Imelda Staunton: The Irish dancing teacher slapped me. I thought ‘I’m never coming back’
Oscar-nominated actor on breaking through age barriers, Harry Potter and why she hates Irish dancing
Imelda Staunton with her dog, Molly. Photograph: Andrew Testa/The New York Times
Preeminent Sondheim surrogate and Oscar-nominee Imelda Staunton smiles. “I remember a friend of mine who was working in television was told people don’t want to see people in their 40s kissing,” she says. “So things have changed. And recently, they’ve really changed.”
She’s not wrong. In Hollywood, the four-quadrant movie remains the gold standard. Why make a movie, with a $250million budget, unless it brings in all four major demographic “quadrants” of the movie-going public (male and female, and over- and under-25s)?
That’s right. Those ancient over 25s.
This kind of thinking, coupled with certain key factors – increased life expectancy, the life-long movie-going habits of the baby-boomer generation, lower take-up rates for streaming subscriptions and alternative platforms among older customers – has led to the rise of smaller, independently-produced “grey pound” films.
In 2011, two early grey pounders, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The King’s Speech, made $138.6 million and $414.2 million, respectively. Since then, we’ve watched “over 25s” performing Tosca at their retirement home (Quartet), robbing banks (Golden Years), falling for a rival (The Hundred-Foot Journey) and falling for a subject (Victoria & Abdul).
Finding Your Feet, the latest entry in the sub-genre, concerns a bourgeois Little Englander (Staunton) who, upon discovering her husband is having an affair with a mutual pal, is forced to move into a London council flat with her estranged, free-spirited sister (Celia Imrie).
The more snobbish sibling is soon dragged along to dance lessons where she makes new friends (including Joanna Lumley and David Hayman) and encounters a possible love interest (played by Timothy Spall).
It was a sort of reunion for Staunton, who previously worked with Spall in Vera Drake and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, among other things.
“Tim and I go back to our drama school days, and Celia and I first met in 1978,” says Staunton. “Celia and I were just saying, we’re in our 60s now but if we were in our 60s 20 years ago we wouldn’t be doing this. The films just weren’t there.”
Staunton is perfectly happy to call Finding Your Feet a grey pound film (with some minor caveats).
“Grey blockbuster has a better ring to it,” she laughs. “Everyone wants to give something a label. But we’ve talked to a lot of journalists – even young male journalists – in the last couple of days and they really seemed to like it. There are lots of films with special effects. There are lots of films that are hard hitting. This is just a nice couple of hours that deals with a lot of funny subjects and difficult subjects. And I think it does that with great respect, in a way that’s not patronising.
“Just because it’s about people who are over 19 doesn’t mean it’s not a film for everyone. We’ve never had so many older people. And we’re making films for those people. But those films don’t have to exclude the under 60s, just as there are lots of people in their 60s who love Star Wars. Cinema is for everyone. And people, doesn’t matter if they are 10 or 85, love seeing good actors telling good stories.”
Imelda Mary Philomena Bernadette Staunton, as it says on her baptism certificate, was raised in north London by Irish immigrants: Joe, a labourer, and Bridie, a hairdresser. Every summer, the family travelled back to Mayo – her father to Ballyvary; her mother to Bohola – to see old friends.
“But not relatives,” explains Staunton. “This was in the 50s, so they all came over here to London. My grandmother came over. My grandfather. And then everyone else.”
An only child, Imelda grew up in the flat over her mum’s hairdressing salon in Islington. Her hard-working mother – a touchstone, she says, for many of the characters she has played – ensured Staunton attended a private convent school and took classes in ballet and tap.
The younger Staunton, who has subsequently hoofed her way through many musical theatre standards, lasted but one class of Irish dancing, with its jigs and reels. “The Irish dancing teacher was so cross,” she cries. “I’ll never forget it. He slapped the back of my legs. I was seven, but even then I thought ‘I’m never coming back.’ And that was that.”
Even without those one, two, threes it was a musical household. Her mother couldn’t read music but could play anything on the fiddle or accordion by ear. Her uncle had a showband and her aunt sang in clubs around Liverpool. Still, the family weren’t the kind for show-business gushing when Staunton was accepted into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada).
“I don’t come from a theatrical family. There was always singing and parties and the fiddle. But our family didn’t know about drama school. My elocution teacher – as she was then – said: you have to go to drama school, you just have to. And my parents listened to her. She was the teacher, so she must know what she was doing. This was 1974. I was coming from a working class family. Nobody said: ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing!’ You just got on with it.”
She graduated from Rada in 1976 and spent the first six years of her career treading the boards on the repertory circuit before successive roles in the National Theatre – in The Beggar’s Opera and Guys and Dolls (both in 1982) – landed her an Olivier Award nomination for best actress in a musical and most promising newcomer of the year in theatre. She was also introduced to the actor Jim Carter, her husband of 35 years.
“I started out in regional theatre,” she says. “So I thought acting was divided into London actors and regional actors. I didn’t know that you could crossover. As for film, well, that was something that happened on a different planet.”
Nobody was as surprised as she was, when, in 2004 she secured her spot in the cinematic pantheon with a Bafta and Volpi Cup-winning turn as a 1950s backstreet abortionist in Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake. She has subsequently worked in the US, starring in Ang Lee’s Talking Woodstock, and alongside Steven Seagal in Shadow Man, and Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers.
“I did do a couple of films over there,” says Staunton. “But I never really thought: ‘Right, now America!’ Vera Drake happened to me late on in life. I had a career for 25 years before that. And I’ve never been a particularly ambitious person.”
She has continued to land plum jobs on the big screen, nonetheless, as one of the good fairies squaring up to Angelina Jolie in Maleficent, as the Welsh activist Hefina Headon in Pride, and as the voice of Aunt Lucy in the Paddington films. Meanwhile, on the West End, her Olivier Award-winning Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd was impressive enough to wow Stephen Sondheim, who suggested she play Momma Rose in a 2014 production of Gypsy. Another Olivier Award was soon handed over.
“He came to see me and said: ‘You have to play Rose,’ and I said: ‘ugh’.”
She pulls a face. “Really, I did. Because that’s my reaction whenever anyone asks me to do something worthwhile. I know why I do that. Because in that split second I immediately calculate the work that’s needed. And I think ‘ugh’. That’s a very big gig.
“It’s not that I’m intimidated by it. But for something like Gypsy, you don’t have a life. It’s physically and vocally demanding. I have to be very disciplined about my day. I’m not much company, I don’t see anyone. I don’t go out for coffee. I walk the dog, I have a kip, have a wash. But the day is always about the end of the day. It’s constant prepping.”
Having lately wrapped up very ugh-worthy productions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and (cementing her reputation as the best Sondheim translator in the business) Follies, Staunton is looking forward to a much deserved break.
“I’m still looking at film scripts,” she says, “because if you have a big scene in theatre, you have to do it again tomorrow. If you have a big, emotional scene in film, it’s done and you can go home. Something has happened in my head. I want to be at home. It’s great not having a script in my head. I can walk the dog without carrying some character’s sadness or wondering why they would act in a particular way. I can take a holiday. I can make soda bread. Lethal stuff. I just have to work out how to make it without eating the entire thing yourself.”
Harry Potter: ‘They never skimped on anything’
Imelda Staunton joined the Harry Potter players in 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as Dolores Jane Umbridge, a character Stephen King has called the “greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter”.
The actor remains greatly impressed by her time at Hogwarts. “I’m very proud of the work they did on those films,” she says. “Each film was better and stronger than the last. They never skimped on anything. And they looked after those kids so well. They educated them, they protected them. Not just the main three but all of the kids involved. There were no child stars of that nature before. Maybe Shirley Temple in the 40s. I’m full of admiration for the producers. The films were so well and honourably done.”
Finding Your Feet is on general release.