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The Eyes Have It

Imelda Staunton Sees Straight Into the Meaty Role of Vera Drake

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2004; Page C01

Instant impression of Imelda Staunton: They haven't invented a camera yet to adequately evoke the sky blueness in those eyes. They scintillate like polished glass marbles. Thank God there are no magpies around.

The English actress knows how to use 'em, too. They flash mischievously, playfully, even sexily, as she makes mock seriousness of her profession (pronounces it "ahhcting"), which has burned 28 years long for her on stage, television and screen. And yet, even though she has enjoyed some bright leading roles onstage and in television, on screen she's been the support staff, not the main event.


After 28 years of acting, Imelda Staunton steps into her first leading movie role with "Vera Drake," a film that won the Golden Lion award at the Venice film festival. (Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

_____Desson Thomson_____
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Which is why the eyes practically coruscate as she talks about her first leading film role, working in Mike Leigh's "Vera Drake." Finally, Imelda's out front.

In "Vera Drake," which opens Friday, Staunton plays the title role, a soft-spoken sweetheart in postwar London who seems to serve the entire world around her. She traipses from family to friend to neighbor, making them cups of tea, making sure they're comfortable, inviting them 'round for supper. But this angel has a secret life. When young women from the leisure classes "get into trouble," they can visit the doctor, claim emotional distress and take care of things in a safe, legal environment. But when a working-class girl suffers the same problem, she finds herself facing darker, even life-threatening options.

That's where Vera comes in, with a soothing bedside manner, a gentle technique and no questions asked. She believes she's helping. But the law has a different view, and that potential danger hangs over the genial housewife like an overcast British sky.

Says Staunton, 48, the role is "the best job of my life. No doubt about it." She laughs to think she almost passed on it. When Leigh, who doesn't reveal much about his projects in advance, invited her to appear in his next film, she had no idea what role she'd play. And there was this other project in the offing.

"I'd been offered to do a play," says Staunton. "So I said to Mike, 'I could do my little play and join you halfway through rehearsals.' And he said, 'That's not exactly what I had in mind.' I didn't have to read between the lines at all."

He also told her: It's set in England in the 1950s. It concerns abortion.

She didn't think of the A word as a political hot potato, she says. "It was just about this character and this story. I wasn't taking a modern view of it."

She grabbed the part with both hands and immediately found herself working under the director's unique system. Leigh, who was nominated for Oscars for "Secrets & Lies" and "Topsy-Turvy," hands his actors no script. He outlines their characters for them, sends them off to research and prepare, then brings them together for weeks of improvisation. He forbids the actors to know what their characters wouldn't know, which allows them to react spontaneously during filming. Even Staunton, who figures in most scenes, didn't know everything that would happen.

"Heaven!" Staunton says of the Leigh method. "It's heaven and there's nothing more immersing than this. I loved doing those improvisations. It was so simple and easy and uncomplicated. It puts your life on hold. You are suspended somewhere else. . . . To be able to develop a character from the moment they're born and practically live their life -- it just doesn't happen anywhere else."

Staunton took the top acting prize at the recent Venice film festival; the movie also won the Golden Lion award. And as the awards season nears, it's no secret why Fine Line Features is jetting her and Leigh around the country for interviews.

"Oh shut up," she says gently at any hint of Oscar talk (and there is talk). Actors are superstitious about these things. Break a leg and all that. But Staunton's also averse to talking about prizes or fame or celebrity culture. Or herself.

Staunton (full Catholic name: Imelda Mary Philomena Bernadette Staunton) is a London native and resident. She's married to actor Jim Carter and has a 10-year-old daughter. And she's "good mates" with actress-writer-director Emma Thompson, also a neighbor, and with whom she has worked frequently, on a comic TV series and in the films "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Sense and Sensibility." Supporting roles, of course, but she was half of an interesting duo in the comedy "Antonia and Jane." And a police chief in "Crush," a nurse in "Shakespeare in Love," a distraught mum in "Peter's Friends," a fowl in the animated "Chicken Run."

But on stage and television, Staunton has showed her talents and her thirst for variety, winning a Laurence Olivier Theatre Award in 1986 for two supporting performances on the London stage. She won another in 1991 for best actress in a musical for "Into the Woods." And in a British television series called "Up the Garden Path," she played a thirty-something free spirit named Izzy who staggers from one disastrous affair to the next. Izzy's also a bit of a liar and loves to binge on chocolate cake. Forget Bridget Jones.

Great Britain, with its centuries of theatrical tradition and de-emphasis of the star system, is the perfect environment for someone like herself, she readily admits. She'd rather be able to "cross over" from stage to screen at will, instead of working in Hollywood, where, she says, "I would imagine the onus is very much on being famous and getting a large film part."

At the Venice festival last month, a wire service quoted Staunton as saying: "In England, we manage to look like people and have big arses and still get a job."

Asked if she remembers making such a comment, Staunton cackles. A big hearty laugh. And then another. "Really? I don't remember. I wish I had said it. Could you put me down as having said it?"

Of course, the eyes are sparkling.


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