Interview: Actress Celia Imrie on her 40 years on showbusiness

She's had 40 years in the business, but Celia Imrie still loves a challenge. She talks to Janet Christie about films, family and fulfilling her Hollywood dreams. Portrait by Rachell Smith

Celia Imrie. Picture: Rachell Smith
Celia Imrie. Picture: Rachell Smith

How many new lives can we have? As many as we like. Not only is that one of the messages of hit comedy drama The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films, starring Celia Imrie alongside Dames Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy, as a group of reborn retirees, it also applies to Imrie herself. Today finds her in another hotel, very different to the one in Rajasthan, where the films were shot. It’s in LA where Imrie has gone to launch, if not another life, certainly a fresh beginning as she takes Bollywood to Hollywood and seeks to capitalise on the success of last year’s Marigold Hotel sequel.

“I’m in West Hollywood, living the glamorous life,” she says, deadpan. In reality she was up before dawn, and has been doing interviews since 6am, so she’s already been working for four hours when we speak. “It’s still a bit cold to be honest, but the sun’s up now and it’ll be hot later,” she says, her precise tones full of chipper optimism. Imrie is a staple of our radio, theatre, TV and cinema screens, with a career that has spanned 40 years and seen her cropping up in everything from Star Wars to Still Game.

“I’m out here to hustle. I’m giving myself a go to see what happens. In the US that is applauded, unlike in England where it’s frowned upon. Part of me thinks damn, I wish I had done it before, been pushy and courageous. I’ve been going to meetings and auditions and it’s very different to how it is at home. Yesterday I went to an audition where a stream of quite well known actresses all my age were going for the same part, all of us sitting there, waiting together. At home they let you think you’re the only person in the running. But we’re all wonderfully good sports about it.”

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Picture: [ Blueprint Pictures / The Kobal Collection

Hanging out in Tinseltown has been an eye-opener for Imrie who is discreet about which parts she’s up for. With her penchant for walking everywhere – “no-one does that here, they think I’m bonkers” – she isn’t standard Hollywood material. She might have cheekbones like handlebars and a bosom that called for “considerably bigger buns” on Calendar Girls, but Hollywood is notorious for expecting actors to go under the knife.

“I’m sure to be under enormous pressure to do that out here,” she says. “When I did Calendar Girls I had talks with Americans and they said we would expect you to have work done. I found myself nodding and understanding that that was the way things are. But I never did it and now, because of Best Marigold Hotel, I can go into a room and not have to pretend to be 36. Hopefully that’s made a lasting change for women of my age. I would hate to volunteer myself into hospital. I’ve got this far and it’s too late really.

“Somebody said to me before I left, ‘just go and be English, because they love that.’ Best Marigold has helped a lot and it’s a great passport into the room. I’ve got to go with what’s happening. But I would love to be able to do different things.”

Imrie’s voyage to the US was on the QM2, because she doesn’t like to fly after suffering two pulmonary embolisms in 2005 that caused her to take half a year off to recover. She crossed the Atlantic in style, but also did a turn entertaining the passengers, alongside journalist and former hostage John McCarthy.

Celia Imrie helping the Citizens Theatre Company celebrat 70 years in its Gorbals home in Glasgow.

“It was seven nights on the ship then three days on the train across country. It was a terrific adventure. On the boat I had the great joy of meeting John McCarthy and his story was breathtaking.

“I fly if I have to though, like to India for Best Marigold Hotel, but if I can avoid it, I do. I want to carry on living and make the most of what I have left.”

That could be the message of Best Marigold, which followed a group of seven British pensioners who moved to a newly opened Indian hotel claiming to cater to the “elderly and beautiful”. Hitting a nerve with its never give up message, it made £81 million at the global box office. Second time round Richard Gere joined the cast as a silver fox and Imrie’s Madge Hardcastle found herself juggling two wealthy maharajahs.

“Being in India was a dream job: the heat, the smells, the colours, the music, the bright lights, the people, the traffic, the gods, the temples, the curry for breakfast. It was a fantastic gift. Although, in the first film, particularly, the rather harsh light of the Indian sun was not particularly flattering to us. I looked at it and thought how old we are! Yes, I’m that vain. I still think I’m 26.”

Celia Imrie

She might be in Hollywood to hustle film roles, but the reason for our transatlantic phone call is the launch of her book, Nice Work (If You Can Get It), published this week. The sequel to Not Quite Nice, which was a Sunday Times bestseller and a hit in the Apple ibook and Amazon book charts, it follows the further adventures of a group of retired expats in the south of France who open up a restaurant on the Riviera.

Imrie bought an apartment in the South of France in 2010 and spends much of her time there, so both the lifestyle and characters are drawn from elements of her life, though she insists hers is quieter.

“It’s my heaven there, my hideaway. It’s where I write; it’s so inspiring. I spend as much time there as I can because it is my idea of heaven and it will be extremely difficult for me to be here in LA, because it’s such a contrast.”

This is Imrie’s third book – her Happy Hoofer autobiography was published in 2011 – and the Nice novels excel in snappy dialogue and colourful characters so that it would be short work to turn into them into a film or TV show. There are Russian playboy villains, Wags, actors, PRs, selfish kids, straying husbands and, transgender former It girls all thrown into the mix of this comic crime thriller that romps along at a cracking pace, with recipes for Imrie’s favourite French dishes thrown in.

Calendar Girls (2003) Photo Credit: [ The Kobal Collection / Buena Vista/Touchstone Pictures ]

“There’s a mixture of me in all of the parts,” says Imrie, “even the boy parts. I love making up lines for them. The dialogue is my favourite part to write,” she says. “As I’m writing it I’m thinking this would be a marvellous part to play or to make into a film. I unashamedly write it like this, and hope that it will be, because the setting couldn’t be more spectacular.”

Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley obviously thought so too, as that’s where they filmed part of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, to be released this year with Imrie playing the part of Claudia Bing, a rival PR to Edina Monsoon.

Imrie was born in Guildford in Surrey in 1952, the fourth of five children to Glaswegian radiologist David Imrie and Diana Elizabeth Blois Cator. On her mother’s side there are earls, barons and dukes while her father was raised by his father, a steamship agent, after his mother died when he was a child.

“My parents gave me the most marvellous mixture and I’m extremely proud of having Scots blood, and grateful for my father’s ever present Scottish burr. Thanks to him I was able to get quite a few Scottish parts that I would not have been able to do otherwise, such as When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout, Sharman Macdonald’s [Keira Knightley’s mother] first play. My wonderful, much missed Alan Rickman read it and said they must put it on at the Citizens’, where I spent wonderful times.

“With Cloud Howe (the second part of the Scots Quair trilogy by Lewis Grassic Gibbon where she played Else Queen) I had to start all over again because it was Aberdeenshire, totally different from a Glasgow accent. They stuck their necks out and took a chance on me because of the way I spoke.

“That was a fabulous part. I got caught under the kitchen table with someone. That was one of my favourite roles ever,” she says.

Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)

Imrie’s career continued on stage, bringing her awards and accolades but also moved to TV after Victoria Wood spotted her in a 1981 Hogmanay show and cast her as Miss Babs in the spoof soap, Acorn Antiques. Dinnerladies, Gormenghast and Ab Fab followed, and film work has covered everything from a fighter pilot in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace to Calendar Girls, Bridget Jones’s Diary and the Best Marigolds.

Returning to the Scottish theme, because Imrie is very proud of her roots, she says, “I have been in Taggart and the The Planman with Robbie Coltrane and when I was at the officers’ cocktail party on the QM2 one of the very handsome officers said ‘Oh, Mrs Begg!’ He recognised me from Still Game, which being a Scot himself, he adored.” Imrie played a care worker who took caring a step too far in the Scottish sitcom. “Those boys are absolutely remarkable,” she says of Kiernan and Hemphill.

Last year saw her coupled with Timothy Spall, in a heist movie The Love Punch, starring alongside Emma Thompson and Pierce Brosnan in what Thompson described as The Italian Job with people from Surrey and she also played a social worker in What We Did On Our Holiday with Billy Connolly, David Tennant and Rosamund Pike.

For Imrie the year ahead holds the release of another Bridget Jones film, Bridget Jones’s Baby, where she reprises her role as Una Alconbury, with her penchant for fuchsia suits and matchmaking. Does she have a lot of scenes in it?

“Not enough!” She laughs. “But it’s very thrilling to be part of it,” she says.

Her role may be small but it’s crucial to the romcom as it was at Una’s leftover turkey curry meal in the first film that Bridget and Mark Darcy are deliberately thrown together.

“I love playing Una. Laurence Olivier said we always must love the person we are playing and I always do. There isn’t an awful lot of control that you can have as an actor but I try to do as wide a variety of roles as possible. One of my great faves was Selma Quickly in Nanny McPhee. I adored playing her.”

This year Imrie appears in the films A Year By The Sea, A Cure for Wellness and the family film Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Hypnotism. A Year By The Sea is based on the memoirs of Joan Anderson, an American who takes a year long break from her family and went on to run retreats for people wishing to do the same. In it Imrie plays a free spirited 90-year-old with hair dyed white in a role that reprised the Marigold Hotel theme of taking time out to be reborn by discovering a new vitality.

“It was a wonderful part, based on a real person and I hope the film will get a lot of attention,” says Imrie.

There’s history of escape in the Imrie family, her mother Diana having been taken by her mother to Monte Carlo when she decided she couldn’t marry the lord she was engaged to.

“Well, they didn’t run away,” she says, “but they did go for a break and played the tables for a while. My mother got out of what she was supposed to do. For me, going to 
the south of France was a lovely escape. Not from life, but it is a lovely getaway.

“I hope I have some of my mother’s spirit because she’s in every part I play – when I did Love In A Cold Climate and had the great delight of being married to Alan Bates, I based it entirely on my mother – so her breaking the rules like that, I can only admire. The bravery of not doing what you’re supposed to do, realising she didn’t love her fiancé and being very daring and honest. She followed her heart. I’m a great romantic at heart, but in that respect I haven’t followed her and I never got married.”

With her joie de vivre and hourglass figure you get the impression this was a matter of choice rather than lack of opportunity.

“Well I’m a bit of a flibbertigibbet,” she says by way of explanation. “There’s a lot of me in my Best Marigold Hotel character I think it would be fair to say.”

Did she never think about getting married?

“Well, it was possible once upon a time, but I left it so late. And I always had a child-like nonsense that I felt like it would be rather trapping. I say that, but I have never been married, so how would I know? I’m alone at the moment but I have wonderful friends and I’m very happy as I am with Angus.”

Angus is the child she had with her friend, actor Ben Whitrow, who played Mr Bennet in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. Not wanting to be tied down, she nevertheless was keen to become a parent and Whitrow was happy to be a father, though Imrie was clear that she didn’t want a relationship or marriage.

“People don’t always approve of that and I have got into trouble for it,” she says, not least referring to her mother who wasn’t best pleased at this turn of events.

Angus, now 22, studied drama and performance at Warwick University and is now an actor, like his mother.

“I’m so glad I have Angus and he’s a wonderful friend. He’s always supportive when I have auditions, and I am of him.”

Given that it’s a precarious profession, did Imrie ever consider putting her son off acting?

“No! Why?” she asks, mystified at the suggestion. “It’s a great life – when you work. I love that he wants to share it. He’s terribly sweet and gives me positive vibes if I lose courage. He gives me good luck. It’s a great thing.

“And actors are great people, given to making complete prats of ourselves over and over again. It’s terrifying but the joy outweighs the terror. That makes us more generous than people realise.”

Another film Imrie has out this year is Gore Verbinski’s supernatural horror, A Cure for Wellness. Set in a health spa in Switzerland, things take an unhealthy turn for the residents.

“It’s quite a grim story but delightful to be in. All of us have gone expecting massages and marvellous treatments but we get iller and iller. It’s spooky and … I don’t want to give too much away… but quite worrying. It’ll give you the jitters. It plays to that endless fear of being trapped and really does give you the heebeegeebees.”

Imrie has reason to shudder as way back in her teens, when she developed anorexia, possibly as a result of being rejected by the Royal Ballet School for being “too big”, she was admitted to hospital in London and given electric shock treatment and tranquillisers in a bid to cure her condition.

“I will probably be shot down and people won’t agree but anything like that self-inflicted condition that anorexia is, nobody tells you to do it, you do it to yourself. The biggest thing is the waste of time. It takes a long time to get yourself out of it and it gave an immense amount of worry to people around me, so I feel sick about that,” she says.

“I think there was a switch that happened in my head. I felt I don’t want to be like this any more and I’m going to make myself better and with the same determination that got me into that state, I got myself out of it. That’s the power of any person suffering in this way. But I don’t really like talking about it because it’s all been said.”

So, for the future, Bloomsbury have asked Imrie to write another Nice book with the same characters and it sounds like she’s already onto it.

“I find it difficult to say no in life and art, so I’m twirling it around in my head at the moment.”

And for now, as the sun comes up in Tinseltown and the execs shake off their hangovers and don their shades, for Imrie it’s on with the hustling.

“I love not knowing what’s around the corner and hope I can be open to everything on offer. You have to go out and grab opportunities. I want to grab every second, because I’m running out of time. And there is no time like the present.

“I’ve financed this trip myself and I’m here in this hotel every day thinking now what, but as my darling mother would say, you’ve got to lay out to pick up. Life’s a gamble.”

• Nice Work (If You Can Get It) by Celia Imrie is out now, published by Bloomsbury, at £12.99 in hardback and ebook (£10.99)

Nanny McPhee
Nice Work (If You Can Get It) by Celia Imrie
Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Picture: [ Blueprint Pictures / The Kobal Collection
Celia Imrie helping the Citizens Theatre Company celebrat 70 years in its Gorbals home in Glasgow.
Celia Imrie
Calendar Girls (2003) Photo Credit: [ The Kobal Collection / Buena Vista/Touchstone Pictures ]
Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)
Nanny McPhee
Nice Work (If You Can Get It) by Celia Imrie