Growing up in a Welsh former mining village devastated by the closure of the mines in the Thatcher era and with an ex-miner for a grandfather, Alexandra Roach never imagined that one day she’d be playing the young Margaret Thatcher alongside Meryl Streep in the 2011 film The Iron Lady.
“She really changed the course of the town’s future and I just wished my grandfather was alive for me to say, ‘guess what, I’m playing Thatcher!’” she says.
Her grandad might not have been a fan of the Iron Lady, but Roach knows he’d appreciate his granddaughter’s performance.
“He’d be really, really proud of me,” says the 30-year-old. “I know that because when I went home that Christmas after I’d played her and it was in the local papers and everything, I was a bit nervous. Every year me and all of my friends meet up in the working men’s club – 50p to get in and you can have a vodka and lemonade for £1.20, so it’s cheap after London – and it’s full of old miners and proper Labour men. So I was a bit nervous going there of all places. I walked in and went to the bar and then all of these men just came up to me, one by one, and said ‘you’re doing good, you know... even though you’re playing Thatcher, you’re putting Ammanford on the map. And I thought ‘thank goodness!’ So he’d definitely have a thing or two to say, my grandfather, about me playing Thatcher, but he’d be so proud.”
Roach played the young Thatcher through her school and university days, meeting Denis and having children, until her mid thirties.
“The director told me my job was to make the younger version likeable and I thought ‘oh gosh, I’ve got my work cut out for me here!’ So I researched her and understood her and dived into her childhood and relationship with her father. My job as an actress is not to judge, even though I had all of these preconceived judgements from where I grew up and there are a few things I still find completely weird, but I had to really put them to one side. She had drive from a very young age, and I have that too, so I saw the similarities between us, not the differences. “We both had this inner steel really, that you have to have, because there’s a lot of knockbacks in this industry and a lot of things to fight against. And she had that drive to get from Grantham to number 10 and I’ve definitely got that drive to get from Ammanford to Rada.”
Roach began acting at 11 and landed a part in the Welsh-language soap Pobol Y Cwm in her early teens, then spent time with the National Youth Theatre of Wales before going to Rada. With a degree in acting, she began to rack up stage and TV appearances: Being Human, Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful, and Anna Karenina, all marking her out as one of Screen International’s Stars of Tomorrow in 2011. The Iron Lady led on to more film work in One Chance, the 2013 biopic of Britain’s Got Talent winner Paul Potts, the unprepossessing mobile phone salesman whose Nessun Dorma wiped the sneer off judge Piers Morgan’s face and launched his opera career. Roach plays his wife opposite James Corden in the film that also stars Julie Walters.
She appeared in the sitcom Vicious with Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi and the Channel 4 offbeat thriller Utopia before her arresting performance in Channel 4 cop comedy drama No Offence from Paul (Shameless) Abbott, now on its third series.
Roach is currently on our screens in Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s techtopian sci-fi Netflix hit.
“I was waiting for years to do this show, because I am a fan. I think it’s really captured the imagination of my generation. Me and all my friends are obsessed with it.”
“What makes it disturbing is you think ‘oh gosh, this could actually happen very soon, or already is’. Technological advances are uneasy but also exciting. Where could we go? For instance, in my episode, what lengths would we go to to preserve somebody that’s passed away? In Silicon Valley you can already buy a cyber installation that you feed information before someone dies, so when they go you have a cyber version. I know!” she exclaims at the absurdity before acknowledging that “as a hopeless romantic, if I was given the opportunity to save someone, I would jump at the chance.”
Roach embodies our conflicted response to technology, the opportunities and threats, being of the internet generation and the perfect demograph for Black Mirror. She met her fiancé, Jack Scales, a club promotor with whom she now lives in Bristol, through Facebook.
“Yeah, I was tagged in a photograph and he got in touch. That’s how it came about and now we’re getting married. I think we’re going to have a toast to Mark Zuckerberg at our wedding, or a cardboard cutout of him maybe. You click on someone or what have you, and something happens and you meet and it’s great. It’s great.”
As well as Black Mirror, Roach spent last year filming series three of No Offence, the crime series that follows a team of Manchester detectives. Dark and funny, it breaks the police procedural mould by mixing humour with hardcore crime.
“It’s a real mix of the two isn’t it?” she says. “You don’t know where any scene or character is going to go. At one point it can be very light and funny and then it takes a really dark turn.”
No Offence also tears up the rule book with its heavily female cast, starring Joanna Scanlan as the indomitable DI Viv Deering and Elaine Cassidy as the fearless Dinah Kowalski, alongside Roach’s nervous yet courageous DS Joy Freers.
“Joy’s fun to play, funny. I love the journey from series one where she’s really jittery and all over the shop to the second where she’s found her version of confidence and into the third where you see a lot more of her personal life.
“There were so many women in the last series, in the cast and on set. We had five female directors, which was brilliant and unusual. To have women everywhere inputting at every level felt really powerful and special. I hope one day I’ll see it on most jobs. When you’ve got women in the lead roles and a woman director there are no power games, it’s very equal and you can be open. You can say ‘oh, I think she’d do this’, without having to say, ‘as a woman, neh, neh, neh’. So yeah, it felt like we were meeting on an even playing field.”
As the daughter of a policeman, with a brother and brother-in-law and best friend in the force, and a sister who is an ex-cop, can Roach ever see herself in the police?
She laughs. “In real life I’d be beaten and chewed up straight away. They all think it’s brilliant. The only downside for them is that I’ve been promoted to sergeant and none of them have!” She laughs. “They think that’s hilarious. They can’t get over it!”
Last year also saw Roach in The Huntsman: Winter’s War with Chris Hemsworth and Inside No 9, the TV series from League of Gentlemen’s Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. These projects gave her a chance to flex her comedy muscles, the latter with its humour/horror blend reminiscent of No Offence, also seen in Julia Davis’s twisted Daphne du Maurier period parody Hunderby 2012-15, in which Roach had to face down her bird phobia and carry a cockatoo (“I said to the director ‘you’ve got one chance to get this, that’s all I’m doing!’ But now I’m not so bothered, so I think it helped.
“Dark, anything dark, I’ll do it. It’s weird isn’t it? Looking back on the comedy side of my career, they all seem to be quite dark, but weird and brilliant to do. They’re not your average sort of comedy. My mum says, ‘I don’t get it, it’s very dark, is it funny? I don’t understand’. But I like treading that line of making the audience think, ‘oh, what’s going on here? Am I meant to be laughing, or am I meant to be disturbed?’ That’s interesting.” She laughs.
“I edge towards things that make you laugh then go ‘euuuugh’. I feel like merging all the genres together. I want to shock the audience a bit, take them on a journey.”
Roach had a blast on The Huntsman, teaming up once more with Nick Frost, with whom she worked on 2014 dance comedy Cuban Fury, alongside Rob Brydon and Sheridan Smith as a team of dwarves aiding and amusing Chris Hemsworth’s granite jawed hero.
“We had dwarf school which was an actual thing, at the studio. The four of us had dwarf doubles because they were in the far away shots and we were the close up, so we did team work with them, creating walks and characters. It was so much fun, one of those jobs where you just did not stop laughing – Rob Brydon and Nick Frost, when they get together, there’s no stopping them.”
As well as admiring her Huntsman colleagues, and Streep in The Iron Lady – Roach used to go on set on her day off to sit behind the monitor and watch her in action – she’s been able to study close up the likes of Julie Walters, Maxine Peake and Keira Knightley.
“I love learning from other actresses especially. And I notice their ability to just talk to people. They know everybody’s names, and are so generous in their work. Their behaviour and professionalism is inspiring. Meryl Streep knew everyone on set and would be joking with the crew and making everyone feel this is a good place to come to work.
“If you’re having a bad day you can’t bring it on set, you’ve got to be so professional. And that’s hard in our job, because we get picked up in a really nice car and when you get to work someone asks if they can get you breakfast, tea, coffee, anything, and if you’re not grounded, you could get really carried away. But the people at the top, never, ever take advantage of that.”
Last year also saw Roach film A Guide to Second Date Sex, the TV adaptation of Rachel Hiron’s 2012 sell out Edinburgh Fringe show and two shorts, The Orgy and Memento Mori.
“A Guide to Second Date Sex is a British romcom with myself and George MacKay (Sunshine on Leith, Captain Fantastic). It’s funny, all about modern day dating, using technology to try to meet somebody in a city, the pressure of getting older and thinking, ‘I need this to be the one’. I play a girl who is hopeless in love and unlucky, it’s almost like a young Bridget Jones,” she says.
Looking ahead Roach is co-writing a three-part TV drama with Gavin and Stacey’s Ruth Jones, inspired by her own mother who worked as an au pair in Florida and hitched across the States.
“In this industry you haven’t got any control over your next job unless you start writing it yourself, so I’m writing. I’d love to star in that, and play my mother. And I’d love to direct at some point too.”
Born in Ammanford, Carmarthenshire, Roach speaks Welsh as well as English, her heritage apparent in her everyday speaking voice. Going is ‘go-o-en’ and do it is ‘do et’, ridiculous is ‘ridicilous’ and she throws in her favourite welsh word, bendramwnwgl, meaning “head over heels” for good measure.
But at Rada they didn’t appreciate her accent so much.
She adopts an RP voice by way of demonstration.
“They said ‘oh gosh, your accent is so strong’ and after the first term they said ‘must you go home for Christmas?’” She laughs and reverts to her normal tone and quips. ‘No, I’ll just stay here by myself and listen to Radio 4!’ Ha, I was on the first train back to Wales for the holiday! When I was really homesick I’d listen to Richard Burton reading Under Milk Wood. Brilliant. That kept me strong.
“It’s in my bones being Welsh, so going to Rada was quite a culture shock. There were people there from Eton and Cambridge and there was me, that went to my local comp, and it was intimidating. I struggled with that at first, thinking ‘I don’t deserve to be here, I’m out of my depth’, but then I met a handful of sort of working class actors, James McArdle being one of them, he’s Scottish, and a few others and we just stuck together. It felt like I’d found my tribe.
“I’m glad my instinct was so strong,” she says. “I thought ‘no, this is me, this is who I am. If anyone tries to stop me, I’m going to do it anyway.’”
What was that she said earlier about inner steel and Margaret Thatcher? Her grandfather would be proud.
Black Mirror is out now on Netflix