If they shared the same fictional TV world, The Hour’s Bel Rowley would have become executive producer of a BBC news magazine in 1957, a few years before Mad Men’s Peggy Olson took a secretary job at Sterling Cooper. But Romola Garai says Bel is the brilliant fantasy of Abi Morgan’s sexy period drama, equal parts Broadcast News and The Philadelphia Story, in which her character runs ably alongside the men. Garai, whose recent credits include the miniseries The Crimson Petal and White and the film adaptation of David Nicholls’s One Day, rang Vulture from London this week to talk about where we pick up in season two (premiering today at 9 EST on BBC America) and why the actress thinks Bel wound up less loud and demanding than she could have been.
How have things changed for Bel since the end of season one?
Eight months have gone by and there’s been a pretty seismic shift in her life because she’s been running the show without Freddie. He was the creative in their partnership. She’s running the show very confidently in his absence, but some of the spark has gone out of the reporting. She does need him. They come very much as a team and his absence is really felt.
Right, it’s not that anyone is questioning her ability —
But there’s no question that a woman of my age — I am 30 — would be doing that job. And there’s no problem with that, The Hour is a drama after all. And I do think Abi quite deliberately made Anna Chancellor’s character Lix an important part of the dynamic so there was a representation of a woman working in the office who was more age-appropriate. The problem is that with shows like ours we’re essentially having a dialogue about contemporary politics. [Producers] want Bel to be a woman in her thirties because that’s a character that viewers are going to link in with, even if it’s not absolutely accurate of the period.
Is that something Abi has ever discussed with you?
Not really. Given I was cast in it, it was always pretty obvious that there was going to be some complexity around Bel’s age. She’s running an editorial news department in 1957, and when I got this job, I was 28. It doesn’t totally fit. But the sexism exists. She’s not in a dream world either.
People can be incredibly picky about their nostalgia. I saw Abi even answered complaints about the show’s dialogue being too modern at times in season one.
Yeah, and I sort of feel like there are people whose great joy in life is discovering an accident in a TV show and having the opportunity to point it out. Why deny them the great pleasure of saying, “I know for a fact that Put ‘em up wasn’t a phrase until 1975!” Why would we want to take that away from them?
You worked with January Jones and John Slattery on 2004’s Dirty Dancing 2, which was also a period piece set in the late fifties.
Absolutely I remember working with them! They were both amazing actors to work with. When Mad Men came out, I thought it was a strange coincidence that had both been cast in Dirty Dancing 2, which is set in 1958, and then this show set in 1960. Then I got cast in a show in 1957! We’re all very castable for that time period [laughs]. Of course, I’ve been in so many period pieces that getting cast in the twentieth century is like an enormous leap for me. I remember watching the first seasons of Mad Men going, My God, this is really weird. I’ve worked with both those actors and they’re still wearing really similar costumes. I haven’t really run into them since. I rarely get out to the states.
Getting back to Freddie … we find out pretty quickly that he’s been traveling abroad but hasn’t kept in touch even though at the end of last season, it looked like Bel was maybe ready to acknowledge her feelings for him.
Freddie is obviously the man that deep down she really loves. Whether or not they’re meant to be together or whether or not she will allow herself to be with him, that’s the relationship she gets the most out of intellectually and emotionally. The relationship she had with Hector was never going to fulfill her. Having said that, I really like that Abi’s written that Hector and Bel go on to have this really fond, affectionate, successful working relationship having been lovers before. You don’t see very often, people ending a relationship but it sort of going on much as it did before, and that’s interesting.
While you were promoting the show over the summer, you teased that Bel would be very angry and doing a lot of yelling this season. That’s not the case two episodes in —
Yeah, I think they edited those takes out [laughs]. They normally make you do things a number of different ways, and I was quite enjoying being domineering but it doesn’t seem to have made it to the screen. I don’t know why. I thought Bel would appear much more dominant in her job, but I think that probably the directors are wary of having her be too alienating as a character by having her going around yelling at people. I think it’s a very appealing quality but nobody else seems to.
Would you say this season will be darker than last? In the first two episodes, Hector becomes embroiled in a sex scandal this year, and Freddie’s pursues a controversial piece about race and immigration.
There was definitely a conscious effort to concentrate more on domestic rather than international politics. The Suez crisis, as fascinating as that period of history was, that was very much the story of the end of Britain’s empire. This year, it’s about Britain’s internal politics and police corruption and gang land underworld, and it’s all more intertwined in the character’s personal lives. It is darker because of that I’d say.
You’ve said you wanted to be a journalist before you became an actress. Has this job fulfilled any of that earlier ambition?
We all just love walking around an office and pretending to pick up phones and slam down paperwork and pull our glasses on and off in important ways, which is basically what we think journalists do and how they behave. There’s not so many shots of us, you know, filing stories. So this fulfills my desire to be a pretend journalist.