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Alexandra Roach on playing a young Margaret Thatcher and a big year ahead

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Polly March Polly March | 09:30 UK time, Monday, 2 January 2012

Most jobbing actors leaving drama school can expect months and possibly years of scraping by, existing on bit parts and leaving countless auditions downhearted.

Not so for Ammanford actor and recent Rada graduate Alexandra Roach, for whom the 18 months since graduating can only be described as something of a meteoric rise.

Until now Roach is most recognisable to Welsh audiences as Elin, the young troublemaker from the Valleys, a part she played in BBC drama series Pobol y Cwm between the ages of 11 and 18, and for which she won a Children in Entertainment award in 2003.

But 2012 is set to be a big year for the 24-year-old, and could even make her a household name, as she takes her place in four films, several of which are opposite Hollywood stars and with shooting due to start on two more.

The movie she stars in with the most hype is Phyllida Lloyd's The Iron Lady, a film about Thatcher looking back at her life as an old lady, which premièred in New York last month and stars Meryl Streep as Thatcher in her prime.

Alexandra Roach as a young Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Image: Pathé UK

Alexandra Roach as a young Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Image: Pathé UK

Roach's portrayal of a young Maggie between the ages of 16 and 33, falling in love with a young Denis, is key to this more sympathetic understanding of the political icon who changed the face of Britain.

Growing up in Betws, near Ammanford, an area much affected by the impact of Thatcher's pit closures and the subsequent strikes in the 1980s, Roach is no stranger to Thatcher's legacy.

But as she tells BBC Wales: "I grew up knowing her name and with people always discussing this woman but she affected the generation above me, so I did have to go back and really research who she was, as I didn't know enough about her.

"There are a lot of judgements about how she affected people in Wales, especially where I'm from, but I had to put that to one side and focus on trying to portray this honest and strong woman, a grocer's daughter.

"It's not my place to judge her and as less is known about her as a young woman it did give me a bit more artistic licence."

But after throwing herself into the role, with prosthetics and all, Roach admits her view of Thatcher has changed.

"What surprised me was that she had such humble roots, having worked in a shop and then she enters this man's world of politics, with such a hard job and in my view made such huge strides for women."

Alexandra Roach (young Margaret Thatcher) in a scene from The Iron Lady outside the family's business. Image: Pathé UK

Alexandra Roach (young Margaret Thatcher) in a scene from The Iron Lady outside the family's business. Image: Pathé UK

Much has been written about Streep's eerily accurate portrayal of Thatcher in The Iron Lady, and how she has apparently nailed the booming authoritative diction of the premier.

For Roach, getting that vocal right was the biggest challenge of the role.

"Thatcher had training to try and lower her voice to make it as distinct as it eventually became, but that was not in the period of her life that I was involved in.

"I could only find two recordings of her when she was 33, which is at the latest end of the spectrum I played her and she had quite a high vocal register and hardly ever breathed in, so I really had to train my lungs up and focus on my breathing."

But the young actress is not one to baulk at the trials of getting a part just right, as she admits: "I like parts that require a big transformation. I don't get scared about that, which is why I have loved the varied roles I have been offered so far."

She also managed to get over the daunting prospect of having a Hollywood giant like Streep watch her acting out her scenes as they were both filmed on the same set.

"She would watch me do a scene and then I would watch her. It was surreal at first but she was so wonderful, she would give me a thumbs-up or a wink to encourage me and did so much to make me feel less uncomfortable so that in the end her watching me didn't make me feel nervous.

"I know it's amazing for such a young actress to be able to say that Meryl Streep has seen them act and it's not something I'll ever forget."

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe. Photo: Pathé UK

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe. Photo: Pathé UK

Variety really seems to be the theme of her first clutch of starring roles as this year audiences will see her star as Molly in the upcoming adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful, a novel about two brothers during World War One.

She also plays Countess Nordston opposite Jude Law, Keira Knightley and Aaron Johnson in Anna Karenina, and stars in Trap for Cinderella, an independent psychological thriller written and directed by Iain Softley.

February will see her appearing in BBC Wales' Loserville, a film about youth homelessness by the Newport Film School.

And she is due to start shooting for Girls Night Out, where she plays a young Queen Elizabeth opposite Dakota Fanning as Princess Margaret, in an account of what happens when the young royals were let out of the Palace to celebrate the end of World War Two. The year will also see her begin work on a romantic comedy, "a typical boy meets girl story which is lovely", which she is remaining tight-lipped about at present.

Looking back on the runaway success of her career since finishing RADA, she admits it has been something of a surprise and she still has to stop to pinch herself. But underneath there is a hint of a steely determination Thatcher herself would be proud of.

"I am thrilled to be part of such a big project but I am just trying to concentrate on the work I'm doing and not get sidetracked by everything else. I just really want to stay focused so I can keep doing what I'm doing because I'm aware it could stop at any moment."

When I spoke to her two weeks ago she was just back from the world première in New York, which was her first trip to America and saw her attend four different screenings of The Iron Lady.

Most touchingly, she attended a private screening with both her proud parents, who had flown over from Wales, and admits they all held hands throughout. "It was a really sweet, special experience actually."

As for watching herself back on the silver screen, she admits the prosthetic nose and wig she wore to play Thatcher made her feel somewhat removed from the experience.

Roach donned a prosthetic nose to play the former premier. Image: Pathé UK

Roach donned a prosthetic nose to play the former premier. Image: Pathé UK

She says she is looking forward to seeing what reaction the film gets here in the UK, where it premières on 4 January, and believes people will be surprised by the Thatcher they see.

"It's obviously a big talking point and quite controversial, as it shows Thatcher as an old lady looking back at her life. I think people who are expecting it to be another King's Speech will be surprised. There are bits of comedy and a very touching love story and it is really heart wrenching at points.

"Everybody has a view of Margaret Thatcher so it will be interesting for them to see this different, more sympathetic side of her."

The Iron Lady goes on general release in UK cinemas on Friday 6 January.

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