Imelda Staunton

 

 

Imelda Staunton


Imelda Staunton as Vera in Vera Drake


This piece first appeared in the Sunday Independent in January 2005

Some months ago, I watched Imelda Staunton act her heart out as the eponymous back street abortionist in Vera Drake and I felt for her. What a pity, I thought to myself, that this film will be released on the same day as Alexander. The independent David would have no chance against the Hollywood Goliath and Staunton’s finest moment would be lucky to get a passing mention in the rush to fete Farrell.

But then events took a strangely satisfying turn. As distributors struggled to find even one laudatory quote to put on top of Alexander’s promotional posters, it appeared that Stone’s epic was running lame. And Vera Drake, which had seemingly been made for less than the cost of Colin Farrell’s dye job, was receiving a slew of awards from European Festival juries and American critics’ guilds. As their respective vehicles are poised for release on their home turf the fortunes of the two stars continue to run in opposite directions. Last week, while Farrell wearily geared up for a damage limitation exercise with European journalists, Imelda Staunton was suddenly the woman of the moment. Already weighed down with film festival silverware, she has now been nominated for a Golden Globe and, on the day we meet, she appears beaming on the front page of several English broadsheets.

Daintily perched on the edge of an enormous couch, Staunton cocks her head and smiles wanly when I congratulate her on her sudden success. ‘I’m taking all of this in my stride. People have been shoving it down my throat for six months, so I’ve got to be fairly laid back about it at this stage’, she tells me.

In recent years it has become fashionable for Hollywood stars to make their theatre debut after they have a few major films under their belt, but Staunton cut her acting teeth the old fashioned way. After leaving school she joined the National theatre and slowly established herself as one of England’s most successful stage actresses, winning Olivier awards for best supporting actress in ‘The Corn is Green’ and ‘A Chorus of Disapproval’ and best actress in a musical for her performance in Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’.

However as a film actress her career was less illustrious. Always competent, she nevertheless seemed to lack the star power to move her name above the film title. Even in the chummy world of English cinema she was usually to be seen pottering around in the background as a nurse or a schoolmarm, the quintessential supporting actress.

‘Well, to date some of my best work has been in plasticine,’ she jokes, referring to her voiceover role in the Aardman animated ‘Chicken Run’. ‘But I suppose this is the one that has, as I like to put it, ‘used up’ the most of me.’ Initially Staunton feared so much of herself being ‘used up’ and hesitated slightly to work with director Mike Leigh. ‘I was aware he’d done great things but I knew his methods were … unconventional and maybe I was a bit daunted by that.’ Under Leigh’s direction she worked without a script, instead finding dialogue for Vera in long improvisation sessions with other actors. Except for Staunton, none of them even knew the film was about abortion until their characters found out. ‘We spent six months together prior to filming travelling around London together building up a history for the Drake family and a personal biography for our own characters. We decide what street they lived in, where they had gone to school, that kind of thing. ’ At the end of each day she would have a one-to-one session with Leigh in which they would discuss Vera’s emotions in any given scene.

There are many heartbreaking moments in Vera Drake and for the latter half of the film Staunton wears a hunted, frightened look. She is never far from tears. So was it depressing to play such a harrowing role? ‘Oh no! Not at all. I knew this was the kind of meaty part most people would kill for’ she chirps, reminding me of Meryl Streep who confessed to being quietly ecstatic at her equally spectacular yet gruelling-to-watch performance in ‘Sophie’s Choice’.

Staunton painstakingly researched the role, sifting through the archived prison records to build up a profile of what kind of woman Vera was likely to be. ‘She wasn’t unusual. We found out that the vast majority the women who went to prison for this kind of thing were wives and mothers. The image one has of a malevolent harridan lurking with a coat hanger just didn’t match reality at all’. Vera is portrayed as a maternal pragmatist, cheerfully ‘helping out’ young girls when they get ‘in trouble.’

When finally the law catches up with, her son disowns her and she quivers like a church mouse in the dock.
Because Vera is such a sympathetic character the movie has been widely perceived as taking a strong pro-abortion stance. Staunton has denied that it is overtly political and she insists that it ‘doesn’t take sides, it shows the emotional complexity of the issue’. I point out that the film is likely to incite some debate on the subject, especially here in Ireland. ‘I hope it does’ she tells me. ‘I feel it is disgraceful that we ever created a climate in which women felt the need the need to do this kind of thing.’

When Staunton says ‘we’ she could just as easily mean the Irish as the 1950s Londoners in Vera Drake. Her parents are both from Mayo and she spent many happy summers here as a child. ‘I haven’t been there now for quite a while, but I did a film called ‘Rat’ in Dublin a few years ago’ she tells me. ‘It wasn’t very good’ she mouths in a mock whisper, ‘but we had a great laugh making it. And I’d love to work there again. I adore Aisling Walsh who directed ‘Song for a Raggy Boy’. Can you please make your article a public plea from me to work with her.’

Already the low rumble of Oscar speculation has begun and Staunton is hotly tipped to receive her first nomination. Mike Leigh, to whom she deflects much of the praise lavished on her, has said that he hopes she gets her just rewards. ‘Rewards?’ she exclaims. ‘I’ve already had my rewards: I can look at my life and say ‘acting gave me all this’. I’ve met so many great friends through acting; People like Stephen Fry and Kenneth Branagh. I even met my husband, Jim, on the set of ‘Guys and Dolls’. I’ve been working for twenty-eight years and I intend to keep on working in the same way as before. Anything else is a bonus’.

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~ by Donal Lynch on March 31, 2008.

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