Imelda Staunton interview: ‘I arrived at the Oscars with ham and salad stuck in my teeth’

Staunton: 'I rehearse like an Olympic athlete'
Staunton: 'I rehearse like an Olympic athlete' - Silvana Trevale
Imelda Staunton
'I like doing things that are a little bit complicated – women who are having a difficult time' - Silvana Trevale

‘Have you been to the Burford garden centre?’ asks Imelda Staunton. ‘I got the most wonderful lupin there at the weekend.’

We are nearing the end of the allotted time for our meeting, and Staunton, who approaches interviews with a mixture of politeness, professionalism and tangible reluctance – born perhaps of her view that, as she puts it, ‘Part of me always goes, I don’t need to read another interview with an actor getting ready for their role. Who cares?’ – is now talking about her greatest passion.

‘Happy days for me and Jim [her husband, Jim Carter],’ she says, ‘is 99 per cent of the time being in the garden.’ Reading gardening magazines, watching Monty Don, holidaying in little places in the countryside, ‘near a garden visit’.

We meet at a photography studio, Staunton, small in stature and purposeful, leading the way upstairs to a quiet room where we can talk, sitting down with an expectant expression, perfectly pleasant, but not one to waste time.

Time in the garden is temporarily in abeyance, as she is busy preparing for a new role in the musical Hello, Dolly!, playing Dolly Levi, the widow and socialite turned matchmaker who sets her sights on making a match for herself with the miserly ‘well-known half-millionaire’ Horace Vandergelder.

Based on a play by Thornton Wilder and first performed on Broadway in 1964, it is old-fashioned musical comedy in the best, most joyous sense of the term – whip-smart dialogue, comic situations and funny jokes, tremendous songs. What more could anyone ask for?

Staunton has been warming up for the role, practising singing exercises every day for two months. ‘I flatter myself that it’s slightly like an athlete getting ready for the Olympics, but there’s a slight comparison. You can’t just go in there and suddenly discover, “I can’t do it.” Well, you knew you were going to do it…’

Imelda Staunton
'Wherever you are on the ladder, there's always someone above you, and there's always someone below you' - Silvana Trevale

It is a demanding role, physically and mentally. Staunton, who is 68, has done comedy in the past, ‘but in the last 10 years or so I’ve done more heavy-duty things. I like doing things that are a little bit complicated – women who are having a difficult time.

‘This is not “Hello, Hedda”, but a great piece of comedy is as hard as doing tragedy because it has to be human. Someone’s crying because they’re upset, but to make people laugh at something that is painful or just slapstick, it’s a technique that takes as much thought and care and consideration as any deep thinking.’

And it’s a grandstand musical role. Dolly Levi has been played by Carol Channing, Bette Midler and, on film, Barbra Streisand. But, as Staunton puts it, ‘Everyone has played Hamlet. It’s a testament to the piece that those people have wanted to do it. My job is to honour the piece, not the person who did it before. Do my take, and just be as honest to the script as we can be.’

There are few more distinguished and accomplished actors on stage and the big and small screens than Imelda Staunton – a fact that received royal imprimatur a few weeks after our meeting, when she joined the ranks of British theatre dames after being named in the King’s Birthday Honours List.

To the wider audience she is perhaps best known for her roles as the backstreet abortionist in Vera Drake, for which she won numerous awards, Dolores Umbridge in two of the Harry Potter films, and Queen Elizabeth II in the fifth and sixth series of The Crown.

Staunton, centre, as the strict headteacher Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Staunton, centre, as Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - Alamy

She has been garlanded with awards for her roles in musical theatre, not least in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd and Follies. She has taken on some of the composer and lyricist’s greatest showstopper songs – A Little Priest in Sweeney Todd (for which she won an Olivier Award for best actress in a musical); the raise-the-roof Everything’s Coming Up Roses in Gypsy, and the emotionally wrenching Losing My Mind in Follies – ‘Well, a woman having a nervous breakdown,’ she says, ‘you don’t get many of those songs to a pound, do you?’

She loved Sondheim, who died in 2021, the music and the man, and came to know him well: ‘A wonderful aspect of his personality was that he always loved any new production of his work, whoever was doing it.’

Sondheim habitually travelled from his home in New York to visit productions and socialise with the cast. ‘And he would never compare, and say, “Oh, well, when Patti LuPone did it she did it this way.” Yours was always the most important production, and you were the most important person doing this song, and you were the best ever, because it was just now. About a year after we did Sweeney Todd in the West End, there was a production in a pie shop in south London and he came all the way from New York to see that.

‘For me, he was the Shakespeare of musical theatre production. He really wrote for actors. In that sense his characters are just speaking.’

Staunton played the pie-making Mrs Lovett in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd
Staunton played the pie-making Mrs Lovett in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd - Alamy

Staunton often conducts acting masterclasses in schools. ‘And I always say that singing is only speaking to a different tune. I’m never thinking, I’ve got to sing the really big notes. No, I just want to keep speaking as the character, so it’s absolutely an embroidered part of the piece.’

Hello, Dolly! is directed by Dominic Cooke, who previously worked with Staunton on a 2017 production of Follies. ‘Imelda treats a production very much as if it weren’t musical theatre,’ Cooke says. ‘She’s very aware of the tropes and the way people get trapped into that thing of, “Now we’re doing a number,” rather than linking it into the story as a drama.

Hello, Dolly! has all the playful, joyful vaudeville stuff, but there’s a deep story there that she really gets to, because this woman has lost her husband; she’s been struggling to step back into the world, partly through financial necessity but also because of a desire to reconnect to life, which is what often happens when you’ve been through grief. And Staunton finds all those things.

‘She has such a wealth of theatrical experience, and she’s a natural storyteller,’ says Cooke. ‘She has a sense of where she is in the bigger story, and she has very good taste. Her choices are really nuanced. Moment to moment in the rehearsal room, the thinking around what the character is doing now, it’s never crass; it’s never presentational. It’s always considered.’

'She's a natural storyteller'
'She's a natural storyteller' - Silvana Trevale

Music is in Staunton’s blood. Her mother, Bridie, and father, Joe, were first-generation immigrants from County Mayo in Ireland, who ended up in north London as part of the great influx of the Irish who settled around Camden and Archway in the 1950s. She was an only child, christened Imelda Mary Philomena Bernadette Staunton – a name so Irish Catholic, the Telegraph writer Olga Craig once observed that one couldn’t help but wonder if her mother suspected she would have no more children, and so piled on her daughter all her favourite saints’ names.

Bridie ran a hairdressing salon, ‘the engine in the family’, Staunton says, ‘and I suppose being a woman I respond to that’. Joe was a construction worker, ‘a very placid and affectionate man who I think I probably respected her ability to keep everything going’.

Bridie played the fiddle and the accordion (Joe ‘couldn’t carry a song in a bucket’) and would entertain at dinner dances along the Holloway Road, and at parties above the shop, crowded with relatives and friends raising their voices in song.

Staunton has continued the tradition. ‘It’s just something that you do,’ she says. ‘If you’re Irish you sing.’

'She has a wealth of theatrical experience': Staunton, centre, in Gypsy (2014)
'She has a wealth of theatrical experience': Staunton, centre, in Gypsy (2014) - Alamy

‘She has the most fabulous voice, and can generally be persuaded to sing at parties,’ says the director Richard Eyre, who was responsible for first bringing Staunton to the London stage in 1982, when she was 26, in his production of Guys and Dolls, and who has been a friend ever since.

‘She’s sung many times for my birthday, which is always intensely moving,’ Eyre says. ‘Most often it’s You Are My Sunshine, which she sings most beautifully. And she has the most perfect Irish folk voice if she wants to use it, as well as being able to sing like a Broadway belter.’

As a child, Staunton would come home from school, walk through the shop where Bridie was doing shampoo-and-sets and go upstairs to keep herself amused until supper time. She often wonders, she says, if that’s the time when she developed her imagination.

‘That’s what’s so frightening today, when children are just on the screen all the time, being told what to think, told what to look at, being shown things. If you tell someone at school a story, “Once upon a time in a really green forest,” immediately your imagination is green. If you’re just looking at a screen, the imagination doesn’t have to do any work. I was just up there on my own with my toys, making up all sorts of things.’ And reading? ‘No. There wasn’t a book in the house.’

At convent school she took drama lessons with her elocution teacher, and starred in school plays, and with encouragement from her teacher auditioned for drama schools, before being admitted to Rada. ‘I didn’t know what it really meant. But I knew I was going to go somewhere where my subject could be examined. That was a good moment.’

Staunton successfully applied to Rada after encouragement from her drama teacher
Staunton successfully applied to Rada after encouragement from her drama teacher - Hulton Archive

She was 17. Her parents had separated by then – ‘They both had other partners, so that was all fine’ – and her head, she says, was ‘going forward – that sense of ,“I’ll do it myself.” I’m very bad at taking any help.’

It wasn’t until she attended Rada that she discovered Chekhov and Ibsen. ‘It was a great education for me – wonderful. I’d not encountered these great plays, these great dramatists until I went to drama school. It opened my eyes.’

She graduated in 1976, and for the next six years performed in rep, appearing in any number of productions across the country, until finally being offered a part as one of the ensemble in Richard Eyre’s Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre, singing and dancing in the Hot Box nightclub and understudying the show’s star, Julia McKenzie.

‘I was so naive. I didn’t know that repertory actors could work in London. That’s all I ever thought about. I had no ambition to be anything, play any particular part. But I did know that I didn’t want to stand at the back, just going boop-de-boop. In rep I’d played Elektra, Saint Joan, Piaf. And I thought what am I doing? But of course it turned out to be the best year of my life.’

Imelda Staunton (far right) won a coveted role in the ensemble of the National Theatre's Guys and Dolls in 1984
Staunton (far right) won a coveted role in the ensemble of the National Theatre's Guys and Dolls in 1984 - Hulton Archive

Eyre remembers the day he called Staunton in to audition: ‘I cast her on the spot. She was as she is now, irrepressibly droll and alive, and with an energy about her that was irresistible.’

Her first appearance in Guys and Dolls was in a comic sequence, dressed as Minnie Mouse, boxing with Jim Carter, who played a heavyweight champion. Staunton is 5ft tall, Carter 6ft 2in. ‘I inadvertently played Cupid,’ says Eyre. Staunton and Carter married a year later.

Shortly after Guys and Dolls, Staunton got the lead in The Beggar’s Opera. ‘She was absolutely outstanding,’ Eyre recalls. ‘I remember sitting with her on the steps outside the Cottesloe Theatre saying she had the most fantastic life ahead of her. I think I said, “Don’t f—k it up.” But she was absolutely spellbinding. The show was successful and she was the standout performance, and I think you can say that was the turning point.’

There is nothing the least bit affected about Staunton. Acting, she says, is a job of work, and she can’t be doing with actors ‘wittering on about it’. ‘Maybe that’s because I had six years of rep theatre, where all you did was rehearse one play in the day and do another one at night. All you did was work, and you were so utterly fulfilled – I was.

Imelda Staunton
'All you did was rehearse one play in the day and do another one at night' - Silvana Trevale

‘I’ve always worked. I’ve always taken the next job that came along, never thinking, well, should I be playing that part? Wherever you are on the ladder, there’s always someone above you, and there’s always someone below you. You can either get off the ladder completely, or you can accept that you go up and down. Work: it’s what you are.’

There is a story she likes to tell about being driven to the Oscar ceremony in 2005, having been nominated for best actress for her role in Vera Drake, sitting in the back of a limousine with her husband and daughter, Bessie (Carter, also an actor), eating sandwiches.

‘Well, we knew how long it went on,’ she says, ‘and I thought, we mustn’t get grumpy and Bessie can’t go without food. I arrived with ham and salad stuck in my teeth, so I had to get that sorted. But you just treat all that as a good laugh and not to be taken seriously.’

‘Imelda thinks that whole celebrity thing is all bollocks,’ says Eyre bluntly. ‘She just thinks it’s laughable. She’s the most down-to-earth person you could meet. She’s not a moaner or somebody who ever indulges in misery.’

Set in a working-class milieu in the early 1950s, Vera Drake tells the story of a neighbourly charlady-cum-backstreet abortionist who lovingly nurses her elderly mother while quietly ‘helping out’ girls with unwanted pregnancies, but who is forced to face the appalling consequences of her actions when one of those girls is taken to hospital and the police get involved.

Staunton in her Oscar-nominated role as an abortionist in the 2004 film Vera Drake
Staunton in her Oscar-nominated role as an abortionist in the 2004 film Vera Drake - Alamy

Reviewing the film in The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw described the moment when Vera is forced to confront her actions, ‘simultaneously ageing 30 years and becoming a terrified little girl’, as ‘one of the most moving, haunting performances I have ever seen in the cinema.’

‘It’s a weird thing,’ Staunton says now, ‘but that was the easiest job – it was the best job of my life, the process, the subject matter, which was such a difficult one for so many people. And I loved that my profile was raised because of that film.’

Mike Leigh’s directorial technique is famously unique, and highly challenging. Actors are expected to work without a script, creating the characters over an intense six-month rehearsal period, with Leigh taking each actor aside to explore feelings and motivation, then bringing them together to improvise particular scenes under his guidance, before anything is filmed. ‘By then you’ve improvised those scenes over and over again, so you have it in your head, without ever having seen anything on a piece of paper.’ It was only in the very last stages of preparation, she says, that she learnt Vera was going to be arrested: ‘I felt like I was having a heart attack.’

Working with Leigh, she says, ‘being that character from the top of your head to the tip of your toes, being completely in that world, is a really nice place to be.’

Imelda Staunton
'Life is made of moments – whether it's a terrible moment, that won't last, or a fantastic moment, that also won't last' - Silvana Trevale

It is an experience that she applied to the role of the Queen in The Crown, ‘watching footage, working on her voice, movement, things like that – absorbing her somehow.

‘Being the Queen was a great place to be.’ She pauses to reprimand herself. ‘Stupid, Imelda! Better language than that, “a great place to be”. But being wholly another person is a very interesting journey. As an actor that’s what we do, and you want to bring everything you can to it, but some parts don’t demand that.’

She remembers filming a scene with Leslie Manville, playing the role of Princess Margaret, on the day Queen Elizabeth II died. ‘We’d filmed in the morning, then at lunchtime the first AD [assistant director] came up to me and said, “We just have to warn you, we might hear some bad news later.” He said, “Do you want to carry on or go home?” I said, “No, I’ll carry on.” And then we went home at 6pm, and the news came, and I was completely inconsolable. The ground really was shaking. So that was new territory for me.’

Of her role as the late Queen in The Crown: 'Being wholly another person is a very interesting journey'
Of her role as the late Queen in The Crown: 'Being wholly another person is a very interesting journey' - Netflix

Filming was suspended for the 10 days of national mourning, resuming the day after the funeral – shooting a scene of the Queen unveiling a plaque.

‘We had a number of supporting actors that day, and they were looking at the Queen, and I think that was more difficult for them than it was for me.’ She pauses. ‘I do remember it was very quiet on the set.’

There is work, she says, and then there is life. Receiving that acceptance letter from Rada was a wonderful moment. ‘And every day going in to do Vera Drake – every single day.’ Her wedding day, of course: ‘Fantastic! It was at the Marylebone register office. The happiest day of my life, followed by the birth of my daughter.’

She and Jim Carter have been married for 40 years. Best known perhaps for his role as Carson the butler in Downton Abbey, he has had an acting career as successful as her own. They have appeared in the same production together only once, in the BBC series Cranford, in 2007.

Of her wedding day: 'The happiest day of my life'
Staunton and Carter, pictured at the 2023 BAFTA Television Awards - BAFTA

‘We don’t do a lot of theatre chat and things like that. We’re not really like that,’ she says. ‘We’d much rather talk about the garden and plan a holiday. We’re finding more happiness in smaller, simpler things. That’s a bloody cliché people say as you get older. But things change and it’s important to embrace that.

‘Every person over the age of 60 or so says, “I still feel as if I’m 23.” Well, you do. But at the same time you also have to recognise where you’re not, appreciate what you’ve got, filter certain things out, and not worry about other things.’ She pauses and laughs. ‘While at the same time worrying about absolutely everything.’

Staunton once claimed that in all the years of her marriage, she and Carter had been apart for only three weeks. ‘She has, I would say, a wholly successful marriage, and an intensely good collection of friends,’ Eyre says. ‘She and Jim are deeply devoted to each other, and they’re both completely honest and open. There is no side to Imelda.’

Bessie has followed in her parents’ footsteps, building a flourishing career on stage and in film and television, most notably in Bridgerton.

Staunton's daughter Bessie Carter plays Prudence Dankworth in the third series of Bridgerton
Staunton's daughter Bessie Carter plays Prudence Dankworth in the third series of Bridgerton - Alamy

‘Her difficulty, of course, is having us as parents – that’s a hindrance,’ Staunton says. ‘We all mess up our children, of course. So I think the thing is to back off and let them do whatever they have to do without interfering too much.

‘Whether they’re three or 30, which she is now, you’re thinking, oh, please let her get this or that part, please let her be happy, in the true sense of the word – and happiness means you struggle, you work hard, you’re fulfilled. It’s the going and doing it and making it happen, and not thinking anyone else owes you happiness.

‘It’s like the song in Into the Woods, life is made of moments – whether it’s a terrible moment, that won’t last, or a fantastic moment, that also won’t last. If you just want to be happy all the time…’ She laughs. ‘That’s just weird.’

She has been so lucky in life, she says. A happy marriage. A lovely daughter. Good friends. A successful career. ‘There comes a time in your life when you think, what more do you need? I love that garden time, planting something and knowing it’s going to grow. And I love my work, and don’t want that to stop. I’ve worked with all these great directors, Mike Leigh and Richard Eyre, and been friends with Stephen Sondheim.’

She pauses. ‘And that’s fine, isn’t it?’

Hello, Dolly! is at the London Palladium from 6 July to 14 September (hellodollyldn.com)

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