Imelda Staunton's varied career has included a variety of musical performances, Shakesperean screen roles (Maria in Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night or What You Will, Margaret in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, and the nurse in Academy Award-winning Best Picture Shakespeare in Love), and the role of a chicken (Bunty in Nick Park's Chicken Run). Her collaborations with Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Branagh originated with Staunton's regular appearances on Thompson's BBC series Thompson and include Peter's Friends, Sense and Sensibility, and Bright Young Things. Before she was nominated for a 2005 Academy Award, Staunton sat down with me at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, to discuss her titular role in Mike Leigh's Vera Drake.
Groucho: All right, so you've had many fine roles on film and television and particularly the stage: how did you come to work on this film, your first collaboration with Mike Leigh?
Imelda Staunton: He asked me. (Both laugh.) So, uh, so yes. I met him over the years, but hadn't done anything with him, so this one came along, and I was ready. I was really ready for this.
G: Vera's double life is one, I suppose, that an actor can readily identify with, being someone different in different contexts. And with the process on this film you had to withhold a secret as well. What was that like?
IS: Well, um—well, it was easy because, I mean, that was the whole point, that she didn't talk to anyone, but also I didn't talk to anyone outside. I—no one at home knew anything. So I, you know, just didn't speak about it from last January until about, uh, four weeks ago.
G: Do you think when Vera began her journey of enacting the secrets, do you think she had a crisis of conscience at all about whether or not to confide with her husband or her—
IS: When do you mean?
G: Well, before the events of the film—years before, when she'd started.
IS: No. (Both laugh.) No, I think that would have been clear. You know, nothing is in the film that isn't there.
G: Right. Hm. Mike Leigh's process is rigorous, but I think good actors like working hard and being respected as collaborators. What about the process was most rewarding for you or most difficult?
IS: Well, I have to tell you, the whole thing was rewarding, and not because I didn't know his process, and I—and he doesn't tell you what's going to happen, so you are discovering it on the day. Uh, and then the next day something else happens, and you have to just go with it. Uh, so that's how it was. And so every day was new and exciting and—and extraordinary. And it wasn't difficult in it's—I mean, difficult only you knew they were long days. There was nothing that you thought, "I can't do—how can I—well, I don't know what he means." Nothing was unclear or—um, so it was all possible. Oh! It did feel like, you know, you're the one talking of being sort of slowly going out of an aeroplane, with no parachute, but someone's saying, "You're absolutely fine. Absolutely fine." Going, "Do you know, I think I am. Okay, let's go. Let's keep going." So, it was that sort of, you know, pull of going, "I don't know where I'm going, but I'm going there, and it all seems to be going all right."
G: The story is partly told in your physicalization, I think. Can you describe how you came to embody Vera?
IS: Mmm. Well, of course, there's nothing conscious in it at all. And creating a character from the day they're born, living their whole life, and then have that happen to them—y'know, that whole section of the film from when they're having the party to being arrested was a seven-hour improvisation where I didn't know there were any police. I didn't know there were any actors who were playing police. And so it was terrifying. So that, you're really going through it. I mean, you're not pretending. You're not going to "How, h—would she—would her body be like thi—?" There's nothing like that. There's just doing, in the moment, what's happening. So there's absolutely no thought, at all, about how she looks, how she's moving, how she walked. Nothing. It's just come out of the process. And I'm sure that's made no sense at all, but there's no po—ever a point where Mike or I discuss about, you know, "Should she, do you think she'd be like this now?" Nn.
G: Actors talk about sometimes an "inside-out" process or an "outside-in" process, and it's entirely—
G: Inside. At what point in the process do you become enveloped in, um, the exterior trappings: the home, the costumes; and how do those affect the—
IS: Well, very early on, actually, we sort of got a little flat, as we would call it, or an apartment, as you would say. Sort of halfway through rehearsals, and then we had, you know—we chose some clothes that we would wear, then to rehearse for another couple of months. And we would just be that family, in that flat for hour upon hour upon hour. Um, and that's how you do it. And that's—and Mike is just in a corner, watching, and then when you're done, in say a few hours, you'll stop that rehearsal and then he will talk to each actor individually. He doesn't talk about what anyone else is doing. It's just one-to-one what your journey is and how that is going. And he does that with everyone.
IS: So, you know, he has the canvas. And he's dripping colors, taking stuff away—you know, but with you.
G: Yeah. And I suppose for that to work there must be a very, as you say—you have to throw yourself out of a plane a bit. You have to be very open to any possibility.
IS: Yes, I do. And very trusting. I am trusting of the other actors, and Mike, as he is with you.
G: Now, when you perform on stage, there is a nightly gratification, perhaps, not only for yourself, but from the audience. Now that you've completed your work on Vera Drake some time ago, can you enjoy at all the public appearances, or seeing the film with an audience, or the awards, or would you rather just get on with the next role?
IS: Well, but I did get on with the next role. You know, I finished his job, and I went and did a theater job. And I've done two other—another film and a television since...Course I've just got to carry on and finish the job, you know.
IS: And this is difficult, I think, um, because you know, in one way it's been difficult letting the film, you know, go from our lives. And it becoming very public property. But I guess that's part of the job, and also it's great that the film is being seen in a very positive light, and that's all I ever wanted, this film to be seen. And I'm sure it will open up debate, et cetera. But I do think, I—you know, it was very difficult seeing it, for a few times, to be objective, but I'm so proud to be in it, and to work with those actors was just, you know—
G: Yeah. I'd like to talk about some of the research that you did—Mr. Leigh had been telling me that you had read some letters from prison? Is that right?
IS: Yes. Yeah.
G: —and maybe looked at certain case studies of women like Vera. Can you tell me about that?
IS: Well, I'd read mainly [from] abortionists who'd been in Holloway Prison. And I was surprised to discover, you know, that they were, mainly, mothers and grandmothers, you know. And because I think—the phrase "back-street abortionist," you know: it doesn't summon up a friendly grandmother. So that was surprising. And, you know, a documentary on an abortionist in the sixties, who, you know, was a very ordinary sort of kind woman, who just on with it, she didn't take any money and, you know, people were saying, "Surely they all took money, they all"—they didn't. They didn't. Because, you know, these women were just around the corner.
G: Mike was also talking about how it was key to the role that you brought an unsentimental approach, and I think that's important when watching the film, that she doesn't come off as saintly, that she comes across as human.
G: Was that something that you were ever conscious of, to make sure that we were seeing all dimensions? Or was that something you had to trust to the final product.
IS: No, no. That's something you're creating. And I was aware of that all the time. And, you know, I'm sure Mike was keeping an eye on it, but I was, as well, and all—but, you see, we didn't—I didn't know what she was supposed to—. You know, I knew she was an abortionist, and I—I didn't want to create someone who was unbelievable. As an abortionist—.Well, surely, someone who was so squeaky-clean, you know, wouldn't be doing that sort of thing. Well, I think you could see that she could do that. Because she was doing it just out of—out of good, not out of a) making any money, or—or for any other reason, but just recognizing how difficult it was for those women to survive, if they had to go through with it. It's quite, you know—and sort of brave, in a very ordinary way. To go against—of course she went—she was—she knew she was going against the law. That's all those women did, but she couldn't stand by and see more women suffer.
G: Right. Did you take any inspiration from particular people that you knew? I mean, were you inspired by any real models?
IS: No. You take, you know, what—all the research, it all fit—it all goes in there. And there'll be tiny things that you're sort of unaware, you know, that will come out some how. Whether it's in the making of the tea, whether it's the way she talks with someone, whether it's the way she always kept her hat on. That was some bit of research I remember—I remember reading one who always had her hat on, and I thought of that. I thought, okay, that's a good little, you know—just little things that would just sort of drip into her. Which was—and that's the luxury of all that time researching it.
G: I've heard it described as a process of taking in all of that, remembering all of that, and then—
IS: Letting it go.
G: Forgetting it. Right.
G: Assuming that this role will provide a platform for your career to. . .
IS: Well, hopefully continue, let's say.
G: Right. (Both laugh.) For a start. I'd just like to ask if you gained more clout from this role, what would you like to do with it? What sorts of roles would you like to—?
IS: Listen, this is the best role I've ever had. There's not going to be anything that's going to be as good as this. Is there? I mean, you know, not from the whole—the way I would work. And, you know, the emotions I have to go through. So, you know, I've had—this is the job that people dream about getting, if they get a prize. I've had my prize. The prize is the job. I've had that. And I've worked for twenty-eight years, and all I want to do is carry on working. And I—you know, and I've just done a nice role on television and I—that's all I want to do. I've always just wanted to do good work, and this is the best work I've done, I think. I mean, you know, it's the biggest part on film, it's the most intense rehearsal period, the most total experience. So there's nothing more to add to that.
G: So, more like this one would be good. (Both laugh.) Um, you won one of your three Olivier Awards—
IS: Well, it's—can I say, it's two.
G: Two? Oh. . .
IS: Because—well, no, no, it's fine. Why three: because one award was for two plays.
IS: And they keep thinking it must have been an award each because it's for two plays, and I— (Sighs).
IS: Anyway, I've got a couple.
G: Right. (Both laugh.) I was going to reference Into the Woods—
G: And mention that you've done a lot of other musicals. I read this—and maybe it's one of those things that people just publish—but that you had fronted a big band for a time. Can you tell me about that?
IS: Yeah. I was in New York, as well, with a cabaret—I was with a cabaret about five years ago in New York. Well I'd just done the revival with Richard Eyre at National Theatre of Guys and Dolls again in '97, and I finished that in '98. And, you know, I'm afraid, to me, Guys and Dolls is the best musical there is. I've done it twice: both with Richard Eyre, both at the National Theater and that's extremely lucky in one lifetime. So when I finished that, I thought, "Well, I'm not going to do another musical," so—and I do like to have a bit of a sing, now and again—so I thought, "Oh well, how will I do that?" Well, I thought, "Do a show with a band." I've got no taste in music. I have to tell you.
IS: It was fairly middle of the road. Uh, I enjoyed it. But then I changed that—I came here with another—just a small band. Um, and did some sort-of Kirsty MacColl and some Irish music, and things like that. So, um, I don't do it very much. I just do it a bit.
G: You should do it more. There's some confusion in my research about your background with frequent collaborators Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, et cetera.
G: Did you attend school with them? Or when did you meet that bunch and begin to work with them?
IS: You see, I—of course—I should of course say I was at Cambridge with all of them.
IS: But I wasn't. I was at RADA when they were at Cambridge, so uh—no. I met Emma, I think it was in '86 or '87, or a little bit before that. And then she very kindly asked me to be in her television series that she wrote. And we've been friends—very good friends—ever since.
G: And I understand you just finished working with her on a new film.
IS: Yes, yes.
G: Right? That she wrote and acts in. Can you tell me—?
IS: Yes. It's called Nanny McPhee. And she adapted a wonderful screenplay. She's so annoying with her cleverness.
IS: And she plays Nanny McPhee, and Colin Firth, and it's a wonderful children's film. And I'm giving a very, very grumpy performance as the very mean cook downstairs in the kitchen. And I don't—I had a lot of fun doing that. So um, yes, that'll be out next year.
G: And something that your daughter can enjoy.
IS: Yes, because heaven knows I haven't done much recently that she can see.
G: (Laughs.) I guess along those lines is something that you're well known for on these shores: Chicken Run.
IS: Yes. (Both laugh).
IS: Some of my best work has been in plasticine. (Both laugh.)
G: You've done a lot of voice work.
G: Is there anything different about the approach? Do you become more sensitized to how you're expressing yourself vocally?
IS: Um, yes, but I've done a lot of radio, so I'm very aware of that. I'm very aware of what the voice can do without even seeing it, so—and it was so lovely doing that, Chicken Run. And I thought you'd be doing it, you know, watching a little figure and doing the voice.
G: Oh, right.
IS: But it's not. We did it like a play.
IS: And there was one day when there was Miranda Richardson, Tim Spall, and myself, and we were all sort of doing it there, and it was great just being there in the studio doing it. But it took a long time, 'cause I think we did it—you know, I did all my bits of my voice, and then, um, then they had to go back almost a year later, because it takes two years to make those films.
IS: But it was great fun to do, and I did enjoy it.
G: Okay, let's see. I think that's—
IS: I think you covered everything.
G: I think that's—I might have covered everything.
G: I don't want to bring up the "O" word, but that's certainly—
IS: That'd be?
G: Oscar. (Laughs.) I suppose I just could ask: there's been talk of how the film will be received here, and I think it's warranted. But it's something, obviously, you have no control over. Should that happen—awards season in America—does that strike you as a bit of a carnival? How do you deal with that kind of pressure on you?
IS: Well, as I've never dealt with it before, I can't imagine what it's like. Obviously, it'd interfere with the Christmas shopping. Listen, when and if that happens, I'll tackle it then. What I'm delighted about is that the film—as you say—is warranting, you know, a sort of a very positive reaction. And I think his work needs applauding. And I think—I think it's up there with his others: with Topsy Turvy and Secrets and Lies. I think it's worthy of note from his point-of-view, you know. I just think it's an extraordinary way to work. And I also think it's a beautiful film, visually. And I think he deserves—every actor in it, as far as I'm concerned—deserves high praise.
G: Well, I think you deserve high praise, as well. Thank you very much for speaking to me.
IS: Thank you. Thanks.