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The dark arts and sheer magic of Imelda

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Just magic: Fifty-one-year-old actress Imelda Staunton as she appears in her starring role as a child-hating Hogwarts school mistress. Since she was oscar-nominated for her role in 'Vera Drake' she has been able to pick and choose her acting projects.

Just magic: Fifty-one-year-old actress Imelda Staunton as she appears in her starring role as a child-hating Hogwarts school mistress. Since she was oscar-nominated for her role in 'Vera Drake' she has been able to pick and choose her acting projects.

Just magic: Fifty-one-year-old actress Imelda Staunton as she appears in her starring role as a child-hating Hogwarts school mistress. Since she was oscar-nominated for her role in 'Vera Drake' she has been able to pick and choose her acting projects.

AS EVERYONE'S favourite supporting actress, Imelda Staunton has had a long and decorated career. But at last she has taken centre stage -- Oscar-nominated for her role as Vera Drake in the movie of the same name, now as a child-hating Hogwarts's schoolmistress.

When I think of Imelda Staunton, I imagine someone bustling and blowzy, or nosey and meddlesome, or damp and blotchy with tears.

In short, someone matronly, dumpling-shaped and slightly scary. It's true, Staunton has acted all these parts in her 30-year career on stage and screen, but in person she's none of them -- apart, maybe, from the slightly scary.

Aged 51, she's slim, well-groomed in a casual, confident sort of a way, softly spoken and perched on the edge of a vast sofa, hands folded on her knees, unassailably poised and fiercely intelligent.

Indeed, if she's reading this piece, I can already hear her rising irritation. "Of course I'm not like my characters. I'm an actor; that's what I do." And there's no doubt that she does it very well.

A glance through her CV -- which takes in theatre, film, television, radio, tragedy, comedy, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Broadway musical and cabaret -- reveals her range of talents.

There are, in addition, two Olivier Awards for her theatre work, a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination for Vera Drake (2004), and a clutch of other gongs, including an OBE.

When we meet, she is in the middle of filming a television mini-series called Cranford Chronicles, based on Mrs Gaskell's novels, and has taken a day out to talk about her role in the new Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

The film is darker, more ponderous, than the previous four and Staunton is the best thing in it, playing the primly evil Dolores Umbridge, the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (if you don't know what this is by now, ask the nearest child).

After the stringent demands of working with Mike Leigh on Vera Drake it should have been a walk in the park to play such a pantomime villain. Not so.

"Coming to Harry Potter, I thought, 'It'll just be a bit of waving a wand about'," says Staunton.

"But with David Yates (State of Play) directing, it was much more of an acting piece for me than I had imagined.

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"With all these characters, who can be grotesque, absurd and ridiculous and terrifying, you could just paint it in very broad strokes but David really pulled it right down.,Staunton is that rarest of things; someone who really likes their work. I don't mean someone who likes their work but, if given the choice, would rather win the lottery so they'd never have to put on a suit again. I mean someone whose job has given them some of the most profound and satisfying moments in their life.

Take her experience of working on Vera Drake, which involved day after day of intense improvisation, harrowing subject matter, acres of research. Didn't it just swallow her up whole?

"I have to say, it was the easiest job in the world," she says. "I know that sounds odd. I think every actor who works with Mike Leigh would say the same thing. It's a wonderful process. Every day was different. And you don't talk about it at home. That's one of Mike's rules.,Did she find that hard? "No, it was lovely. It was very liberating. And since then I don't take my work home with me at all.,The film was clearly a life-changing experience -- her first lead role in a film, an Oscar nomination, extravagant critical praise. But to Staunton such things, while unquestionably pleasant (she is not above a bit of praise), are mere fripperies in comparison to the actual doing of the work.

"When you go to the Oscars," she says, "you're asked, 'Is this the most exciting time of your life?' Well, no. The most exciting day of my life was one in Vera Drake. It was the big improvisation at the centre of the film, when the police arrive. I didn't know any of that was happening, so we had seven hours of that. So that was amazing.

"And the Oscars, you know, it was wonderful, but ... " She trails off with a shrug.

So, I ask, now that she has been celebrated in Hollywood, would she consider moving over there?

Her eyes narrow, she takes a moment, then very calmly and with barely-veiled condescension answers, "Well, fortunately, I'm a grown-up and I live and work here and I'm not easily swayed.

"So, no, what I was aware of was that I had been in a very good piece of work which has paid huge dividends for my career.,Staunton grew up in north London, the daughter of a hairdresser, Bridie McNicholas, and a construction worker, Joseph Staunton, both first-generation Irish immigrants.

It seems to have been a happy childhood and there is certainly no sense that her parents in any way disapproved of her ambition to become an actor.

When I ask her if they took an interest in her career, and came to watch her, she says 'Yes', and there is the thinnest veil of tears in her eyes when she tells me that her mother died two years ago.

As is so often the case, though, it was an inspirational teacher -- at the La Sainte Union Convent in Highgate -- who persuaded her to apply for drama school. At RADA she studied alongside Timothy Spall, Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson.

From there she settled into the life of the jobbing actress, working in regional rep for six years. At times she despaired.

"I remember being in Birmingham, the winter of 1976 and I was living in digs with frost on the inside of the windows and it was a hard five months. I was playing Lucky [a man tied to the end of a rope] in Waiting for Godot. I was 20 and I thought, 'Here we go'.,But the variety of the work gave her a solid foundation -- "You get to do Lucky, but then you get to play Piaf. And that's what gives you confidence in your later career.,She also learnt a lesson in humility. "A good thing that happened to me on my first job, I was doing a play by Goldoni, and very fine I thought I was in it. And there I was, out of RADA, having done my Chekhovs and all that. So I was rehearsing during the day, and on in the evening was the farce Boeing Boeing. I went to see that and I thought, 'I don't want to be doing that sort of play, do I?' I remember saying that to the actors afterwards. And they said, 'It's bread and butter, and one day you'll have to earn bread and butter'. And that struck a chord.

"Mrs Bloody Know-All from RADA with her, 'I only want to do Chekhov, lovely, lovely plays', that really ... ,She blows a raspberry. "And that was a very good slap on the wrist.,She went from earning standing ovations for leading roles in rep to the chorus line in Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre in 1982.

The comedown was hard, though she did meet her future husband, the actor Jim Carter (Brassed Off, Shakespeare in Love), during that production.

By the mid-Eighties television roles began to come her way and she had graduated to leads at the National, winning an Olivier award for Ayckbourn's A Chorus of Disapproval (1985), and another for Sondheim's Into the Woods (1990) in the West End.

In 1992 she was cast by Kenneth Branagh in Peter's Friends and in 1993 gave birth to her only child, Bessie. The birth was traumatic and Staunton suffered post-natal depression. She has talked about this on record but prefers not to discuss it now that Bessie is old enough to read about it in the papers, which is fair enough.

Far from being derailed, Staunton returned to her career with a vengeance, playing an acclaimed Miss Adelaide in Richard Eyre's 1996 National Theatre revival of Guys and Dolls, performing her own cabaret show and taking other roles in television and film .

It was good, but Staunton wanted more. What if Vera Drake hadn't come along? Would she have been content just to tick along?

"That thought had crossed my mind. Before I did Vera Drake I was doing films that no one would ever see and bits of telly and supporting people and being very competent and good, and I thought, 'Well, this is what it is and it's fine'.,Somehow, though, I doubt Staunton would have settled for that. Behind all her 'what will be will be' and 'it's a good lesson to learn to swallow your pride' is a fierce belief in her own abilities.

She once said that there are "no real parts being written for women over 50".

She's now 51. Does she still believe this to be true? She sighs: "I think you do have to be blonde and 30, or blonde and 20 actually. Blonde and 20 and having a lot of surgery.

"I think that still exists to a huge degree, but fortunately there's now a market for other work and the idea that The Queen and Vera Drake got that kind of exposure -- it's a very good sign of the times.

"The obsession with beauty and youth is an on-going bloody drama, but in amongst that there is still integrity and reality, because that's not real. People actually ageing is real.

"So, if you want to live in a permanent world of fantasy, then that's up to you. But writing and directing and acting usually deal with things that are real and unreal.

"Look at Harry Potter -- you've got the real and the unreal, absolutely married, beautifully. And, thank Christ people are writing stories about other things than 17-year-olds saying, 'Whatever'. ,Thank Christ, too, exacting conversationalist though she may be, that there are actors like Staunton out there to grasp these parts when they come along.

'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' is in cinemas nationwide now.


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