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Romola Garai Biography


Home > Actresses > G > Garai, Romola > Biography


Birth Name: Romola Garai
Born: 08/06/1982
Birth Place: Hong Kong


Romola Sadie Garai was born on July 1, 1982 in Hong Kong, then a British crown colony. Her given name - a female variation of the Italian Romulus, after one of the mythical founders of Rome - Garai grew up in the Far East, relocating with her family to Singapore when she was five. Of Hungarian-Jewish descent on her father's side, Garai's great-grandfather, Bert Garai, founded the Keystone Press Agency in London in 1924. At the age of eight, Garai was brought to the United Kingdom by her banker father, Adrian, and mother Janet, a journalist. The third of four children, Garai spent the remainder of her childhood in the southeastern county of Wiltshire, England. At the age of 16, she went to live in London with her older, adopted sister Rosie, and enrolled in the City of London's School for Girls. She continued her studies at London University, majoring in English. While performing in a school play, Garai was spotted by a casting director seeking a fresh face to play a young Judi Dench in the ITV teleplay, "Last of the Blonde Bombshells" (2000). In short order, the then 17-year-old landed the job, hired an agent, and began her life as a professional actress.

After appearances on the BBC drama "Attachments" (2000-02) and in the ITV teleplay "Perfect" (2001), Garai made her feature film debut as the beleaguered younger sister of "Nicholas Nickleby" (2002) in Douglas McGrath's adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens novel. That same year, she enjoyed a starring role as the aristocratic Gwendolen Harleth in "Daniel Deronda" (2002), based on the final novel by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). Although the two-part BBC miniseries received mostly negative reviews - with Garai herself singled out for a critical barracking - the Victorian romance solidified the actress' standing as a talent to watch. Garai fared better in her second feature film, "I Capture the Castle" (2003), heading a cast of British and American actors in the whimsical tale of an eccentric but impoverished novelist who moves his family into a tumbledown Suffolk mansion. Seen in limited release outside of the United Kingdom, "I Capture the Castle" won critical kudos in America, where critic Roger Ebert singled out Garai for particular praise.

Garai traveled to Puerto Rico for "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" (2004), a belated follow-up to the 1987 sleeper hit; this time, set in Cuba during the tense days before Fidel Castro's Communist takeover. Based on the Havana childhood of choreographer-executive producer JoAnn Fregalette Jansen, the film attended the social/sexual awakening of Garai's transplanted Midwestern teenager as she becomes the after hours dance partner of hotel waiter Diego Luna. The filmmakers had originally wanted Natalie Portman and singer Ricky Martin in the leads but settled on Garai and Luna despite the fact that neither had any dance experience. Ten weeks of intensive training in San Juan (subbing for Havana) was required to bring Garai and Luna up to speed. Critics were unanimous in their disdain for the sequel, although Roger Ebert again showered praise on Garai that he could not spare for the film itself. The actress was more in her element playing the gentle Amelia Sedley to Reese Witherspoon's ambitious Becky Sharp in Mira Nair's "Vanity Fair" (2004), a brisk but lavish abridgement of William Makepeace Thackeray's 700-page satirical novel.

Next up, Garai scored the title role in the "The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant" (2005), based on the true story of a Cornish peasant convicted of petty theft and exiled to Australia's Botany Bay penal colony in 1787. This coproduction of Great Britain's Granada Television and Australia's Network Ten was the most ambitious and expensive miniseries in the history of Australian television, realized at a budget of $15 million. Garai drew respectful critical notices for her performance as the uneducated but resolute heroine, who engineered a daring ocean escape from the brutal prison, but in the process loses her entire family. In a lighter vein was Garai's cameo in Woody Allen's comic murder mystery "Scoop" (2006), as a helpful friend to Allen's cut rate magician-turned-sleuth and leading lady, Scarlett Johansson. The actress was back in period costume for "Amazing Grace" (2006), playing the wife of 18th Century British social reformer William Wilberforce, who lobbied to bring about an end to the slave trade. For Kenneth Branagh, Garai was Celia in a film adaptation of Shakespeare's "As You Like It" (2006) set in 19th Century Japan.

Early in her career, Garai had twice lost prestigious roles to younger actress Keira Knightley - in Granada Television's three-part miniseries "Dr. Zhivago" (ITV, 2002) and in Joe Wright's adaptation of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" (2005). Despite their unintentional professional rivalry, Garai and Knightley remained friendly and had the chance to appear onscreen together in "Atonement" (2007), Joe Wright's Academy Award-winning adaptation of the 2001 novel by Ian McEwan. In the film, Garai played the older, wiser and contrite Briony Tallis, a once precocious 13-year-old girl (played in her youth by Saoirse Ronan) who wrongly accuses an innocent boy of rape and in doing so, ruins several lives, including that of older sister Knightley (who was initially offered the role of the teenaged Briony but settled for the older Celia). Joining the production later than her co-stars, Garai had to mesh her performance to match that of the younger Saoirse Ronan and also Vanessa Redgrave, who played Briony at the end of her life in the film's bittersweet coda.

After appearing as the embittered daughter of cuckolded software designer Liam Neeson in Richard Eyre's infidelity drama "The Other Man" (2008), Garai was offered a lead role in Stephen Poliakoff's conspiracy thriller "Glorious 39" (2009), set in England at the tail end of the edgy interregnum between world wars. As the plucky daughter of Tory cabinet minister Bill Nighy, Garai shouldered more than her share of the expository heavy lifting as her character sussed out a plot among British aristocrats to help overthrow incoming prime minister Winston Churchill rather than fight a war with Germany that they feel they cannot win. Poliakoff's first theatrical film in over a decade was savaged by the British critics, most of whom retained a kind word for Garai and a supporting cast that included the veteran likes of Julie Christie and Christopher Lee. The actress was back in Jane Austen country that same year, taking the leading role in the four-part BBC miniseries "Emma" (2009), for which she received a 2010 Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Miniseries or television movie. Following feature supporting roles in the romantic comedy "One Day" (2011) and the period musical "Killing Bono" (2011), Garai delivered a strong performance as a television news producer on "The Hour" (BBC, 2011), a British spy thriller set in 1950s London that focused on a love triangle between TV anchormen. The role earned the actress a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a miniseries or television movie.