By Ginny Dougary
“It’s terrifying and exciting and a large responsibility and I can’t wait”. Imelda Staunton as the Queen in The Crown, season 5Credit:Netflix
It would be a mistake to underestimate Imelda Staunton. She may be diminutive – five foot nothing, size three shoes – but, boy, is she a force, albeit a quiet, gently-spoken one. Her most stern firmness is reserved for audience members. Anyone on a mobile phone in the theatre: “I will turn round and say, ‘Can you turn that off, please?’ ”
Food in the cinema is another no-no: “A bloke came in with a big packet of Doritos and I just said to him. ’What are you doing? [ horror-struck face] You can’t eat those. You either eat them now before the film or afterwards.” What was his reaction? “‘Er, sorry? ’ ”
As for public demonstrations of affection, forget it. “I was in a matinee last year – a two-hander – and there was a couple sitting in front of me – with their red wine, fine – started snogging, fine – play starts, still snogging. So, I just leant forward and said, ‘I haven’t come here to watch you guys and it’s really, really hard to concentrate. Thanks.’ ”
The theatres themselves must take part of the blame: “‘Why are you selling crissssssssssspsssss?’” she draws out the word, onomatopoeically. “I just do not get it. And also none of us can be without food for five minutes. And the drinks! Plastic glasses falling on the floor when there’s a quiet moment going on….”
Imelda Staunton on the red carpet for the ‘Downton Abbey’ movie at the Rome Film Festival in 2019.Credit:Getty
Her intolerance for mobile phones extends beyond auditoriums. Staunton finds it perplexing, even disrespectful, when fellow actors come out of an emotional scene and immediately check their devices. “Well, I do wonder, ‘Why can’t you just be ‘here’ today? This is your job. There is nothing more important than this moment now’. Fine in the coffee breaks but not now.
“And it’s not just on film sets. It’s everywhere. Now if people work in an office, long gone are the days when it was ‘No personal calls, please’ – it’s just all day [she acts someone on their phone barely looking up, ‘Sorry? What? No hang on….’ There are a lot of short acting scenes, it must be said, by Staunton during our interview.]
Another aspect of modern life that exercises her is the red carpet – why is it still such a twirling anachronism? (The actor was loved for her distinctly unHollywood behaviour of taking her own sandwiches to eat in the car before the big night of her Vera Drake nomination.) She understands why lovely young women want to feel good in their pretty dresses “but I’d like them all to go in DJs [dinner jackets] one year, just to mess it up a bit. And there’s always got to be a bum shot, hasn’t there?” She dislikes the way the women have to do “the look” to the photographers: “When they shout out ‘Turn around! Turn around!’ – OK? ’You still got to do that, have you? Why don’t you just say, ‘No – I’m not gonna turn around, mate.’”
All of this may convey an impression that Staunton is formidable but, if so, I applaud her forthrightness and lack of blandness; just because she’s petite, she is no pushover.
She comes across in the press as someone refreshingly ungrand, with an impression of general loveliness. Both are true, but the surprise is the steel. The reason Staunton does her own make-up and wardrobe for shoots may be that she doesn’t like the fuss and time, but I would guess it is also because she knows exactly what will suit her and she is happy with the way she looks when she does her own make-up, so why change it?
She says when I ask her about whether she likes her appearance, “I’m not really bothered about it and I also think people spend too much time thinking about themselves – how they look rather than what they are doing. Why not do something?” Nevertheless, up close, her face is fetching – with her feline blue eyes, delicate features and chiselled cheekbones.
Where she is undoubtedly formidable is in what she refers to, with some reverence, as “the work”. Her range and versatility as an actress is extraordinary – she sings, dances, acts on stage, in film and television, does funny and sad, and excels at it all.
Oscar-nominated as Vera Drake: Staunton in the title role with, Ethel Drake played by Alex Kelly, Frank Drake played by Adrian Scarborough and Sid Drake played by Daniel Mays
She has won many awards, among them four Oliviers ( latterly for her much-celebrated Gypsy and Sweeney Todd; Stephen Sondheim is mad about her), an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and a BAFTA for the 2004 movie Vera Drake, Screen Actors Guild for Shakespeare in Love. More Olivier nominations for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Follies, Good People and Guys and Dolls. In 2006, she received an OBE and 10 years later a CBE, for services to drama.
A few years ago, Staunton fancied doing television again. She had been in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective back in 1986, alongside her husband of 36 years Jim Carter, beloved Carson, the butler in Downton Abbey, as well as Cranford, with both Carter and the couple’s daughter Bessie. The couple was reunited on the big screen in the Downton Abbey film.
In the BBC’s The Return to Cranford in 2009.Credit:BBC
After her hefty parts on the stage, the actor says she was not expecting to get comparable roles on the small screen and then along came an acclaimed 2019 crime drama series A Confession with Martin Freeman. We had met before the announcement of an even bigger role which is public knowledge now: the Queen, taking over from Olivia Colman, in season five of The Crown (which has just started filming and will screen in 2022). Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki will play Diana and Dominic West, Charles, in episodes that span their marriage breakdown and the tragic death of Diana in 1997. Early images released of Staunton in character show an uncanny likeness with the real-life Royal.
“I’m slowly and quietly getting on with my reading and listening and doing all the stuff,” Staunton told Variety when her role was announced. “It’s terrifying and exciting and a large responsibility and I can’t wait.” Staunton has said there are extra challenges playing the monarch at an age that more people are familiar with. “With Claire Foy, [the Queen in the first two seasons] it was almost history and now I’m playing one that people could say ‘she doesn’t do that,’ ‘she’s not like that,’ and that’s my personal bête noire,” she told People.
Imelda Staunton meets the Queen at her 90th birthday celebration at Windsor.Pic Chris JacksonCredit: Chris Jackson/Getty
The actress met the actual Queen when she sang for her 90th birthday and was invited to tea afterwards. “It is weird that I’ll be [playing her],” she has said. “Of course, it’s bloody weird. It’s my job to try to turn it into some sort of bloody believable performance.”
‘Of course, it’s bloody weird. It’s my job to try to turn it into some sort of bloody believable performance.’
It was Vera Drake, directed by Mike Leigh, in which she plays a working-class woman who performs free, illegal abortions and is arrested, that was a game-changer for her – also, she says, “the best acting experience of my life” – the Oscar nomination led to Staunton being cast in two Harry Potter films as Ministry of Magic henchwoman and Hogwarts infiltrator Dolores Umbridge: “They might have wanted me before but my profile wasn’t high enough, so that recognition is useful,” she says. Her Gypsy had also been initially postponed into going into the West End for the same reason: “They said [it couldn’t happen] ‘because you’re not famous enough’. ”
Were you crestfallen? ” Well, I emailed Stephen Sondheim [who had virtually insisted on her playing the role of Mama Rose after seeing her Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd] and said ‘Are you depressed?’ and he wrote back ‘Yeah I am.’ Look, that’s the business. I was more embarrassed for….him. I thought ‘Jesus Christ!’ And I knew if I had done a big film but then I thought ‘I have done a couple of big films’ but anyway, it didn’t matter, we did it.” The esteemed theatre critic Michael Billington described her 2015 Gypsy in The Guardian as “one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen in musical theatre.”
Staunton was the only child of Bridie and Joe of County Mayo who joined the big influx of Irish immigrants who settled in North London in the 1950s. Her father was a labourer and her mother ,a hairdresser who had opened her own salon in her early twenties. The family lived in a flat above the business in Archway, moving to Finchley when Staunton was 10. Every weekend was spent with her grandmother, Beatrice who Imelda called “Gan-gan” , in Highbury because her parents were working. Summer holidays were spent back in County Mayo “and I absolutely loved it because all the grown-ups were out getting drunk all night long and we, kids, were just running around and playing in the streets all day long. It was great, very free.”
Imelda Staunton boards a boat, with personal water bottle and puffer coat, for a scene as the Queen in Macduff, Scotland, earlier this month.Credit:Getty
There were always lots of parties, growing up, with everyone singing away. Staunton would be called to stand up and join the entertainment, which she hated, thinking “I’m not a grown up so how do I do that?” Her go-to song was Two Little Orphans, an Irish tune later covered by Dolly Parton among others.
At her private convent school, she was more enthusiastic about performing and was cast in all the school plays and musicals, rattling off a list including Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde and The Little Sweep, The Beggar’s Opera, Pride and Prejudice. The young Staunton was also encouraged to take part in drama festivals and her elocution teacher, who taught her drama after school, helped to prepare her for auditions at drama school; she was rejected by Central and Guildhall but accepted at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA).
The actress as Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
She appreciated the six years in repertory theatre that allowed her to be under the radar while practicing her craft: “I was given parts with huge responsibility – St Joan, Electra, Piaf – and of course they weren’t all great by any stretch of the imagination, but I was trying to do my best obviously.
“Also you think ‘God, who would come to see Electra in Exeter?’ and people came because they went to the theatre then without having to have a star in it. It was fantastic training, a real apprenticeship.”
Work is a priority but so is home life and family. “Balance is very important to me,” she says. “Balancing our life and our work, balance in our family, balance in all things.” Staunton likes to play women who are not like her and particularly ones who shout a lot, which is something she does not do, she says, because her parents argued a lot. Drinking and arguing, not a good combination… “No, so I never wanted to shout as an adult.”
She likes to play women who are not like her and particularly ones who shout a lot, something she does not do as her parents argued a lot.
The couple marks every wedding anniversary and always had a three-week limit to the time they were prepared to be away from one another: “Now we can absolutely say, ‘I’d rather be home doing the gardening’.” Staunton says they are both good gardeners but “he’s the head gardener, and I’m only the assistant. Have you planted all your tulips yet?”
They don’t watch television every night, but they will binge: Spiral, the French detective series, at the moment. They liked Line of Duty, Succession (“which is basically King Lear”) and The Wire. “Yes, absolutely. Marvellous Idris Elba. We are in a great place with telly at the moment. I mean – goodness, gracious! – we thought we had it good when we got one Dennis Potter every few years.”
As a late parent – Imelda had Bessie when she was 37; her mother had her when she was 21, as her mother had done before her – she has said that she and her husband maybe worked too hard to create the perfect childhood. “Well, we loved creating the garden and the playground – we had a treehouse and slide and trapezes – and I think, maybe, when you have a kid when you’re 20 or 21 you just get on with it. But I thought, at my age, ‘this has got to be absolutely right’, and I think that can take its toll. But then I think, ‘So you bloody well should. A parent needs to work hard.’”
Imelda Staunton with her daughter Bessie Carter and husband Jim Carter in 2016.Credit:Getty
As both an only child and the parent of an only child, Staunton believes the lack of rough and tumble that comes with having siblings, leaves one more vulnerable (but only in her personal life, not professional, she stresses). “I can be over-sensitive, and yet I’m verrrrrry tough on myself and I think I probably have a layer missing which might help in my job.” Do you take things to heart too much and mull over them endlessly? “Yes, of course I do, and I need to talk to myself and say ‘let that one go’.”
With, from left, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Clive Mantle standing around a piano in ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’, 1994.Credit:Getty
I ask Staunton if she has any faults that she would be willing to share? Is she ashamed of any thoughts or actions? “I’m sure there are many but nothing looming.” I’m sure you must have some flaws and I am trying to get you to deliver them to me! “Yesss, but maybe one doesn’t want to say them out loud. Of course, I’m not going to say that I’ve got no flaws at all – JESUS CHRIST! I’m not saying that at all…”
After some consideration, she admits to impatience with others but mostly with herself – and she does a two-hander acting her husband saying “Imelda shut up” and her assuming an icy calm “OK”.
Towards the end of the interview, Staunton offers another fault: “I might be selfish. I read that only children aren’t good at sharing because they’ve never had to. The emotional vocabulary is missing. So if you get a friend, it’s ‘She’s my friend’, when of course it’s ‘We can all be that person’s friend’. ‘Where did you get that?’ [looking down at her dress]. ‘I’m not going to tell you because it’s my thing.’ It’s that ‘There’s only me here and I’ve got it and now you want it…’
“I have struggled with that because it’s so petty and I know that. It’s something that I need to think about and work on.”
She and her husband went on the march against the Iraq war “and bugger all use that did” and have been members of Greenpeace for more than 30 years. Staunton is funny and cheerful, as well as firm and nobody’s fool. When I ask her, finally, what makes her sad she says, “The stuff that’s going on in the bloody world. People are still killing elephants in Africa and, as for politics, it’s like all the grown-ups have gone and they have opened a creche in Parliament and that’s who’s running it.
“It’s all really shocking and I can only hope that we have now seen so far into the darkness that we go ‘oh, it’s so dark in here and – look! There’s a little glimmer of light over there…’ It’s got to go another way.”
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