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Romola Garai interview for C4's new thriller Born to Kill

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You star in Channel 4’s new thriller, Born to Kill. Explain a little bit about the show and who you play.

I guess you’d call it a psychological thriller, of sorts, but it’s not a ‘whodunit?’. It follows a young man, Sam, played by Jack Rowan, who is a very disturbed boy. I play his mum, Jenny, and at the beginning o0f the show, Jack’s psychopathy (if that’s what it is, although it’s not named) starts to progress very severely, and he kills somebody. And we also eventually learn that he is a survivor of domestic abuse, as is his mother. And, at a very formative age, he was witness to his mother being abused by his father, and other stuff, and so there’s a question in the show about whether he is genetically predisposed towards violence, or whether his early childhood traumas have ignited those violent tendencies.

So we’re talking about the nature/nurture debate?

Yes, in an individual and specific, rather than a general clinical way. There is that question about whether he’s been traumatised or whether he’s genetically vulnerable to his impulses.

What attracted you to the role?

I was really interested to play a character who was a survivor of domestic violence. The show had been written in such a way that you learn that she had been very damaged by the violence that she survived, but also that has possibly made her unaware, or not sensitive enough, to violence in other people. She’s maybe become inured to it, and not picked up on the possible warning signs from her son. I think it’s interesting to deal with issues surrounding domestic abuse – there’s something of an epidemic in society, and yet it’s very rarely depicted onscreen.

This is pretty dark stuff – you’re dealing with a serial killer in school uniform…

And he’s the protagonist, that’s the main source of discomfort. Because it’s not told from the perspective of a hero. It’s very difficult to write a show with an anti-hero protagonist, and to do that responsibly. I think it’s a very brave decision, and I think they’ve been very successful in doing that in a way that does not glorify his violence. The victims are very clearly characters, they’re not nameless victims. You see the consequences of his actions, but also where some of his desires come from. I think it’s been very successful in treading a very difficult and complicated line.

And there are moments when you feel quite drawn to Sam, and quite sympathetic towards him.

Yeah. I think that’s something I felt very uncomfortable with when we were making the show. How much were we presenting a violent man who kills as a victim of his desires? I had many in-depth conversations with the director and producers about it, all of which I’m sure they found incredibly boring! But I think it’s important to talk about those things, and to think about what we’re saying, and whether we’re making him a victim. And the truth is, while not the primary victim of the violence he wreaks on people, he is a victim of sorts, in that he is a child, a survivor of abuse, and somebody who, had he been able to access psychiatric help, might have been able to process the feelings that he had. Although actually, psychopathy is a very difficult condition to treat, there is some debate about whether someone with that condition could have been helped. Luckily it’s also a very rare condition.

Did you do much in the way of research for the role? Or was it all there on the page?

I don’t think you can go into jobs like this without doing some proper research. I would feel very uncomfortable doing that. When I met with [director] Bruce [Goodison] to discuss playing the role, he had done a huge amount of research, and had a research bible. He and [writers] Kate [Ashfield] and Tracey [Malone] and Jake [Lushington] the producer had all gone to meet clinical experts in psychopathy. There was a lot of research done. Because Sam’s a child in the show – a child would never be diagnosed with psychopathy, because your personality has not been fully formed yet – so the word is never used in the show, except to say that this is a ‘potential diagnosis’. But there was lots of research done, it was very interesting, a lot of it was quite conflicting and contradictory. But people worked very hard to make sure they were dealing with this subject responsibly. Which isn’t to say it won’t be controversial, but I don’t think people went into it lightly.

You worked very closely with Jack Rowan – what did you make of his performance?

I think it’s extraordinary; really extraordinary. It’s one of the finest pieces of acting I’ve ever seen from someone I’m working with, actually. It’s so hard to play a character who’s that different from the norm, and in no way be signalling that. I think an actor with more experience – and I include myself in this – would have tried to draw attention to the oddness more. And he absolutely never does that. He’s very subtle and sophisticated in the way he empathises with his character, and doesn’t judge him. I was full of admiration for his performance when we were working together, but now even more so, having seen it, and seen the bits of the story I wasn’t involved with. Now, having seen it all together, it’s just really, really magnificent.

Did you find filming some of the scenes with him unnerving?

No, I’m not that kind of actor. I think if you’re asked to do something very, very emotional, and you have to become emotional, that’s hard. But I tend to treat it quite academically. Jack, Bruce and I spoke a lot about the ideas and how to play the story, so we didn’t feel like we were making anything twisted that was going to make people feel uncomfortable. It was talked about a lot. But I think it takes quite a lot of emotional strength to play parts like Jack did and not feel weird and creepy at the end of the day. I suppose he’s a very strong person to be able to play a part like that.

Does it take an emotional toll, filming this sort of thing, or are you able to put it in a box and get on with things?

I think mainly I’m able to put it in a box and get on with things. As I say, there’s a couple of scenes in the show where things between them become very emotional. If you have to do something like that, as far as your body is concerned, physically, your body doesn’t know that something terrible hasn’t happened. You’ve been crying. So you can feel quite strange afterwards, like something really bad has happened, except it hasn’t. But I think the thing I really enjoy about my job is it gives you an outlet for your feelings in a safe and protected environment. So I suppose it’s a positive thing in that sense, rather than a weird or dark negative thing.

How did you enjoy working with Daniel Mays?

Oh, so much! TV’s nicest man – he’s lovely. He’s someone I’ve genuinely really, really admired for a long time, and it was a real treat for me to work with him. And it was a lovely love affair that was depicted in the show. They’re both quite broken, and you see a real potential for love between them, which feels really forlorn. I really liked that love affair.

The show is, in a large part, about estranged and difficult relationships between parents and their kids. As a parent yourself, is that an unnerving role to play?

I don’t think so. My own feeling is I think I could have played a role like this whether I was a mother or not. I think that Danny [Mays]would have done just as good a job if he hadn’t had children. You do so many things when you’re an actor. I’ve never been to 19th Century England, but I’ve acted roles from there. I think your imagination can take you for a lot of places. Whether or not you do a good job can be influenced by a lot of factors, but not whether or not you’ve experienced the thing involved.

Born To Kill launches on Channel 4 this April.

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