Interview: Imelda Staunton on Never Repeating the Same Role, Harry Potter Fans and Working with Old Friends

Imelda Staunton is one of the single greatest and most versatile actors working today, but you might not realize it unless you’ve been exposed to her work on the big and little screen, as well as her exquisite stage work, a great deal of which has been broadcast in movie theaters over the last few years. I first remember spotting her in supporting parts in much works as Sense and Sensibility and Shakespeare in Love, but it was her portrayal of the title character in Mike Leigh’s hard-hitting 2004 drama Vera Drake that earned Staunton her sole Oscar nomination, for playing an abortionist in 1950s Great Britain.

Imelda Staunton Timothy Spall Finding Your Feet

Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Staunton has done voice work in such films as Chicken Run, Arthur Christmas, The Pirates!, and the two Paddington film (she plays the bear’s Aunt Lucy); played Dolores Umbridge in several of the Harry Potter films; and turned in every sized performance in such films as the Emma Thompson-written and -starring Nanny McPhee, the“Little Britain” series, Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, Leigh’s Another Year, Pride, and the Sleeping Beauty retelling Maleficent.

I’ve been fortunate enough to catch Staunton’s on-stage work over the last few years, including a run as Mama Rose in Gypsy, Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, the latter two for the National Theatre.

Her latest film role is as Sandra, an uptight, long-time wife who discovers her husband of 40 years has been cheating on her with her best friend, in director Richard Loncraine’s Finding Your Feet. The affair leads her to move in with her sister (Celia Imrie), whom she hasn’t spoken with in quite some time, and the two must find a way to not get along, but kickstart Sandra’s stagnated life with the help of her sister and her eclectic group of friends (that includes Timothy Spall, Joanna Lumley, and David Hayman). The film is in theaters now, and it’s quite enriching and moving.

[Editor’s note: here is Steve’s review of the film, and here is his interview with filmmaker Richard Loncraine.]

I had a chance to chat with Staunton recently about Finding Your Feet and other elements of her career; she’s a true national treasure and outspoken woman. Please enjoy our conversation…

How are you, Imelda?

I’m fine, thank you very much.

Even though the story in Finding Your Feet involves characters of a certain age, this is a film that explores ideas of discovering what relationships are the most important and seizing the day. Were those some of the themes you enjoyed when you first read the screenplay?

I think that’s very good that you feel that way, since this is likely a story about people from your parents’ generation. I found the script a page-turner for me, but what I liked about it was that it went in directions one didn’t expect. That makes the film slightly meatier than one might be led to believe it would be. But I agree with you, the film isn’t about being “older,” it’s not about people going around saying “God, my shoulders are really stiff. Is your shoulder really stiff?” It isn’t about that.

It is about people who don’t happen to be 23 but can walk and breathe and have problems that they deal with and conquer their fears and take a long, hard look at themselves and make a change. As you said, it’s universal, the issues we have to face, but I think it’s done in a feel-good way. We’re not doing big, heavyweight stuff here, but it touches on themes in a very delicate and respectful way, without be too cliched or too sentimental about them. It’s got enough gentle humor and other stuff, without giving too much away, that people will be surprised by it.

You’re right, it doesn’t call attention to the age of the characters, but it’s clear that these people have had full lives and adventures. They’re entering a chapter of their lives that may carry them until the end.

I absolutely agree with you. And it’s interesting that people don’t spend many interviews with 27 year olds asking “What’s it like being 27?” And that’s because there aren’t that many films with these characters in them. And of course we’re talking about it, because it’s a new thing. It’s great that it’s been written by a husband-and-wife team [Meg Leonard and Nick Moorcroft] who are not this age; they are much younger. I think what they’re saying is that there is life after 20 and 30 and 40 and 50 [laughs]. You’re right and they’re right that these stories need to be listened to, and in this film, it’s done in an entertaining way.

As much as the film hints that your character and Timothy Spall’s character might have a future as a romantic couple, the real love story here is between the sisters and how they reconnect at a critical time in both their lives.

And Tim and I aren’t even that romantic, but you’re right, when my character meets her sister again after many years, there isn’t an instant reconciliation. It takes a long time—almost halfway through the film—for them to properly reconnect, and I think that’s more believable than two days in going “I wish I’d done this years ago.” That doesn’t happen. Also, with Tim’s character, it’s not comfortable at first, it’s not particularly flirtatious. It’s just two grown-ups talking about “Your life must be this and that…” And it doesn’t get girly or silly or sweet or saccharine; that’s what I liked about it. And with me and Tim, it’s not going to happen; we’re not those sort of actors [laughs].

Audiences are going to take a while to warm to your character. She’s not especially likable in the beginning. I couldn’t even spot the moment where I started to like her. How did you make that subtle transition?

I don’t know, but I think English actors are very good at not being liked. I don’t mind not being like as a character, and that makes it more poignant when, as you said, you say, “Oh my, I really like her.” She’s trying to re-find that little girl again, she’s trying to rediscover that, because she was a nice kid whose been locked into this hellhole of a marriage, quite frankly. And she has lived through her husband—what a mistake! Then you find this woman who has had that shell broken, and inside is a very vulnerable person who doesn’t like what she’s become and doesn’t really know that yet. It has good layers to it, and that’s what makes it work.

Things aren’t solved immediately; it takes a long time, you’re not sure it’s going to happen, then it does happen. It’s complicated, and that’s what’s interesting about it. It certainly made it more interesting to play. I was never consciously thinking “Now people have to like her here.” Not at all. I don’t want to do anything that isn’t in the script, and the script was there for me and did it all for me.

I have to talk about the dancing. Some of the more recent things I’ve seen you in have been filmed musicals, including Gypsy and Follies, so you seem to be up on your dancing abilities.

Yeah, that wasn’t a problem. It was lovely to do that sort of dancing that isn’t in a musical. It’s a bit of modern dance, rock ’n roll, a bit of everything. And also we were shooting it out in the street in front of strangers. We had about 30 extras in Piccadilly Circus and the rest was the public, and we had to grin and bear it. Then we had to do it, disappear, and wait for a new set of public to come and do it again. That was quite exciting!

So it was a real flash-mob scenario?

It was, absolutely. We didn’t explain to anyone what was happening. We just did it. People were just standing around, and we just had to do it, you couldn’t make mistakes.

Talk about the working relationship you had with Celia. I’m guessing this isn’t the first time you’ve worked together.

Are you out of your mind? [laughs] Don’t be silly. We first worked together in regional theater in 1978, I’m here to tell you. We were Kit-Kat Girls in Cabaret. So we’ve known each other a long time, on a personal level and working in other stage shows together. We did Nanny McPhee together, we did [the play] Habeas Corpus with Jim Broadbent, so it was so easy to have this relationship. We had children within a year of each other, so easy peasy.

Totally the same with Tim Spall [the two went to the same drama school in overlapping years]. Also, I respect him so much as an actor; we trust each other so much and that made it very easy. You’ve got a shorthand and you can talk to each other; no one is getting precious about anything. “Let’s try this.” “What don’t we try this instead?” “That’s much better; let’s do that. Much better idea.” We’re very relaxed with each other, and that gave the film something that none of us no what it is, but it’s there.

Richard mentioned that you had the luxury of shooting the film more or less in chronological order, which doesn’t happen often. How did that change the experience for you?

It didn’t make that much difference to me. Your read a script and you usually shoot out of order, you know what you’re doing. But it was nice, probably for my journey more than anyone else’s, to follow her transition naturally. Whatever happens, I’m locked in. I’ve got to change my hair at this point, back to the old hair for the next scene. We did a little bit of back and forth, but not that much. In the end, it’s probably better for the wigs and makeup people than me. All the stuff at Rome, that’s when it took place in the film, toward the end. He’s such a good filmmaker, Richard, because he knows how films work, he knows what you need and what you don’t need. He makes it very relaxed and very easy.

Between this film, the Paddington movies and Harry Potter series, you must have fans of every age…

I’ve also got Maleficent and Nanny McPhee. Come on, I’m cornering the market

So you’re saying more children know who you are than adults?

[laughs] Without a doubt, some of my best work is not in vision. I’ve done the Aardman films, and I can hardly take any credit for Paddington, where I have about one-and-a-half lines, but they are glorious films. Yes, it’s wonderful to be a part of that entire list of films, because they’ll go on and on.

You seem to really value not repeating yourself from role to role. How critical is that for you in choosing what you do from one role to the next?

It is critical. There are no more young roles for me to do; I’ve done them all. Who knew at 62 that I’d be here doing a sort of rom-com? How nice is that? And I’m not pretending to be anything other than what I am. And if I ever work again, I’ll look for something that is different than that.

I can’t wait to see what that is. Thank you for talking.

Thank you so much.

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