By JOHANNA SCHNELLER
Special to The Globe and Mail
Thursday, April 12, 2018
For the past six years, Imelda Staunton has had either a script or a score running through her head. In London's West End, she played Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd and won a best actress Olivier Award for it. She played Mama Rose in Gypsy and won another Olivier. She played Margie in Good People, Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Sally in Follies, and was nominated for Oliviers for those, too. During that same period, she appeared in two telefilms - including The Girl, which earned her an Emmy nomination - and five features. The most recent, Finding Your Feet, opens in Canada on Friday.
So on this late winter afternoon, speaking by phone from the London home she shares with her husband of 35 years (actor Jim Carter, who played the beloved head butler on Downton Abbey), Staunton has nothing on her schedule other than making "a very good chicken soup."
"I'm no longer thinking, 'Well, I better keep working or people will wonder,' " she says. Her characters' voices range from giddy (the excitable matron in Sense and Sensibility) to scary (Dolores Umbridge in three Harry Potter films); in real life, her voice is deep and elegant. "I don't care. I'm going to have my life now. I'm going to work, but not for a little while. I've yet to discover what that feels like."
If you're thinking, "Hang on, Vera Drake is married to Mr. Carson? Does every storied actor in England know every other storied actor?" the answers are yes and pretty much. Consider Finding Your Feet, in which a status-obsessed politician's wife (Staunton) discovers that her husband has been having an affair, moves into the council flat of her bohemian sister (Celia Imrie) and takes a shine to a fellow (Timothy Spall) in the dance class that opens her up to a new life. Staunton has known Imrie since 1978; they appeared in the film Nanny McPhee and in the TV series Cranford together. Staunton has known Spall even longer. They went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at the same time (she graduated in 1976; Alan Rickman was in their cohort). They've since appeared together in the Harry Potter series.
"Our on-screen relationships have got an unspoken depth to them," Staunton says. "You catch up with someone when you work with them. It is a sort of family.
And at memorials, which goodness knows I go to enough of, I look around at the congregation and think, 'Blimey, I know nearly everyone here.' "Beyond the casting, it's easy to see why Staunton was drawn to the theme of Finding Your Feet: It's about ducking out of your life, even temporarily, and how that re-energizes you. "This is a lightweight film," Staunton says briskly. "We're not doing something terribly unusual. But we are doing something that affects a lot of people. We're telling a very ordinary story about how we deal with the difficulties we're faced with.
Who knows? It might enlighten someone to just take a little step back and ask, 'What am I doing?' At the very least, it's an April afternoon spent watching a gentle, feel-good story with a little bit of a cry. That's not so bad."
It's also frank about aging, and Staunton, who is 62, is glad of it.
"Society tells us everything is over by our 50s," she says. "We're absolutely obsessed with 'Stay young! Just stay young!' Well sod that, you literally can't stay young, so I don't know what we're talking about. You can dress young, but you can't be 31 again. What we're really saying is, 'Stay where you are!' I disagree. I'd much rather we say, 'Listen, we're all going to get old. Let's do it in a civilized way, in a way that has a bit of dignity.' " She lets out a little snort. "Of course, then I look in the mirror and go, 'Bloody hell.' But I am down that road. And no amount of surgery can stop the aging process."
Actresses in England have an easier time than the ones in the United States, Staunton continues. Their history is theatre, and "Maggie, Judi, Helen and I" - referring of course to Smith, Dench and Mirren - "can keep working, and sort of looking like ourselves." Still, she's been attending BAFTA meetings advocating for 50-per-cent female representation in film, for actors, creators and crews.
Born in North London to Irish parents - her dad was a labourer, her mom a hairdresser whose shop they lived above - Imelda Mary Philomena Bernadette Staunton caught the eye of an elocution teacher in her Catholic primary school and has been working ever since. (She met her husband when they did Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre together.)
"I'm a Londoner, born and bred," she says. "I must be the only person who said no to doing Gypsy on Broadway, because I couldn't be away from home for that long."
The life is as exhilarating as it is exhausting. "Actors spend our whole lives understanding other people's lives. Surely that rubs off on us, and so it should. Martha in Virginia Woolfe - that's a tough one to churn out every night. But I also feel utterly and totally enriched by every person I've inhabited."
Art is necessary to all our lives, Staunton continues: "All our lives would be so much worse without it. Paintings, films, music, theatre - it's people expressing themselves, and maybe expressing someone's story who cannot tell their own. It's pointing out to others, 'Do you see what's happening over there?' We have to reflect the human condition to each other, to help us understand each other."
Now that Staunton can pick and choose her work, she's choosing to do a little less. She wants to see friends, do Sunday lunches, go on trips with her husband. She wants to cook, take her dog for walks in Hampstead Heath and spend time with her daughter Bessie, 25, also an actress.
What she doesn't want to do: "Make myself do anything," she says. "I don't want to fill my day. I want to make a cup of tea and sit and read the paper or my book, and just regroup. I'm not going to take a course in ceramics, no. I want to have no plans at all."
She has recently gotten into soda bread. "I'm making a lot of soda bread," Staunton says. Sounds delicious.
Finding Your Feet opens April 13.
Imelda Staunton, seen in the new film Finding Your Feet, has played giddy (Sense and Sensibility) and scary (the Harry Potter films). Fresh off a slew of Olivier Award nominations, and a win, she is back on screen in what she calls a 'lightweight film' and a 'gentle, feel-good story.'