Vera Drake: Imelda Staunton about Mike Leigh

The interview with Imelda Staunton, the Oscar frontrunner for her acclaimed performance in “Vera Drake,” took place right after the Oscar nominees’ lunch, Monday, February 7.

Emanuel: Youre British and new to this whole Hollywood experience How did the Oscar luncheon go

Imelda: The luncheon was really wonderful, because it was just the people within the industry, the animators, the sound people, the actors, in the room, all of us just celebrating each other’s work.

It gave me a chance to talk to Hilary, Annette, Maria, and Kate. We have never been together in the same room, and we enjoyed talking to each other. After all, we are only actors trying to get a job, looking for work. It takes the curse off. We are all these people who are here today and gone tomorrow.

Emanuel: What did you talk about Was the ambience tense-ridden Youre competing with each other and there will be only one winner on Feb 27.

Imelda: We are not really competing. Five performances have been applauded and celebrated by the Academy. But because TV wants a winner, there will be one. We have done the work, and now someone else has the job to choose the best, if you will. It’s like TV saying, this is the best.’ In one real sense, we should stop right here, but it doesn’t work this way. The public needs a winner.

Emanuel: Are you ready for the Oscars How do you prepare for the big night

Imelda: The only way to prepare is to be ready to lose. Look, I didn’t get the Golden Globe, and I didn’t get the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) Award. But we have to recognize that “Vera Drake” is a small independent film in this big arena. Just being nominated did a lot of good for the film. The Academy has done us a favor.

Emanuel: You have won more awards for “Vera Drake” than any actress this year. I would say at least 20.

Imelda: Really I didn’t realize Ive won so many prizes for the same role.

Emanuel: Just look at the ad that Fine Line has taken for its Oscar campaign in “Variety,” or the “L.A. Times.”

How was your experience in the Venice Festival

Imelda: Venice was so beautiful, and important too. It was the first time that anyone has seen “Vera Drake” with a live public. I was looking forward to see the film with my colleagues, like Phil Davis, wonderful actor, who plays my husband. And the next day, to hear all those journalists talking enthusiastically about the film was really great. By the end of the day, Mike Leigh and I knew we had a special film. And then, at the end, Mike got his prize (Best Picture) and I got my prize (Best Actress). The response was way and above our expectations.

Emanuel: How many times have you seen “Vera Drake”

Imelda: Not too many, five or six times.

Emanuel: Do you look at different segments or aspects of the film Has your reaction changed over the time

Imelda: I know that I did the best I could do. And Mike got the best of me. I feel this piece of work is used up well and I am very proud of it.

Emanuel: British colleagues tell me that youre a great stage actress, and also a comedienne

Imelda: Thank you. I have done a lot of comedy, but my greatest love has always been drama. As Vera Drake, I feel Mike has used all of me as a dramatic actress, in a positive sense.

Emanuel: How did you connect with Mike Leigh in the first place Can you talk about his unique methods from an actor’s POV

Imelda: Mike empowers you as an actor. We created together the character of Vera from the day she was born. The creative process was long but very fulfilling, because it involved improvisations and extensive research of the whole period.

Emanuel: Can you be more specific

Imelda: The sessions with Mike are always very personal, one-to-one. During that time, you don’t talk to the other actors at all. You don’t exchange notes about what youre doing, or what theyre doing. Each one of us only talks to Mike. My sessions with Mike varied in length, but they were always one-to-one.

Emanuel: What was the first thing Leigh told you when you first met with him

Imelda: The very first thing he said, Im interested in making a period drama about a backdoor abortionist. Can you handle it It’s not going to be a sensational or melodramatic film.

Emanuel: What did Leigh know at that point about the era and character

Imelda: You may have noticed that his researchers get a nice credit in the film. They have gathered information for at least a year before we met. They had all these invaluable books, tapes, newsreels, medical records, newspapers, and music.

Emanuel: What kind of research did you conduct

Imelda: I only researched Vera’s character, what she would know and feel by standards of the time. You know, 85 or 90 percent of the abortionists were mothers and grandmothers, and that shocked me at first. They were working-class women who needed money but didn’t charge money for the operations. In the film, there’s only character, the go-between, who collects money.

Emanuel: The prison scenes are strong, and the conversations there between the abortionists are tough.

Imelda: Yes, they are. Mike wanted to show the contrast between Vera and the other women.

Emanuel: What’s your conception of Vera

Imelda: She was a good woman who just wants to help other needy women who can’t afford regular treatment. Vera is an unusual character. She is a woman who doesn’t think about herself, and genuinelynot for any personal gainwants to help other people.

Emanuel: For most of the film, Vera is very busy, always on the go

Imelda: Vera is a very busy woman. But, you know, it was not uncommon. We hear a lot about women now who work and have families, but fifty years ago, many British working class women were doing it.

Emanuel: You are singing and humming in the first hour or so.

Imelda: We decided with Mike that Vera should sing period music of the 1940s and 1950s to give specific historical flavor.

Emanuel: What were you singing Who chose the songs

Imelda: Good question. It’s funny, because we could not afford any music. Mike told me, Please hum something that no one would ever be able to recognize.’ So I hummed generic, unrecognizable music.

Emanuel: How much of the text is really your personal creation

Imelda: We created the part together. During the actual filming, we might add a line here and there. But we rehearsed the whole thing so well that, by time shooting began, the whole improvisation was locked down.

Emanuel: Is Leigh open-minded to last-moment revisions while shooting.

Imelda: He is a very sensitive man and very sympathetic to actors.

Emanuel: When does the screenplay come into being

Imelda: After the creation and the filming are over. As you well know, we don’t have a script when were shooting. But after the film, the screenplay gets published and you can read the whole thing.

Emanuel: How long were the rehearsal and shoot

Imelda: The rehearsal was six months, and the shooting three. So were talking about an intense but very gratifying nine-month period.

Emanuel: Do you enjoy talking about and promoting the film, which began in Venice last September

Imelda: It’s a major emotional and creative investment for all of us. We finished shooting in December 2003, the movie premiered in September 2004, and were now in February 2005. It is a long process.

Emanuel: Are you completely detached from the character right now

Imelda: That’s an interesting question. Mike is so disciplined about being in a character and then being out of character. It was all objective: After doing a scene, I came out of character, then we rehearsed and shot another scene and I went in character again.

Emanuel: Do you like the idea of being called on the set in your character’s name, as some American actors like

Imelda: No, with Mike the whole thing is objective and simpler.

Emanuel: Do you find it hard to detach yourself from Vera’s character and move onto a new project

Imelda: I usually don’t. But, you know, I had dreamed about Vera, dreams not nightmares that had to do with Vera missing her family. The film took a whole year of my life, and in this respect, I miss it. But I feel very satisfied about my work, not frustrated in the sense that I would say, “Oh, I wish we had more time, I would have done it differently.”

Emanuel: What have you done since Vera Drake

Imelda: The nig mistake, I think, was going right away into a difficult play, about James Joyce’s schizophrenic daughter, a truly intense drama. That was so hard. I finished shooting “Vera Drake” in December, and in January, I was already doing a play. It was too soon.

Emanuel: Which were the most challenging scenes for you in “Vera Drake”

Imelda: In a sense, they all were tough, emotional scenes, but we handled them, and we improvised them all. I feel we have fully exhausted every scene by the end of rehearsals. When we began shooting, all I had to do was just give it over, because it was so well prepared.

Emanuel: Even so, which scene was particularly tough

Imelda: Well, if I have to choose one, I suppose it’s the scene in the police station, when Vera is interrogated. That scene took over a week, and by the end, I was exhausted but felt good about it.

Emanuel: What does Vera whisper to her husband in that crucial scene

Imelda: I am not going to tell you. That’s a secret. What’s your interpretation The viewer’s subjective interpretation is what matters.

Emanuel: I am not giving up. Give me a clue about your thoughts during that painful scene In a more typical Hollywood movie, there would be a mega close-up and Vera’s confession would be more sentimental and tragic.

Imelda: You tell me, what did you as viewer think she was saying I am not going to tell you.

Emanuel: I give up. That was a defeating question.

Imelda: O.K. Ill say that much. When we improvised that scene, I decided Vera would just whisper something to her husband, but it would be silent. It was my idea and Mike liked it.

Emanuel: A lot of viewers are haunted by Vera’s close-ups in the last reel. How was this experience for you

Imelda: I think these scenes are more haunting and disturbing for people watching the movie than for me, because I created and rehearsed them. I do feel that they work dramatically and emotionally. But after shooting them, I let that whole experience go and move onto the next scene.

Emanuel: How did you maintain this consistent expression during the close-up shots of Vera, while sobbing and sobbing

Imelda: Mike is really great at giving you the right atmosphere you need for your work, the ambience for your reactions. I like the notion of focus and concentration during those close-ups. Theyre part of the actor’s skills.

Emanuel: What was the ambience on the set of such an emotionally grueling drama

Imelda: You will be surprised to learn that the ambience was very relaxed, very calm. By the time we shot, we all knew each other pretty well. That helps. All I had to do was just tap into my emotions.

Emanuel: Did you ever feel your were in complete command of Vera’s character

Imelda: I did. It was special to me, because I got to create Vera with Mike. Mike and myself and all the actors really created the characters and their relationships. Mike is like a sculptor and you as an actor are a block of wood. Together, completely and collaboratively, I created Vera’s character with Mike. By the time we shot, I would say to Mike, Vera would not door say such a thing.

Emanuel: What kind of man is Mike Leigh

Imelda: He is terribly and extremely sensitive. There was no ego whatsoever. We were all trying to get to the end of the process the best we could.

Emanuel: Would you like to work in Hollywood or independent cinema, after the critical acclaim and Oscar nomination

Imelda: I don’t know. That’s for them in Hollywood to decide.

Emanuel: Any plans for the future

Imelda: Having had the best job of my career, the best experience in my life, it will be a tough act to follow “Vera Drake.” In many ways, it’s truly fantastic what has happened to me. I am going to take March off and wait and see.

Emanuel: How do you define yourself

Imelda: I am a character actress, well, let’s say, I am a leading character actress who does interesting, odd parts.

Emanuel: Tell me about your other roles

Imelda: I have done a lot of films, like “Sense and Sensibility” and “Shakespeare in Love,” mostly small screen parts. “Vera Drake” was my biggest and most important film role.

Emanuel: You should have more opportunities now

Imelda: I don’t look a certain way, the movie star way. You need to accommodate to play those Hollywood types of roles.

Emanuel: I have heard from many UK actors that the British press is ambivalent toward them after they succeed in America

Imelda: I can understand that it happens, but I am not aware of it. The British press may demand loyalty, they may enjoy knocking you down, that sort of thing, but I have not experienced it.

Emanuel: Speaking of actresses, who are your favorite idols

Imelda: I don’t have many. I adore Bette Davis and Vivien Leigh, but more because they were good actresses. That’s what makes me interested in them, that they didn’t present themselves as idols; they were just doing their jobs. I also like all of the actresses in “Vera Drake” and the other Mike Leigh’s films.

Emanuel: Is there anything Mike Leigh’s actresses share in common

Imelda: We are all working actresses who love our jobs and believe in always being truthful to our characters. You know you can be very famous without being a great actress, and that’s not good for me.

Emanuel: How log have you been acting

Imelda: I began at 20, so it’s 28 years now.

Emanuel: Is age as problematic for British actresses as it is for American ones

Imelda: No. It is much easier for us in England. We have theater, TV, radio, and film, and we work in all of these mediums. Look at Judi Dench, who’s brilliant in whatever bloody job she does. Also, the films we make in England are not based on leading
lady looks. Most of our films are more character-driven, which gives you flexibility as an actress.

Emanuel: Do you have a favorite medium, like film over TV

Imelda: I reached the point now, where I have become as comfortable on a movie set as I am on stage. Before, I was trying to figure it out, how much should I emote, where should I stand But now I know more about the camera, and what goes into the mix, technically. Im much more comfortable doing film now.

Emanuel: How many roles of Vera’s depth and caliber can an actor expect to have

Imelda: Vera is unique, truly a once of a lifetime part. This is without doubt the most emotionally satisfying role I have ever had.

Emanuel: Do you expect to have several more roles of that kind

Imelda: One or two will do (laughing).

Emanuel: When are you going back home

Imelda: On Wednesday, I miss my home, and I am eager to see the whole gang.

Emanuel: In time for the British Film and TV Awards (BAFTA), on Saturday night. Good luck with BAFTA and the Oscar.

Imelda: Thanks. It’s really sweet of you.