If laughter is the best medicine, Jemima Rooper might well be impervious to disease, finds Matthew Amer.
The actress, star of Lost In Austen on screen and Her Naked Skin on stage, has an infectious, ribald, hearty cackle that punctuates our conversation after every other sentence.
It is slightly odd, as I was expecting Rooper to sound fraught and drained, run down and leached of energy. When we talk she is, after all, rehearsing seven plays simultaneously, to be staged as part of the Tricycle theatre’s The Great Game: Afghanistan season which runs at the Kilburn venue from April until June.
The cycle of 12 new plays by 12 different playwrights has been a challenging proposition since its inception. It was a challenge for Tricycle Artistic Director Nicolas Kent to arrange – according to his programme notes, just finding willing writers was difficult enough – and the challenge is undiminished for the intrepid ensemble taking on multiple roles set across more than 150 years of Afghan history.
They are all in it together, says Rooper of the company. Though they never all work together on one piece, there is a sense of camaraderie among them; everyone is facing the same difficulties – alternating characters, accents, eras, and taking in a vast wealth of material – and, though they may not see some of their fellow cast members for a week, everyone is supporting each other.
It was difficult at the beginning of rehearsals, she admits: “You rehearse on one [play] and you feel like you get somewhere with one piece, but you don’t come back to it for a week and you’re suddenly off-accent. I think the first two weeks were ‘Where am I from, who am I, who’s fighting who?’”
Having spent a day watching all 12 plays, I can understand why she was overwhelmed. The history of Afghanistan over the last century and a half is riddled with conflict. Russia, Britain, America, the Taliban, forceful rulers, liberal progressive rulers; the country has been torn apart by forces and individuals trying to push it one way or another. For the average man on the street it is a country somewhere on the other side of the world that occasionally gets a mention on the news, a hotbed of extremism. Some may even have read a Khaled Hosseini novel. Yet the story of how it came to be in this state is rife with super powers trying to impose their will.
"I am a little bit foreign"
“I was incredibly ignorant about Afghanistan and its history,” admits Rooper, aligning herself with most of us. “I’ve already learned so much. It’s been a bit of an eye-opener.” The breadth of characters she portrays across the cycle of plays gives her a wide-ranging Afghan experience. From national heroine Malalai and queen Soroya to the unspeaking, burka-clad serving girl Minoo and soldier’s wife Cheryl, she experiences the country’s history and culture from all angles.
When she was first approached about the cycle of 12 plays by 12 playwrights she had understandable concerns: would all the pieces be good; would they work together? But as she talks about the plays in which she appears, it quickly becomes apparent that she has nothing but belief in the texts.
Concerns that David Edgar’s offering Black Tulips – a series of Russian troop briefings set at different points in the 80s and cunningly given a reversed chronology – might be difficult to sit through with the sheer amount of information crammed in evaporated once she saw it put together on stage. She also enthuses about David Greig’s imagined meeting between a writer and President Najibullah, and Richard Bean’s aid organisation satire. She laughs, again, at the thought that with all these characters milling around someone might just don the wrong costume or use the wrong accent. “It’s bound to happen at some point, it’s bound to.”
Rooper is, she says, “a little bit foreign”. It’s a bizarre turn of phrase that refers to the fact that her mum, journalist Alison Rooper, is Serbian. I am not sure I would have noticed, yet her heritage, possibly most apparent in her dark features, helped with her casting as Queen Soroya.
It must only be a very little bit foreign, though, as there is a very British dry cynicism hidden among her reasons for taking on such a project. Away from the important theme and the interesting way of working, the ground-breaking venue and the chance to work with some of Britain’s best writing talent was the very simple: “It’s a job, that’s why I wanted to do it.”
It is just a short comment and is surrounded by laughter, but it exposes a truth about the entertainment industry during the recession; jobs are even harder to come by than usual. Yet what has surprised Rooper is that stage work seems to be fairing better than screen: “Theatre was the one thing that I expected to go and actually it seems to be the thing that’s continuing as normal, whereas films and television are in quite a lot of trouble because no-one’s wanting to spend money.”
"People are very afraid in this business, which is a shame when you’re dealing with creativity. You want people to be brave, but they very rarely are"
This is something of a turnaround for Rooper, who has spent most of her career to date working in television and film. For most actresses in their late 20s, such a career would probably be about a decade old; Rooper has been working twice as long. As a teenager she was a regular in the television adaptations of The Famous Five stories, playing tomboy George, before going on to appear in The Railway Children, teen drama As If and supernatural school series Hex. While moving from child TV star to adult TV star hasn’t proved too much of a problem, being accepted in the theatre has been more of a task.
Having spent her childhood performing and working regularly, Rooper decided not to attend drama school after her A-levels, instead focusing on building her career. While she continued to be employed for screen projects, she found it harder to even get auditions for theatre projects, the lack of professional training proving a stumbling block. “You feel like you’re still at the beginning sometimes,” she confides, her tone slightly downcast, before rallying, “and it’s good, because it makes you not lazy. But it’s interesting that people are very reluctant to take a leap of faith. People are very afraid in this business, which is a shame when you’re dealing with creativity. You want people to be brave, but they very rarely are.”
That accusation could not be levelled at this current Tricycle project or her previous stage outing in the National Theatre’s production of Her Naked Skin, the first piece of new writing by a woman to be presented on the Olivier stage.
“That might be my favourite job ever,” Rooper says, joy and excitement evident in her voice, her explanation of why more gushing than a fast flowing river in a hurry to reach the sea. To dissect the outpouring of emotion attached to the production, it seems that everything fell into place, the story, cast, director, even the crew, who are now among Rooper’s favourite people, partly because of their unseen antics: “They had to push our prison and they used to whisper when I was trying to cry in one of the scenes. I was on stage and they’d be going ‘Je-miiiii-maaaaa’. In fact, I don’t know why I’m friends with them!”
That foreignness deserts her once again when it comes to self-confidence. She reverts to a typically British sense of self-deprecation, becoming something of a paradox. The Jemima Rooper talking to me is gregarious, outgoing and delightful company, never introverted or retiring, yet as an actress, she is quite shy, describing performance as a very personal experience: “It’s just about me being a little bit odd.”
"I’ll have loads of plastic surgery and be one of those scary LA ladies"
In her eyes, she is the odd girl, the character actress, picking up the ‘interesting’ parts while her better looking friends become the leading ladies. Not that this gets her down… too much: “I’ve got friends who are very, very beautiful and fit those moulds, and I sit there thinking ‘I get all the weird, funky roles’, which is great, but there’s not that many of them. I find that hard now, but you think ‘Oh God, when you get older it gets even worse.’ It’s alright, I’ll have loads of plastic surgery and be one of those scary LA ladies.”
I can’t see it happening. Rooper seems far too grounded to be sucked into the botox roundabout of never ending surgery. She has been out to LA, though she laughs when I ask her about it as it was, in fact, just a holiday. The thought of making that fabled leap across the Atlantic in search of fame and fortune is barely conceivable for the young actress who, in her mind, is neither so well known that she could walk straight into a stateside career, nor so unknown that she has no reputation to worry about leaving behind. The most she has to say about Los Angeles is that “it’s weird… but the sun’s nice”.
The fear with child actors is that they lose all sense of reality, they get drawn into a glittery showbiz world that doesn’t really exist and emerge as adults ill adjusted for real life. Rooper could not be further from this idea. Yes, she has a pole dancing pole in the middle of her lounge – actually, it is now leaning in the corner after an overenthusiastic friend brought it crashing down – but that is as starry as she gets.
In fact, for someone who has been in the industry for two decades, the lifestyle still leaves her slightly baffled; the idea of not being able to make solid plans in case an audition becomes available or a new job comes up. In contrast to the glamorous life you might expect a young, carefree, well-known actress to lead, she is worried about being frivolous – pole installations aside – “because you don’t know when the next pay cheque’s going to come in”.
To the untrained eye it sounds a little as though, even with the leading roles she has taken, most recently in Lost In Austen, she is yet to accept her talent, yet to fully believe in herself. When she was a child, celebrating her birthday would have a strange effect: “I used to go really weird and I’d kind of twitch and look down at the ground. I didn’t like everyone turning and looking at me and singing.” Who knows, maybe she is still avoiding attention; if she doesn’t recognise her talents, maybe no-one else will. Or maybe she is just keeping her feet on the ground. Either way, she is doing it laughing.