By Melanie Cummings
After seven years of working non-stop on stage and on the big screen, Imelda Staunton is taking a little break and looking for a hobby or two.
She recently wrapped up her latest addition to a very prolific career as the lead character in Finding Your Feet, due to be released in theatres April 13.
Finding Your Feet tells the story of Surrey housewife Sandra, who is about to embark on retirement life with her husband (John Sessions) only to have her plans dashed when she discovers that he has been having an affair with her best friend (Josie Lawrence) for the past five years. Humiliated, she leaves their swanky home, influential friends and all that is familiar to her, to move in with her estranged, free-spirited sister Bif (Celia Imrie) who lives in a chaotic, London flat, on the less-than modest side of town. The stodgy and snobby Sandra is nothing like her bohemian, laissez faire older sister Bif (short for Elizabeth). As the story unfolds the newly reunited sisters realize they may have little in common but each has plenty to learn from and about the other.
“It’s a slow melt with this poor woman,” describes Staunton who says she shares few traits and experiences with her character Sandra. This has long been the allure of acting life for Staunton. “I love playing people not like me.”
Her 41-year career acting in theatre, television, film, radio and more certainly attests to this affinity for stepping outside herself. In film she has played the title character in Vera Drake (2004), Dolores Jane Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010) and Hefina Headon in Pride (2014).
Last year, she also wrapped up playing one of the leads in the London revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to name but a few of her roles.
Staunton is pleased with the way the audience received Finding Your Feet during a recent viewing she attended, however she doesn’t typically enjoy the experience. “It’s difficult to watch myself on the big screen. It’s why I do theatre so much because you can’t see your performance played back at you and the audience doesn’t get a fixed version of your character. On stage your character changes every night.”
And while Staunton says “actors don’t retire” at age 62 she is hoping to slow down, if at least a little bit. Which is where there may be some common ground after all with her Finding Your Feet character Sandra.
One of the threads that runs throughout the movie is the theme of embracing adventure, at any age, and (re)building relationships to ensure one’s second act in life is a happy, fulfilling one.
“It’s not awful being old,” said Staunton. “Sure, things happen that aren’t great but it’s how you deal with them that makes all the difference.”
For Staunton’s character Sandra, that includes finding new friendships in a dance class.
During a flash mob scene, in which Staunton and company put their best foot forward on the streets of London — “which took a lot of practice and wasn’t easy to do” — the ensemble wears T-shirts emblazoned with the Age UK logo, a charity dedicated to providing companionship, advice and support to more than seven million older adults.
According to Age UK there are 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in England, and many more across the rest of the UK. Statistics Canada reported in 2016 that as many as 1.4 million elderly Canadians feel lonely.
Over the past year, Staunton has managed to find a perfect balance between career and family. The short five-minute commutes to work over the past year have helped. “I love that I can do a job like this and still live an ordinary life,” she added. It has allowed her more time at home with her husband of 35 years, Jim Carter (who played Carson in Downton Abbey), their 25-year-old daughter Bessie and dog Molly.
That’s not to say however, that Staunton has any complaints about the “heavenly” Finding Your Feet scenes that required a trip to Rome. Even the parts of the story that had Staunton jumping into a “very cold” lake were worth the lengthier commute. “I loved it!”
At the time of this interview Staunton’s new “unscheduled life” was only five weeks running. She’s discovering this slower pace takes some getting used to.
“I need to ‘empty out’ first before I can take on anything else,” she stressed. The intensity of studying scripts, reading music scores and practicing dance routines has swallowed all of her time for the past seven years. “Now I just need to let what’s left of my brain enjoy the downtime.”
Long walks with her dog Molly, baking soda bread and reading for pleasure are hobbies in the making. Pastimes such as Sudoku, crosswords and an attempt at embroidery are on the fringes.
“What’s next is me, my family and travel. They’ve been a longtime coming.” However, she said, should a film come along that would allow her to work days and have weekends off, she’d do that too.