Interview: Imelda Staunton

Imelda Staunton Photograph Debra Hurford Brown
Imelda Staunton Photograph Debra Hurford Brown
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The Finding Your Feet actor tells Janet Christie why she’s happy to take a break

Imelda Staunton has been baking soda bread, lots of it. And binge watching Peaky Blinders. Having a rest. And this is an actor for whom ‘resting’ is not just a euphemism for in between jobs. She really does need a rest. At 62, with a new film, Finding Your Feet, out this week, a storming performance in a six-month run of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the National Theatre behind her, London-born Staunton is enjoying some downtime.

Staunton with husband Jim Carter after receiving her CBE in 2016. (Photo by Yui Mok - WPA Pool / Getty Images)

Staunton with husband Jim Carter after receiving her CBE in 2016. (Photo by Yui Mok - WPA Pool / Getty Images)

“I’m having a little break for a while,” she says, although even now she’s phoning as part of a day-long junket promoting the film. “I’ve done a lot of theatre recently and I want to stop for a while because I want to have a life,” she says, sounding much younger than her Aunt Lucy Paddington voice, and more sweary. “Bloody hells” and “Christs!” cut through the well modulated RP, reminding you that working class London is as much part of her DNA as RADA.

Finding Your Feet was made back in 2016 then it was straight onto a year of live performance.

“The second half of last year I did Follies and the first half I did three months of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the West End and that nearly bloody killed me! When I’m doing theatre I do not have a life, and that’s what I’m doing now. It’s really nice to recognise that I want to be at home and do the things I want to do, and not have to every day think about my voice, or my body or what I’m eating, or that I’ve got to rest before a performance – all that,” she says then her voice rises in excitement, “Oh great, I can go out!

“In my job I’m really lucky because I play all these different people and have many lives, but it’s also important to say OK, I need my life now, and I’m gonna really, really enjoy it. It doesn’t take much to make me happy, just a good walk with the dog, a nice holiday with my husband… I do an extraordinary job, therefore I want to do ordinary stuff.”

Staunton in Finding your Feet Film with Joanna Lumley, Timothy Spall, Celia Imrie and David Hayman

Staunton in Finding your Feet Film with Joanna Lumley, Timothy Spall, Celia Imrie and David Hayman

Which is where the soda bread comes in.

“I’ve made three soda breads in the last week. It’s an Irish recipe and my grandmother used to make it. I’ve never made it before, but now I can’t stop... and more importantly I can’t stop eating the whole bloody thing.

“And because I’ve done so much theatre I haven’t watched anything on TV, so I’ve just binge watched Peaky Blinders which I love, oh my god I love it! I haven’t watched TV for literally years, so it’s very nice to watch some stuff. I don’t find it coals to Newcastle at all. I’m very happy to watch other people work.” She laughs.

Best known as the saccharine sadist Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films, illegal abortionist Vera Drake in Mike Leigh’s award winning film and stage mum to upstage all others in Gypsy, the Gypsy Rose Lee musical, she’s certainly earned a little feet-up downtime. With a four decade long career that has seen her made an OBE (2006) and CBE (2016) for services to drama, receive an Oscar nod and a BAFTA for Vera Drake, and a Laurence Olivier Award for Gypsy, she has nothing to prove. From Nanny McPhee to Pride, Shakespeare to Sondheim, Staunton has done them all. She’s even worked with children and animals. And not any children and animals, but her own. Pet pooch Molly appeared with her in Gypsy and she also shared the small screen with her daughter Bessie, also an actor, in the 2008 BBC mini-series Cranford, along with husband Jim Carter, best known for his role as Carson in Downton Abbey.

“That was lovely, being on the same job, although it was only one day when we all went in together. But to work with Jim and Bessie, that would be a bit of a dream,” she says.

Imelda Mary Philomena Bernadette Staunton was born in Archway, London in 1956 to hairdresser Bridie and road-worker Joseph, both from Mayo in Ireland, and performance was in her blood. Her mother played the fiddle and accordion and by the time she was in secondary school, Staunton was already winning leading lady roles.

“It wasn’t a theatrical family but my mum was a bit of a performer and they absolutely encouraged me.”

Sadly Staunton’s mother wasn’t alive to see her being made an OBE, as that was something she would have enjoyed, according to her daughter.

“That’s the only thing – that she had died by the time I got it – as she adored the Queen, and she would have loved that day. So that’s a bit of a nuisance that she wasn’t there. That’s a shame. Yes,” she says in an ‘on with the show’ voice.

You get the sense that Staunton wouldn’t be one to waste time worrying about about getting older, instead embracing the ‘take a leap’ message of her latest film.

“Ageing is inevitable, and I’m lucky enough to be in a profession where I work with people of all ages all the time so that keeps you young. And playing someone younger than yourself, helps, even playing someone older. Just being an actor helps.”

Staunton began her acting career in school productions of The Beggar’s Opera, performed “with the boys school from across the road, so that was a result! We did Pride and Prejudice with them too. And because my mum was a hairdresser, she used to come and do the hair for the shows, and that was lovely.” Then Staunton went on to apply to RADA, encouraged by a teacher, as well as her parents.

“I don’t think any of us thought of it as a career. You could act in school, even go to drama school, but I didn’t think you could have a career in it. But my parents were encouraging because I’d been the lead in all the school stuff.”

After RADA, where she was in the same class as Timothy Spall and formed a life-long friendship, she went on to repertory theatre and the TV and film roles followed. She met husband Jim when they both did Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre and they married in 1983. “Then we did the Wizard of Oz at the RSC where I was Dorothy and he was the lion, oh and we were both in The Singing Detective years ago, which was wonderful, but we didn’t work together again till Cranford.”

The thing she likes best about the actor, whose CV is as long as his wife’s, is not just that they share a way of life; they also share a sense of humour.

“Oh god he’s funny,” she says. “Christ he’s funny! Oh God yeah. He’s dry, witty, quick and we do make each other laugh, and that’s a great bonus. When you’ve been together 35 years there aren’t that many surprises, but if you can be quick witted, that’s attractive. He’s a really good, good man, and to have a really good guy who’s also very funny, I think I lucked out there.”

Unlike the unfortunate Sandra, her character in Finding Your Feet, who discovers her husband of 40 years has been having an affair and freaks out. Literally. From berating the caterers at her country pile, she winds up dancing le Freak along with her free-spirited sister Bif (Celia Imrie) at a community dance class and living in her council flat. She also gets to dance up a storm with the very nattily dressed barge-dwelling Timothy Spall.

“Sandra’s a very uptight woman who needs unlocking, quite frankly, the opposite to her sister Bif who is very carefree and just does things that life throws at her. She’s also spent her life a step behind her husband and lived her life vicariously through him and then is completely shocked, heartbroken and humiliated by his behaviour. Her sister has just drifted through, and is content with what she has.”

A bittersweet take on ageing, friendship and second chances, the film has an appeal beyond the silver surfer demographic with a stellar cast of British national treasures including Joanna Lumley, David Hayman and the aforementioned Spall and Imrie injecting it with both subtlety and fun. These baby boomers were never going to go gentle into that good night. From the director of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Richard Loncraine, it has an all-singing, all-dancing message that it’s never too late to grab life by the lapels and teach it the Harlem Shuffle.

“It’s a universal story, something that appeals to everyone,” says Staunton. “People you know, people who have problems, and it’s about how they deal with them. And no-one’s killing anyone – I mean, I don’t mind that… but it’s done with great wit and truthfulness and heartache and hilarity.”

As befits a film about ageing, Staunton was reuniting with old friends this time round, having known Imrie since the 1970s, and Spall since forever.

“Tim and I have known each other a long time so that’s sort of like going through a stick of rock, it’s just there. You don’t have to write that in, it’s just a given. You have respect for each other’s work and yet are very easy with each other, so it’s incredibly helpful to be able to work together like that, and it’s very nice for the atmosphere. And when you’ve got a good script like this, you don’t have to do that much work,” she says, playing it down.

What did take a lot of effort was the dancing, which is where her recent song and dance experience on Gypsy as well as Follies, came in, and Staunton arrived already in good shape.

“We covered probably every dance step there was and we had a lot of rehearsal, which we all needed,” she says. “It was great fun because it was always in a weird circumstance – a flashmob in Piccadilly Circus, a huge stage in a theatre, and it was all so heightened. It was a nice element to have in the film, really enhancing.”

She goes on, “You know I haven’t done a film like this before, so that’s quite nice to be able to turn up in something else and be a bit funny and a bit grumpy, all of those things, without being too extreme. Harry Potter is extreme, and Vera Drake had its own agenda.”

It was the Mike Leigh award-winner Vera Drake that changed the way Staunton acted for good, as she goes on to explain.

“Well, one doesn’t have enough time to talk about the Mike Leigh process, but it really made me keep my own counsel because film sets are very busy places and you suddenly have to turn on a very emotional scene and there’s so much noise going on, instead of saying ‘could everyone be quiet because I need to concentrate’ you just go right, I’m going into a very quiet zone now. So it taught me how to do that and think about what my character is doing, not worry about anyone else’s work and that was really, really liberating. It had such an impact on the way I act because the working process was so different, a huge change for me.

“And Gypsy was an amazing gig too: there wasn’t one area of me that I didn’t cover, either emotionally or physically or vocally, so that really was a great gift. So Vera Drake and Gypsy, if I never worked again, I’d kind of think well, I’ve done those two and that was pretty remarkable for me.”

With a long and varied career such as Staunton’s, it’s tempting to think that writing it all down might be something she’d consider, yet she’s underwhelmed at the thought.

“What, a memoir thing?” she says. “Oh no! Actors’ lives, I don’t find it that interesting. I’d rather read someone who’d climbed Everest and I’d think, bloody hell, look at that! But someone saying then I did this part, then I did that part… Well? And?”

OK, no book then, so how does Staunton deal with gaps between jobs when she’s not baking soda bread and devouring box sets?

“It’s never got any easier as far as I’m concerned, and I’ve worked a lot, haven’t gone long periods without work, but it can be tough. Because acting is fuelled on adrenaline. Someone gets you dressed, does your make-up, tells you what to do, then when you go home you go a bit cold turkey. You go through a thing of well, what am I worth if I’m not doing anything? It’s not who am I? None of that, but what do I do if I don’t do this?”

For Staunton there doesn’t seem to be much fear of ‘not doing this’ and she mentions a choice of work that she’s currently considering.

“I’m reading lots of scripts, but I don’t want to do any theatre and I don’t want to go away from home, so I’m limiting myself, but I don’t care. I’m at a point where I think I just need to shut up for a bit and recharge. I’m not bothered at all. Not. At All. For me grabbing the life you want to have is vital.” And off she goes. Soda bread and Peaky Blinders.


Finding Your Feet is on general release now