadena, Calif.
Millie is the only fictional character in this project. Did that change how you approached playing her?
It didn’t really. In a sense even when you’re playing a real person, it’s a fictional character. The writers’ depiction of that person is what you’re going from. Had I been playing a member of the family, I imagine I would have gone through the same process where you take it from the text. If there’s additional research to be done, you do that as well.
Did you make a back story for her?
Yeah, of course. You always just have to have something in case they do extra scenes or in case the director wants you to improvise. You need to have some sense of what you’re going from [building the character].
Women of that time who would have been quite senior to have been nursing the Prime Minister. She probably would have had her career massively sped up by the war. Probably as a result of the war she would have gone to nursing school. She then would have exposure to a lot more injuries during the war than a nurse normally would have. In a period of 10 years, she might have made ward sister.
Stroke care and rehabilitation was at the very early stages. It was not being led by the doctors because they had no way of scanning brains. Nurses were doing the rehabilitation work, which had just started with understanding there was a correlation between getting people to move and speak and them improving. That was all very interesting to me.
When Millie massages his hand, she didn’t really know if that was working to help him?
No, it was anecdotal. People felt it was working and there was an anecdotal kind of correlation between that kind of work and people improving. I think what’s good about Stewart Harcourt’s script is that there’s something nurses, like directors, are good judges of character. They can tell how much the patient is going to will themselves to get better. I think she meets Churchill and she knows he will fight and he will improve exponentially as a result of his personality.
You have acted in projects set in so many different time periods. Do you love that time-traveling part of the job? How do you choose your roles?
It’s a mix of different things. The boring answer is that I work in the UK so it’s a lot of period stuff. … You’re going to spend a lot of your life doing that kind of work. Also I am a passionate reader and I always have been, so I’ve always been particularly excited to do things that are adaptations of novels. … I’ve done a lot of things that have been adaptations of books that I love or by writers that I really admire.
I guess I’m picky, too, and I only want to play interesting female roles. Women get a lot of parts in period pieces as a rule.
Which you wouldn’t think would be the case considering the role of women in past eras.
Yeah, it’s the exact opposite of what you would imagine. I quite regularly have people saying to me, “If you feel very strongly about gender relations in the industry why do you do so many period pieces?” Actually the fact is, there’s much closer 50/50 representation in period pieces. They’re often written by women.There’s a female audience. They’re much more likely to be about women’s psychological, emotional and spiritual growth.
You get that even in a piece like this, which is about Churchill. Something I really responded to in the script is that Stewart had written in a female character, the part that I play. It also focuses on Clementine Churchill, on their marriage, on the daughters. There was a real concern with showing not just the man and politics but also the way that he related to the women in his life and his domestic environment.
Did you have fun working with Lindsey? You guys have great scenes together.
Oh my God, she’s one of my favorite actresses. I found it very difficult because it’s intimidating working with people you admire that much.
Did you find yourself watching her while playing the scenes?
Yes, it was very hard to be in the scenes because I just sort of sat there going, “Oh my gosh, you’re really good.” She was great.