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She is one of the hottest stars of British film and TV who has made a name for herself as a queen of bodice-ripping period dramas. But although Romola Garai's latest film is more of the same - a lavish, big screen version of the Dickens classic Nicholas Nickleby - she is far more excited about a forthcoming movie, for which she casts aside her corset to get dirty and flirty.

Havana Nights: Dirty Dancing 2 is expected to be one of next year's box office smashes and will make Romola an international star. Working on it proved a liberating experience for her, in more ways than one.

"I have fallen in love with dancing - it's so freeing and so sexy," says Romola, 20, who starred in the TV drama Daniel Deronda and whose low-key Britflick I Capture The Castle is still on general release. "It is like making love on the dancefloor. The whole thing has been the most passionate experience."

Earlier this year she was whisked off to Puerto Rica for Havana Nights, which is set in Cuba in 1958, just before the Communist revolution put Fidel Castro in power. For two months she was put through her paces on the dancefloor with her Mexican co-star Diego Luna before a single shot was filmed. The project turned into a gruelling physical marathon, but she loved every minute.

"I left home on January 5 and did not get back in London until this month, but I had the time of my life," she says. "I have used every part of my body, plus muscles I did not know I had, because the dancing is a combination of salsa and Latin ballroom. It felt like daily aerobics."

Not only did the original 1987 Dirty Dancing make stars of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, but it became the world's best-selling video during the early '90s, so Romola knows just how important this sequel is to her career.

"I grew up in the '80s, so it was a film I saw regularly," she says. "Havana Nights is a repeat of the theme of the original. I play a middle- class girl from a liberal American family. I meet and fall in love with a boy from a working-class background, from the wrong side of the tracks.

"They are brought together by dancing, but the revolution forces their worlds to clash. It is a great story and something that I was really ready for. I have played so many buttoned-down parts that I needed to show everyone what I could do.

"I always seem to have my hair tucked into bonnets and the corsets really inhibit your movement. I did a lot of singing when I was younger and you breathe from your upper chest. When you wear corsets, it does the same thing. It's no wonder the women all looked so prim. What with the dowdy clothes I wore for I Capture The Castle, in which I had to dye my hair a muddy brown and look like a school girl, I was really ready to let rip and let loose on Dirty Dancing."

Before we glimpse her sexy moves, she is back in period costume for Nicholas Nickleby, which is released this week. Romola plays Kate, the plucky sister of Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam). When their father dies, the penniless siblings and their mother seek help from their cruel, cold-hearted Uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer), who splits them up and exploits them.

The big-budget production, which took 12 weeks to film in London and other locations in Britain, boasts a top-notch cast, including Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson and Billy Elliot star Jamie Bell as the crippled Smike. For Wiltshire-born Romola, it is another step up the ladder of a fast- rising career, which started when she was still at school.

She spent the first eight years of her life in Hong Kong and Singapore with her parents, older brother Ralph, and sisters Rosie and Roxanne, before they returned to Wiltshire. While in the sixth-form at the City Of London School For Girls, Romola was spotted in a school play by a casting director. He hired her to be the young Judi Dench in the ITV drama, The Last Of The Blonde Bombshells.

"That one meeting changed everything," recalls Romola. "I still went ahead with my A-levels and did the first year of a degree course in English literature at the University of London. But other roles were offered in television and I realised this was what I wanted to do for a living. It seemed crazy not to go along with what was happening.

"I did defer my degree course, but in September 2001 I had to make a decision. Did I walk away from what was being offered, or go back to university? I told them no, because I really wanted to make a go of acting. So now I'm on my own. There's no proper job or career to fall back on. It's still an odd feeling, but I thankfully don't have the time or inclination to have doubts."

She has never regretted her decision, despite some worrying times.

"I did not work for several months," she says. "I discovered that waiting is just as important as working. It kind of drove me mad for a while. I went to Tuscany on my own and plodded around with a rucksack. I flew to Florence and then toured. I'd never travelled on my own before. I got followed home once and that was kind of scary, but other than that I spent the time walking, eating and reading. It gave me a chance to consider what I wanted. I decided to hang in there and hope."

That attitude paid off when she played the wilful Gwendolen Harleth in last year's BBC adaptation of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. It won her rave reviews and she built on that success to play the lead in the British film I Capture The Castle.

Adapted from the novel by Dodie Smith, about the eccentric Mortmain family who are struggling to survive in a dilapidated castle in the 1930s, it cast her with Tara Fitzgerald, Bill Nighy and Sinead Cusack. Her next project, a Hollywood version of Thackeray's social-climbing yarn Vanity Fair, teams her with Reese Witherspoon and Gabriel Byrne.

At one time the thought of working alongside such stars was just a distant dream for Romola, but these days she takes it all in her stride.

"The single biggest surprise about acting is how unsexy the lead actors can be when you work with them," says Romola, who lives with her barrister boyfriend Ben Hooper, 26. "You see people such as Henry Thomas and Marc Blucas, who were in I Capture The Castle and they look absolutely gorgeous. Then you work with them and all the magic goes. You just find yourself complaining about the same things and worrying about lines and looks.

"Look at Charlie Hunnam, who plays Nicholas Nickleby. He is a beautiful looking man, but you are soon sitting down between scenes, having a cigarette, comparing blisters and talking about your agent. And with Hugh Dancy in Daniel Deronda I was supposed to have this wonderful chemistry. He is a great looking man and very nice, but I was so concerned with not messing up I couldn't concentrate on anything else.

"We were also filming in Malta for part of the time and it was sweltering. I was wearing all this underwear and big dresses and felt like throwing up or fainting. It kills all the sex appeal stone dead.

"But Dirty Dancing is another matter. The dancing made me feel sexy, but I was so far away from my boyfriend I could do nothing about it."

l Nicholas Nickleby is out today.


IN COSTUME: (Top) I Capture The Castle, Daniel Deronda (left) and Nicholas Nickleby (right)
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 27, 2003
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