I first met Alexandra Roach at a Bafta dinner at Dean Street Townhouse thrown by Harvey Weinstein. As I recall, we sat opposite each other, swapping notes on the problems of heels and the trials of negotiating a glittering industry party when you barely know anyone in the room. It was several courses before I worked out that these are difficulties that afflict ascendant stars of nominated movies as well as party-going journalists. Minus the blond helmet hair, with a tiny clutch in place of a capacious handbag, and ‘Welsh as a mountain goat’, Roach, 25, neither looked nor sounded anything like her portrayal of the young Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.
Although the film garnered a mixed response, Roach’s performance as Margaret between the age of 16 and 33, battling toxic snobbery and sexism, was widely praised: warm, affecting and funny, it put this Rada graduate incontrovertibly on the map. How anyone, in their first film role, manages to live up to Meryl Streep (who played the mature Thatcher) is impossible to say, but somehow Roach managed. More than this, it was the scenes between the young Denis (played by another up-and-coming Brit, Harry Lloyd) and Margaret that established the Thatchers’ relationship on screen and gave the present-day scenes their emotional power.
Roach says that she has ‘no idea’ where the acting thing came from. Most of her family are or have been in the police force — her dad, though he is now a rugby coach, as well as her two brothers and her sister. But Streep, who watched Roach’s audition on tape and was instrumental in her being cast, plainly recognised something extraordinary in the young actress. ‘My agent rang me to say my tape had been sent and Meryl loved the way you brought comedy to Margaret Thatcher … and something along the lines of any actress who brings comedy to a part is a great actress in my eyes.’
Roach tells me the story over tea in a quiet place in Carnaby Street. By this point, her eyes are the size of saucers. Then, refusing to take any of this seriously, she starts laughing. ‘I was like, ok, can I have that in an email?’ She pauses: ‘So I can wallpaper my loo with it.’
But while it seems that Roach is enjoying an astonishingly rapid leap into the big time, she’s taking nothing for granted. ‘We have no control as actors at the start of our career, over anything,’ she says. ‘You have to fight your way to get in the room. And once you’re in the room, you have to fight and really try your best, in order to be better than the name that they’re thinking of hiring.’ It’s tempting to think the same applies to politicians, a clue perhaps, into how she thought her way into the mindset of Britain’s most infamously driven woman.
Alex comes from the small mining town of Ammanford, which she describes as a haven of friends more concerned with who they saw in the post office the other day than tales of hanging out with Keira Knightley and Jude Law on the set of Anna Karenina. Her mum and dad let her go along to a local acting workshop with a neighbour. ‘I thought I’ve got nothing else to do on a Saturday, dad’s watching the rugby, I’ll come.’ She was, she says — knowing how ridiculous it sounds — a ‘shy’ kid and they hoped it might take her out of her comfort zone.
As it happened, the timing of her arrival at the drama workshop was fortunate. She turned up on the day when casting directors for the soap opera Pobol y Cwm (it’s like a Welsh-language East-enders, she helpfully explains) were looking for young actors. ‘I was only there for a couple of hours,’ she says, ‘and it all happened really fast. I was like, what am I doing? I’m an actor now, cool.’
On set, she developed an insatiable curiosity about the technical side of film acting, something that stood her in good stead later. In LA, comically, directors and casting agents often see actors who start in their teens or twenties as at some kind of terrible disadvantage. This autumn she can be seen with an uncharacteristically haughty demeanour in Anna Karenina; in an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful that has far more subtlety than the War Horse juggernaut; and also harnessing that comic potential in Hunderby. In this, Alex has her bonnet moment — sending up every costume drama heroine you have ever wanted to throttle. And while details are yet to be formally announced, she is also rumoured to have landed the lead role opposite James Corden in Harvey Weinstein’s new project, One Chance. The film will bring to the screen the so-good-you-couldn’t-invent-it story of Paul Potts, the mobile phone salesman and opera tenor who won Britain’s Got Talent.
One Chance will be directed by the Hollywood powerhouse David Frankel, best known for his pitch-perfect fashion film The Devil Wears Prada, in which Streep played another supposedly inscrutable female leader, a fashion magazine editor based on Anna Wintour. Frankel recently let slip that he’d received a text from Streep in praise of her co-star. It said just two words: ‘hire her’, and he promptly did.
As for the Iron Lady, the adventure ended with the then 24-year-old in New York for the first time, cast out of a Hummer and on to the red carpet into a sea of flashbulbs. ‘The adrenaline, the nerves … it was like, well, this is what I’ve seen people do in magazines so I’ll just copy that!’
She pulls a face that is comically stricken and then grins, full of a kind of pretend aplomb. ‘I’ll just do that! I’ll just do the hand-on-the-hip thing! And hope for the best!’
Something tells me that she’s going to be needing that hand-on-the-hip thing for a very long time to come.
Private Peaceful is in cinemas from 12 October.