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‘I Never Shy Away From a Challenge’ - An Interview with Imelda Staunton
Image Credit: Johan Persson

‘I Never Shy Away From a Challenge’ - An Interview with Imelda Staunton

30 April 2017

Born in Archway to first-generation Irish Catholic immigrants, Imelda Staunton had a natural flair for performing. After training at RADA, she spent six years in English repertory theatre before going on to enjoy an extensive career on stage, embracing West End roles including Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi, and Rose in Gypsy at Savoy Theatre. Staunton is currently starring in Edward Albee’s award-winning play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter Theatre. The play examines the breakdown of a middle-class marriage between Martha (Staunton) and George, (Conleth Hill) who, after a boozy university faculty party, invite naïve younger couple Nick (Luke Treadaway) and Honey (Imogen Poots) back to their home for an evening of awkward confrontations. Staunton talks learning, loathing and Olivier awards.

Many will know actress Imelda Staunton from her Harry Potter tenure as the nefarious Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge, but the 61-year-old Londoner has had a stage career which far eclipses her film work. That’s not to say she hasn’t had exceptional moments on celluloid, like her BAFTA-winning performance in Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, but with four Olivier Awards under her belt, she is arguably a star of the stage first and foremost.
 
Returning to the West End after her triumphant and Olivier Award-winning performance as Mama Rose in Gypsy, the actress takes on the role of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Despite her enormous success, Staunton is typically understated about her achievements, and appears to approach every project with a certain level of trepidation. “It’s a difficult piece, and there is definitely expectation with a role like Martha,” says Staunton sagely. “But I never shy away from a challenge.”
 
Staunton is right to show a little apprehension; after all, Edward Albee’s seminal masterpiece is practically a star in its own right. Written in 1962, the play quickly became the most talked about theatrical event of its era as audiences flocked to see this visceral and often brutal portrayal of a marriage combusting before their very eyes. “It’s intensely claustrophobic, and also quite exhausting because you’re playing this woman who’s had a deeply miserable life,” she says. “It’s all about self-loathing and addiction which is terrific stuff for an actor.”


Photo credit: Johann Persson
 
For Staunton, Martha is the latest in a long list of difficult women she has been tasked with bringing to life. Dolores Umbridge and Mrs Lovett may fall on the side of despicable, but often she plays complicated and tragic heroines, like Mama Rose, whose only real crime is wanting her daughters to enjoy the success she never found – “were that character a man, he would be a hero, but as a woman she is labelled a monster,” declares Staunton – and saddest of all, Vera Drake. A kindly and selfless housecleaner who is imprisoned for conducting illegal abortions in 1950s London, Staunton gives the performance of a lifetime, admitting that even she found the process to be a huge learning curve. “It was months of work, including a lot of research, and it felt like being on the way to some sort of wonderful acting degree. Kind of a course, of hopefully making you a better actor,” she explains. “Which, coming 28 years into my career, was so astonishing. It was like food for me. And it was made easier by the fact Mike Leigh is a genius; he always tries to get the best out of people. He gives you such opportunities, and such time to work hard, and to create something.”
 
She is equally modest on the subject of her many Olivier awards, an accolade made all the more poignant for the fact that it was watching Lawrence Olivier himself perform in Long Day’s Journey into Night at The Old Vic when she was 17, that galvanised her to properly pursue a career in acting. “Theatre really is where my heart is, and those awards are such a privilege. To be even a little bit in his shadow,” she gushes, before adding gently, “I cherish them all."
 
"I think the trouble with TV is that viewers see the same old faces, over and over again. If you're in a soap and you become a bit of a celebrity, the first thing that happens is that you get offered your own series when you leave. Well, I'm not knocking that, there are some very talented people out there. But it's rare that you see a drama with some unknown faces in it."
 
“I suppose I am glad not to be easily cast in things. I turn up in so many different places that I think that some directors find me rather hard to pin down. I've done film, I've done contemporary theatre, I've done sitcom and I've done the classics - and that confuses some people.  And, I
admit, I like to have my cake and eat it!”
 
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until the end of May.

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