Popular on LondonNet

Interview with Romola Ramai

How did you meet François Ozon, and what were your first impressions?
I met him at the audition for the role and I was extremely nervous, because I’m a genuine fan of his. Sometimes you read a script and you understand the character straight away, instinctively. I didn’t intellectualize it. And François didn’t guide me much. It seemed my idea of who Angel was corresponded to his idea. Later my agent told me François thought I was very good but not glamorous enough, so I tidied myself up a bit and went back a second time. I guess he didn’t like my cardigan!

Tell us about your screen tests.
I met François twice on my own, then with two different Noras, then with two potential male leads. So I had six auditions in the end, and I felt every time that I was being auditioned again. If I had been really bad in any of them, François would have gone back to the drawing board. I wasn’t sure till very late in the day that I had the part. I couldn’t believe François would cast someone with essentially no profile in the film world to play the lead role in his first English language film.

What did you think of the script?
I thought it was extraordinary, but very bizarre. I didn’t know what to make of it at first. It’s the kind of film that is very difficult to understand on the page. When you watch the finished film, you see that it is quite tongue in cheek and it works totally on two different levels. You have to be in on the filmmaker’s joke. And it is the filmmaker’s joke, not the characters’, as they have no perspective on the lives they’re leading. On the page that was quite difficult to grasp. But I had total faith in François’ innate talent. And I knew he was a great director of actors.

Did it feel like something written in a second language?
No, and that’s interesting. Though the book is English, when I read it I didn’t find it particularly English. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that the book was much more successful in France than it was in England. And it’s not a novel that relies heavily on language. The author doesn’t take great delight in description or vocabulary. Angel is about an extraordinary character, and novels about character translate quite well into film. Look at Dickens.

Were you familiar with the novelist Marie Corelli who was Elizabeth Taylor’s inspiration for the character of Angel?
I tried to read one of her novels but it was hard going. Bizarre books. Basic romance stories, but with a heavy moral element. The union of the male and female characters is all about moral improvement. Corelli talks at tedious length about what today would be perceived as conservative and simplistic moral issues, but she was also talking about passion and love. She herself was a very strange woman. She was barking mad. She lived her entire life with another woman. I don’t know if they were lesbians. She was fiercely opposed to woman’s lib and spoke and wrote at length about it, with the backing of Queen Victoria. She saw women as the moral bastions of the country and felt that if women tried to enter the male sphere they would be morally devalued.

Were there things about the character Angel which you related to or relished performing?
Yes. I relished many of her characteristics that are deeply unpleasant. Young actresses are rarely offered parts that are as complex as this one. You tend to get offered romantic leads, which by definition must be saintly characters, and Angel is not a saint. She’s unpleasant most of the time, an egotist. But she is also brilliant, and she illustrates the plight of women who try to channel their creativity into something. Had Angel chosen to pour her intellect into something that could have won her critical acclaim, she would have failed. She was a woman born into a lower middle class family, who would never have got a university education, so she did the only thing that she could – she became popularly successful. I think she had talent but it was wrongly channeled, and that really moved me. It touched a nerve about the challenges of trying to win critical approval as a woman.

Were you apprehensive about the more grotesque aspects of the character?
I was, but I also loved those aspects because they are so much a part of her. I would have these brilliant conversations with Francois, I would say “maybe this is too much” and he would respond that it was part of a whole and reassure me. I was scared but I loved it, it was so much fun. It was rather like pantomime at times – playing a character who slips into the grotesque is fun. And yet Angel remains complex too, so as an actor I got to explore both.

Were you and Francois in tandem in your appreciation of Angel?
Francois and I both loved the character but I don’t know that we loved the same things. We’d have dinner together and I would go on about the class system and I could see his eyes glaze over. I had a political and literary interest in the film, whereas I think he liked the playfulness of the genre, and the possibility of reacting characters who are at once horrific and appealing.

How did you prepare for the role?
I read the novel and also some of Elizabeth Taylor’s other work to get a sense of where she was coming from. But that wasn’t hugely helpful as Angel is nothing like her other books. She usually writes about class, like Jane Austen, but Angel is different, it’s darker and more perverse. I took a lot of notes from Francois himself, because I knew the film would never work unless I did exactly what I was told. I followed his direction and I also worked a lot on voice, because I was playing a character who goes from 16 to 35 and he didn’t want to use any special make-up. So I concentrated on voice and movement for the end of the film.

Did the costumes inspire you?
Pascaline and François had already done the costumes before I was cast and they were utterly extraordinary. I saw racks and racks of clothes and asked if they were all for the film. Pascaline said they were just for me! I had some thirty dresses, handmade shoes, gloves. I have never had so many clothes in my life, and they were magnificent. Francois would come in and start throwing bits of fabric over me. He was very involved in every aspect of the film. I have never felt so like a canvas. For him a huge part of the film was visual and I just had to stand there like a china doll and watch as he got this glint in his eye and literally created Angel.

Do you and Angel have anything in common?
Angel delights in the fact that people don’t like her and find her bizarre. She wants to be liked and she wants to be taken seriously as an artist, but she also wants to be extraordinary and for that she is prepared to be disliked. She wants to be the center of attention, and as an actress I share that desire with her, I like drawing attention. To that end, it can be more rewarding and interesting to play an ambiguous character.

What did François see in Angel?
I was fascinated to see how much he had invested in her and how much he loved her. He didn’t want her to be too likeable yet he defended her all the time. Maybe it is simply because Francois loves actresses and Angel is an actress. His films are a testament to his love affair with extraordinarily brilliant actresses, and characters who are faced with desperate plights. He is deeply interested in their lives, their struggles with personal demons, their desire to be loved and noticed. And also their inability to understand who they really are, their tendency to play different roles in order to meet other peoples’ expectations. I think that is the key to his fascination and sympathy for Angel.

Does he have sympathy for her as an artist, or for her plight as an artist?
I asked Francois whether he thought Angel was a great writer, a talented woman whose tragedy was the fact that she was a woman. He said she’s a great writer who, through lack of education and lack of perspective on herself, ends up being a bad artist. For a director, as for any other artist, the idea that you might turn out to be bad is a frightening prospect. Angel incarnates that nightmare. She thinks she’s good but she’s terrible. She fills her life with people who say she’s wonderful, and yet everyone knows she’s not. And that is horrific.

Was it hard to play this character?
Playing a character who is a bit crazy, with heightened emotions that are always spilling over, is not easy. I did nothing but work. I would just work and come home and do nothing else and see no one. I suppose I went a bit mad myself. I think when Francois cast me he thought he was casting a pretty laidback person. A month later I’m sure he thought I was the most highly strung person he had ever worked with!

Interview by Claire Vassé.