ROMOLA GARAI ON PENELOPE SKINNER
Ten years ago, I walked into an audition and Penny was sitting behind the desk. The role was for a one-woman show she wrote about a young woman’s complicated journey navigating sex and deceit. At the time, it was unusual for people to be writing explicitly feminist work. Meeting her made a great impression on me. In auditions, there’s always a desk and there is always a man behind it, so to see a woman the same age as me there with her notepad made me think, ‘Oh, you can get behind the desk. You don’t always have to be on this side.’
Penny is unbelievably charismatic. She’s very self-contained, but absolutely knows what she wants and is very comfortable in her power in the room. She’s a great collaborator, but she doesn’t let anyone dick her around. I became an actor when I was very young, and it’s a job with basically no control – you’re essentially a puppet. I was impressed to meet someone who, even at an early stage in their career, had so much artistic certainty and self-confidence. Years later, we worked together on a play called The Village Bike, which was a transformative experience for me. I saw that Penny had taken control of her creativity in a way that I hadn’t. After meeting her, I started saying ‘this is bullshit’. This industry is completely misogynistic and everybody knows it. It’s actually dangerous for women to work in the arts and nobody is saying a thing about it. Trying to change the industry takes so much courage, so much self-belief, so much more energy than any man would ever have to put into his work as an artist. Meeting somebody who was doing that changed me. Talking about these issues does have an impact on your career, without a doubt. You take a hit. But Penny gave me the confidence to know that the right people will still want to work with me. She also made me more ambitious. I made my short film not long after working with her.
Today, she’s a great friend. When we collaborated on an idea I had for a TV show, I invited her round to my house. My baby was around four weeks old and I spent the whole time apologising and trying to make tea while breastfeeding and constantly saying ‘sorry’ because the baby was crying. I felt like I was being a nightmare. I remember her saying, ‘Sit down. You have every right to be here. You don’t have to feel worried because the baby’s crying. We’re going to have kids and we’re going to work and we’re going to make it work. You don’t have to be embarrassed.’
When people like Penny come into your life, their influence galvanises you. Seeing women doing things and making things is everything. She has shaped my own journey towards trying to write and direct. I don’t worry that much about being good, because I just think it’s important to do things. You think, even if it’s terrible, at least I will have done it, and other people and my kids will see that I’ve done it. You have to live boldly in order to try to change the structure of our gender relations so that a future generation of women won’t be at all surprised when they walk into a room and see another woman sitting behind the desk.
‘Talking about these issues has an impact on your career. You take a hit’