Geraldine James' face — those high cheekbones, sky-blue eyes and, what one London theater critic called her "Titian locks" — might look vaguely familiar. James is 61 now but still recognizable as Sarah Layton, the pivot point and conscience of "The Jewel in the Crown."
The 14-part "Masterpiece Theater" drama on the last days of British rule in India drew wide acclaim and a huge U.S. audience when it aired in 1984, thrusting the then-thirtysomething actress to the top rank of her profession. She's worked steadily since in British theater, television and film, winning major acting honors and even an honor from Queen Elizabeth.
Now, with roles in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," both just released, James' name as well as her face should become better known on this side of the Atlantic. In director David Fincher's "Dragon Tattoo" remake, based on Stieg Larsson's bestselling novel, James plays the enigmatic Cecilia Vanger —one of several peculiar Vangers whom journalist Mikael Blomkvist encounters as he investigates a decades-old disappearance on a remote Swedish island.
"I loved Cecilia's inscrutability," James said. She said she also loved working with Fincher and Daniel Craig, who plays Blomkvist and with whom her character has an affair. Unlike the novel, the movie script left James lots of room to interpret Cecilia's character — just the sort of part she likes. "I was rather bereft to leave 'Dragon,'" James recalled earlier this year over tea at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, corralling her tumbling curls into a large butterfly clip.
"Dragon" and the "Sherlock Holmes" sequel, in which she again plays the landlady to Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes, are among six films she made in two years, including "Arthur" and "Made in Dagenham." Her ability to disappear into a character is what prompted "Sherlock" director Guy Ritchie to seek out James for the part of Mrs. Hudson. "I've always been drawn to her," he said. "She's someone I grew up watching."
James credits British actress Emma Thompson for her recent burst of work. She believes that Thompson's success in a trio of 1990s box office hits — "The Remains of the Day," "Sense and Sensibility" and "Howards End" (for which Thompson won the lead actress Oscar in 1993) — demonstrated that large numbers of American filmgoers would embrace British actors who sound British.
Before Thompson, British actors had to "pretend" to be American, James said, adding that this is something she doesn't do well (although she adopted a Swedish accent to play Vanger). Although she's "terribly British," Emma Thompson made Americans understand that "not all British are toffee-nosed snots," she said , refilling her teacup.
James' longevity is, of course, also the product of hard work and luck. She studied acting at Drama Centre London, whose alums include Anthony Hopkins and Colin Firth, but she credits Peggy Ashcroft with giving her a critical postgraduate education. The renowned actress, then with the Royal Shakespeare Company, noticed James, then a "dresser," and tutored her. "I was less than nobody," James recalled. "She came to see everything I did."
Close friends until Ashcroft's death at age 83 in 1991, the two appeared together in "Jewel" and other productions.
Early decisions to take on gritty British television parts, including as a deaf prostitute accused of manslaughter, brought James notice at home and the first of several BAFTA award nominations. (In 2003, the queen named her to the Order of the British Empire.) A role in "Gandhi," Richard Attenborough's 1982 biopic starring Ben Kingsley, opened more doors. James played Mirabehn, the British woman who left her home in England to live and work with the Indian activist.
During the "Gandhi" shoot in India, a crew member passed her Paul Scott's four-volume novel, "The Raj Quartet," the basis for "The Jewel in the Crown." Attenborough saw her with the book and mentioned that the series was then in pre-production in London. She auditioned, won the part of Sarah Layton and headed back to India.
"Jewel in the Crown" was a major event in Britain, and in the days before DVRs, James recalled that politicians made excuses to leave Parliament early so they could go home to watch.
A role in the 2008 BBC comedy "Little Britain" has drawn a new generation of fans. James played Celia, a prim, upper-class mother who still breast-feeds her grown, suit-and-tie-wearing son whenever he cries "Bitty!" But James' long list of credits underscores her range. In "Made in Dagenham," for instance, she played a fearful older woman, initially reluctant to join her co-workers protesting sexual discrimination at the Dagenham Ford auto plant in 1968.
That she could make the timid Connie believable, a role so unlike her own persona, accounts for James' durable career, said actress Sally Hawkins, who starred as Rita O'Grady in "Dagenham." "Geraldine has this incredible strength of character; you just want to be around her," she said. "Yet she doesn't shout about herself."
James' recent string of films followed a dry spell during which she thought her profession had forgotten her. "The parts I was offered were imitations of what I'd already done," she said.
Then, as before, James turned to the stage. Her portrayal of Portia opposite Dustin Hoffman in the 1990 Broadway production of "The Merchant of Venice" earned her a Drama Desk Award and Tony nomination. She returned to the theater again last summer, starring as the self-absorbed Irina Arkadina in Chekhov's "Seagull." The London production, directed by her husband, Joseph Blatchley, drew strong reviews. (The couple has an adult daughter who works as a human-rights activist.)
Although James is trim and moves with an actor's graceful nimbleness, Irina is a physically demanding part. Costumed in heavy 19th century dresses throughout the two-hour-plus performance, she had to lie down on stage for the picnic scenes and clamber up again multiple times.
Even months before the movies opened, she was expecting to attend the London premieres for "Dragon" and "Sherlock." But she said then that she won't be surprised — or disappointed — if the paparazzi focused their cameras elsewhere.
Some London cabbies still scratch their heads, trying to place her. "They ask me 'Are you an actress?' 'What have you been in?' I just say, 'Oh, lots of things,'" she said, smiling, and leaves it at that.