After extensive work in regional repertory, actress Imelda Staunton landed a job in the chorus of Richard Eyre’s original 1980 production of Guys and Dolls at the National. She later took over as Miss Adelaide, a role she also reprised in the revival’s 1997 return, for which she was nominated for an Olivier.
During a wide-ranging stage career, Staunton is a three-time Olivier winner - for A Chorus of Disapproval, The Corn is Green (two Best Supporting Actress awards) and Into the Woods (Best Actress in a Musical) – with two further nods (for The Wizard of Oz and Uncle Vanya) bringing her a total of six Olivier nominations to date.
Her other stage credits have included Life x 3, The Beggar’s Opera, Scweyk in the Second World War, Fair Maid of the West, They Shoot Horses Don’t They, It’s a Mad World My Masters, Us Good Girls, The Lady and the Clarinet, Bold Girls, Slavs and Habeas Corpus.
Staunton is also a familiar screen face. Amongst her films are Bright Young Things, Blackball, Shakespeare in Love, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Sense and Sensibility and Peter Friends, while her television appearances include Strange, Cambridge Spies, David Copperfield, Easy Money, The Singing Detective, A Bit of Fry and Laurie and Up the Garden Path.
Staunton returns to the West End this month to star in the world premiere production of Michael Hastings’ Calico, in which she plays Nora Barnacle, the wife of James Joyce, whose unstable daughter is having an affair with a young Samuel Beckett.
Date & place of birth
Born 6 January 1956 in Archway, north London.
Lives now in...
West Hampstead in north London. I came here when I was pregnant, and my daughter Bessie is now ten, so this year we'll have been here 11 years.
First big break
I think it was doing Piaf in Nottingham in 1980 that led me to get my audition with Richard Eyre for Guys and Dolls at the National. Richard had run Nottingham Playhouse, and though he didn't see Piaf, he still knew people there who said he should see me!
Career highlights to date
My career highlights would have be Guys and Dolls, Uncle Vanya and the Mike Leigh film I've just spent all last year doing. With Guys and Dolls, I started off as a Hotbox Girl. I wasn't a name at all, but had done six years in rep playing St Joan, Electra, Mack and Mabel and Piaf, so coming into the chorus felt like a step down. Simultaneously, I had auditioned to take over from Elaine Paige in Cats, and when I didn't get that job but got the chorus one in Guys and Dolls, I thought I'd better take it, as I wasn't going to get to London in any other way. After a year as a Hotbox Girl, I ended up taking over from Julia McKenzie. I think I was really bad as Miss Adelaide in 1983 - I was far better when we did a revival of it in 1997! I was too young before, but I was at the right age in 1997. I also met my husband during the original run, Jim Carter - he was playing Big Jule, and at one point appeared in a dress - he's a lovely big girl!
Doing Uncle Vanya was another highlight, because it was a proper serious play with not a song in sight, and it was working with wonderful material. I had only done Chekhov before at drama school, so it was a revelation. And the new Mike Leigh film, which he’s still editing and hasn't got a title yet, was the most extraordinary experience, acting-wise. I don't know what the film is like yet, but as a working experience it felt like I was on a course for a year! We rehearsed for four months - it felt like a theatre group making a film - and it was just amazing. It changes your whole perspective on acting. Mike’s absolutely inspiring. It's like he takes the back of your brain out, twists it, and takes it to places it has never, ever been before.
What do your many awards mean to you?
They're very nice, but I've always thought of them as end-of-term school prizes - you're all in the same school, and someone gets the English prize, someone else gets the Music Prize. At real school, I got none! But while it was very nice to get the Oliviers, I've sat there many more times and been nominated and not got anything!
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
There have been lots of great things. I went straight into rep after RADA, and an awful lot of it was good fun to do. So was A Chorus of Disapproval, with Michael Gambon, who I then did Uncle Vanya with. Habeas Corpus at the Donmar I found the most difficult play ever do to, but backstage was pretty good fun, with Celia Imrie, Brenda Blethyn, Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville - we laughed an awful lot. The last thing I did on stage was Life x 3, and it was at the National, so we had nights off - heaven! I have a daughter and I don't want to be out every night anymore!
Favourite films you've ever worked on
With films, I usually just turn up and do my bit. Apart from Mike Leigh's film and Peter's Friends, I've not had many complete roles. Sense and Sensibility and Shakespeare in Love were both good fun, but there was nothing to get your teeth into. That's why I go back to the theatre - film never gives me the opportunity to do any proper acting. I did a scene in Bright Young Things that was good fun, too - it was a lovely day. Perhaps I should do a daily rate on everything. I'm not proud. Most of the time I'll do the next job that comes along, even if it's just for a day! There are lots of good actors doing small bits in things - you've got to pay the mortgage, so you do it! I did a day playing the Queen Mother on Cambridge Spies, which was heaven. My advice to other actors: don't ever be too bloody proud to say, "I'll do it!"
All the Habeas Corpus cast were pretty good. And it's always great working with Michael Gambon, who as well as A Chorus of Disapproval and Uncle Vanya I also did The Singing Detective on TV with. Jonathan Pryce and I had a wonderful scene together in Uncle Vanya and I loved working with him. On Guys and Dolls, it was great working with Henry Goodman when we did it again, and of course Jim Carter - that man who lives with me was in it, too! Jim was also the Lion when I was Miss Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz at the Barbican. It was great fun to do that, but we don't really work together much. We're together more in life than on stage, and I'd rather it that way around! Harriet Walter and I laughed so much in Life x 3, and it was a privilege to work with Mark Rylance and Oliver Cotton on it, too.
I've been really lucky. Trevor Nunn, Richard Eyre and Alan Ayckbourn on stage; and Beeban Kidron and now Mike Leigh on film. And I'm now working with Edward Hall, who is also wonderful. To work with those kinds of directors and actors is surely like tennis: the better the other player is, the more your own game improves. That's what I want, someone to make me better all the time, and those people have. What's refreshing about working with Ed now is that he's knitting it all together, and you feel comfortable that he knows exactly what he's doing. All I have to do is speak out loud so people can hear me, and he'll tell me where to go! He has such a wonderful eye!
My first job and most of my rep work was with Richard Digby Day. He gave me enormous confidence and the ability to get on and do it. With that early work, I'm sure I wasn't good enough, but he gave me all those opportunities to practice my craft. He was a huge influence, and I still see him now.
I'm a real new writers girl - I don't do much of the classics. I did a play by Tony Kushner, Slavs!, at Hampstead Theatre that was wonderful to do. I'm also delighted to be doing Michael Hastings' new play now. I remember years ago when he wrote Tom and Viv, I went up for it and was desperate to do it - I didn't get it, though, and I was really, really gutted, thinking no one would ever take me seriously! Julie Covington, who is a friend, did it instead and was much better casting! I did do a play by Michael's wife, Us Good Girls, at Soho Poly. So everything has come around.
You’ve thrived on film, television & on stage, where you’ve done both plays & musicals with great success. Do you have any preferences?
I don’t have a preference between plays and musicals. I can do both, and I think I must be brave enough to be able to say that now! Theatre is important, and I like coming back to it. On the whole, I think it’s more fun than films. You have an ongoing experience with theatre, whereas with film, you usually just go in, do it and go home.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I'm so hopeless really. I'm just hoping that some director will give me one of those fabulous mad Shakespearean women now, or when I'm a bit older!
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
With just two O levels to my name, where would I have gone? I would like to teach, because I like talking, but I couldn't have with just two O levels! It's a question I've never thought of, though, because I was always going to do this!
What was the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
Jerry Springer - the Opera was the best thing I saw last year. It’s such an important comment on our times - what are we doing? And that was apart from everything about it being absolutely staggeringly good. I also saw The Pillowman. Bloody hell! That was extraordinary. You're not going to see another piece of theatre like that.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
They need to make Stephen Fry minister for the arts - he'd sort us out! Also I think we need another word other than 'culture', which always sounds like it's only for a few people, rather than everyone. Somehow the government should subsidise the theatre so that people who can't afford £50 can go. The £10 scheme at the National has worked brilliantly, but I don't know if it has brought in people from different circles or just rich people who think, "It's marvellous - look, we can get in for £10!" That should spill over to the West End and the provinces, so that theatre is available for everyone financially, and not just looked upon as some middle-class thing.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I've been reading a book about climbing a mountain, and to do something like that, that's nothing to do with what I do would be wonderful. So I’d love to be Brian Blessed climbing Everest, but only quieter!
The book I've just mentioned is Touching the Void by Joe Simpson, and Into Thin Air, about another Everest climb that went hopelessly wrong, is also extraordinary. It’s not only to do with climbing but also with people's needs to conquer things and get to the top. Interestingly, with these climbers, they get to the top, stay a few minutes and then they have to get down again. They're brave people, stupid people, very cold people! People say to actors, “I don't know how you do it, what you do is so brave!” But I think, “Are you out of your mind? This isn't brave, it's nothing compared to that!” Wild Swans has also always been a favourite book of mine.
Favourite holiday destination
Kenya. I've been there a few times, and it's changed my view of the world. You think that Norfolk is flat and you can see forever, but you go to the Serengeti and you can see this whole continent stretching out in front of you. You see that far and you realise how tiny you are!
Favourite after-show haunts
Home! After the show comes down at 10pm, I like to be back in West Hampstead and in bed by 10.45pm. I don't need to wind down afterwards. I hope friends don't come to the show and say, “Let's go out to dinner afterwards!” I just want to come home!
Why did you want to accept your role in Calico?
I was sent the play at a very crucial time, and wasn't sure what to do. My agent said it was the best new play in ages, so I gave it to my husband to read, and he said, “you have to do it.” It was great to have a job lined up for after the film was finished, not because of insecurity, but so I wouldn't plummet after the comedown from it. It's thrilling to be able to do a new play, and to work with Edward Hall, whom I've not worked with before. The play is about James Joyce and his family, when they were living in Paris in 1928. It takes place over the course of three months, when Samuel Beckett came to be Joyce's assistant. It's mainly factual, but with Michael Hastings' extraordinary take on things. I play Nora Barnacle, Joyce's wife. She never read any of her husband's work, she thought it was rubbish! But the play is really fascinating!
Are you a Samuel Beckett fan?
I was the first woman ever to play Lucky in Waiting for Godot, when I appeared in a production at Birmingham Canon Hill in 1975. But I've not done any other Beckett. Like Nora, I've not read any Joyce either, and I'm not going to!
- Imelda Staunton was speaking to Mark Shenton
Calico receives its world premiere at the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre on 3 March 2004, following previews from 20 February.