It's been a huge year for Welsh actress Alexandra Roach, having already appeared in both The Iron Lady and Anna Karenina, and now she returns to cinema, back to somewhat of a more low-budget and modest production, in Pat O'Connor's Private Peaceful.
Out in cinemas this coming Friday – October 12 – The Fan Carpet's Stefan Pape was fortunate enough to spend some time with the rising star, to discuss her role in the affecting World War One drama, based on Michael Morpurgo's novel, as she takes on the role of Molly – the subject of brothers Tommo (George MacKay) and Charlie's (Jack O'Connell) affections.
Roach discusses her whirlwind year, as well her joy in working alongside more established, experience British actors, such as Richard Griffiths and her former college mentor Maxine Peake. She also tells us of her delight at working with O'Connor and her surprise at how different the film appears to what she had initially envisaged it to be...
It's been somewhat of a big year for you – what with The Iron Lady, Anna Karenina and now this – do you ever have to pinch yourself?
Yeah I've been really lucky. I went to RADA and they always tell you that you're going to be unemployed for most of your life, so I left with that feeling and it hasn't been like that, I've been so lucky. I've just had to put my head down and keep working and playing different characters, from Thatcher to Molly in this – just variations. I'm having a wicked time. I don't pinch myself, I'm just trying to enjoy it.
As for Private Peaceful, have you read the book at any point?
Yeah as soon as I got sent the script and it said it was based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo I went to my local children's book shop and bought it there. When I was buying it the lady behind the counter was like “Um, you do know that there is some adult content in this book.” And I was like, “I'm 24 thank you very much”, but yeah I did read it, and it's such a beautiful story and it educated me too. When you see the film and how young these boys are going off to war, I just really wanted to be a part of it, and Molly is such a sweet, innocent girl in the middle. She just loves these boys in different ways so much and yeah I really wanted to be a part of it, and I was so chuffed when I got the call.
So how much of yourself did you try and bring to the role?
What's great about playing a character from a book is that you have all of Michael's imagination and input and you take that as gospel and you have to leave that there and then use your imagination to fill it, and I guess Molly is closer to me than Margaret Thatcher is, I tried to just not overcomplicate her really, she is just a good, sweet girl, and sometimes that is quite hard to play – as it's so fun to play the evil role, or a zombie or something, but with her she is just so supportive of the boys and so loving and giving, it was just nice playing someone like that.
Did you find that you didn't have to do too much research because in the film Molly is quite unaware of what is going on...
Yeah, exactly. I didn't do any research about the war because I thought well Molly wouldn't know what was happening or what was going on over there, so it was best to be naïve to it. That's what shocked me when I watched it. We filmed all of my work consecutively and then I left the group and went off and the boys then went and filmed this war film, and I was like “yeah alright lads, cya later” so I just went home and when I watched it I just sobbed because they have just done it so well, I don't know how they managed to on this budget, like, just the trenches, and stuff. It really got to me.
So were you quite surprised at how dramatically the film shifts in tone once the war kicks in?
Yeah it's like a completely different film to watch. I was filming this sweet country film, about a girl falling for a boy and that sort of thing, and then all of a sudden there's this massive war film going on and it looks fantastic. The camera shots they use, I honestly don't know how they did it on that budget. Pat has done a fantastic job. We had a guy called Taff teach all of the boys how to use guns and everything and the military way, and they had all of these extras in who slept there for like three months. That's what they do, that's their job – they just go around camping on set and then they are used in films, they love it. They're war fanatics. But it just looks so real because you aren't using dodgy extras who don't know how to use a gun – these men love it and know what they're doing and stuff so you totally buy into it.
Despite such serious themes being portrayed, was it quite fun to do the whole period piece?
Yeah, you know I'm never cast as like the young girl who falls for a guy, so to have long hair and put on a corset and long dress and be on a bike with Jack and be all laughing and going down a hill - I'd never done anything like that and it was really sweet and lovely and we all really got on. They put us in this hotel in Ipswich, miles from anyone, all of us cast – so me and all the boys, and we just became really good friends. It's one of those jobs that I will look back on really fondly.
There are some brilliant cast members on board – the likes of Richard Griffiths and Frances De La Tour – how helpful is it having such esteemed actors around on set?
It made it really relaxed because they've done this for years and were having a lovely time. I had worked with Frances on a film before so it was nice to see her back on set, and we were having a laugh. And Richard is just brilliant and they all make you raise your game, because when you're in a scene with them you see how high the bar has been set and you know you need to keep up with them.
And am I right in thinking you knew Maxine Peake prior to shooting this film?
Yeah it was lovely seeing her, at RADA they give you professional buddies and mine was Maxine, so she has been supporting me from my RADA days and whenever I have a problem or whatever I just ring her for advice. I remember we had to film one scene where we're both getting to bed and we just couldn't do it as were we laughing so much. It was so strange how we had become friends and now we're doing a scene together. So weird.
So when you first teamed up together at RADA did you ever envisage that just a few years down the line you'd be sharing the screen with her?
No not at all. Maxine is honestly one of my favourite actresses and someone who I look up to so much, and has been since Dinnerladies, and of course Shameless which was amazing, and they pair you up with people they think you're similar to so when I got Maxine I was made up and now I'm in a film with her – and she is an inspiration to me.
As for the younger members of cast, you were played by Izzy Meikle-Small and she is impressive – is it quite weird being on set with someone who is playing the younger version of yourself?
It's quite strange, yeah. Like you'd be queuing up for dinner and it would be me, George and Jack, with a smaller me, smaller George and smaller Jack. It was really strange! But yeah she is wonderful and from the read-through days we sat opposite each other and you've got to be careful with young actors that you don't over analyse the situation as I want them to follow their instincts and not become self-conscious so I didn't have a talk with Izzy about the characters, we would just hang out together and got to know each other and then hopefully that would be enough to make it believable and I understood where Izzy was going with it and I just took her lead.
I imagine it's quite difficult to pick up on the same nuances of each other demeanour, as the parts do need to marry together somewhat – but of course you have done this before in The Iron Lady, except that was the other way around. How different was this approach to the one you had taken with Meryl Streep?
Very similar actually, there was research had to be even though this was a fictional character. I had a lot more research points with The Iron Lady and visual stuff and autobiographies, biographies and all of that wealth of information on Thatcher, whereas with Molly I only had Michael's book and then my own imagination. With either one we didn't talk about it too much, and I think that's good not to over-intellectualise it if you know what I mean. Follow your instincts with it and use what the books and information can give you.
Tell us about working with Pat O'Connor...
Pat is one of the sweetest men I have ever met. He is, as a director, someone who makes you feel so comfortable and he wants the best from you and I think that is so important for a director. If you try something out he always says “Yes – go with your instincts”. He is just won wonderful supportive and encouraging that you feel so safe and willing to try different stuff out and I don't think that can beaten as a director, he's just amazing.
George was saying he takes an almost distance approach where he takes a step-back and allows you to do your own thing – that must be wonderful as an actor to have that freedom?
Yeah because you're just following your instincts and listening to each other, because you know these characters better than anyone else, so you just try things out, and it's almost like Pat isn't even there, he just comes in when he needs to.
As for yourself this year has seen a more predominant move into cinema – is this where you'd like to stay now? Is this where you see your future?
Yeah film and really good TV projects. I need to do theatre at some point too so I don't become scared of it, but yeah it's my passion and I love being on set and I feel really comfortable. I don't even get nervous anymore on set, because I remember my first job was the IT Crowd when I first graduated from RADA and I only had one line and it was in front of a studio audience and I have never been so petrified in my life. Like, it was terrifying. I couldn't remember this line, I had to write it down and stick it to the table. I look at that and I think about how I'm on set almost every-day and I'm not even nervous, I just feel comfortable and trying stuff out, I've got a voice on set and I challenge people if I don't agree with them. I've come a long way since then.
So just finally what is coming up for you next?
I'm working on a Channel Four drama called Utopia and it's all based around conspiracy theories and this graphic novel that if you read, “the Network” try and kill you because it has conspiracy theories about the worst disasters on the 21st century and all of the secrets. So if you read it you're on the run because they'll try and kill you. So that's what I'm doing at the minute. That should be out in January.
Alexandra Roach Profile | Private Peaceful Film Page | Private Peaceful Review
PRIVATE PEACEFUL IS OUT NOW IN CINEMAS