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Vera Drake - Imelda Staunton Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

Q. The audience feel tremendous sympathy for Vera. She is, as her husband says, an angel of mercy. She's spent her life doing nothing but good things, to help in her own little way, but for you, the emotional work, particularly from the moment she goes into police custody, were they some of the toughest scenes you've had to tackle?
Imelda Staunton.
Well, it isn't shot in sequence, so there was about five days when it was pretty constant and I had a bit of a headache by the Friday... But in some respects, it wasn't any more difficult than shooting other bits of the fim, in a way, because it's all so structured and there's such preparation. It's not, 'oh, it's that scene now'. I felt very supported in it all and it was what was required, and because there's such research and discussion and preparation and improvisation, you've got all that grounding. So I think emotional scenes, unless you're really plugged into them, that's when it's hard work. It wasn't hard work because I felt I knew the character so well and what she was doing that it was just happening. So that's the result of all the work.

Q. What would La Sainte Union Convent School for Girls might think of the whole film? And have you had any interesting religious responses to the film?
Imelda:
Not as yet because it's opened in America, but it won't open here til January, so we haven't had that sort of feedback, or I haven't. As to what the convent might think of it, I've no idea.
Mike Leigh: When we showed it at Venice, where we got the prizes, Vatican radio was quite supportive of the film, and there were two pieces in the Catholic Herald, which talked about it in a very open and quite supportive way given the nature of things. But I think it's early days yet, as Imelda said. Obviously, some people will find it objectionable, although the interesting thing is that what is working, in a way, because I don't buldgeon you about the head with black and white polemics, it does draw you into feeling about things, and thus thinking about them. I think it does embrace different factions. I think so, but we don't really know yet.

Q. Do Vera's views equate with your own and, if not, then how did you recompense for that?
Imelda:
Completely separate things, completely separate. You know, it's a great discipline the way that Mike works. Together we created and invented this character who does that. It was nothing to do with me, I don't make any comment about what she is doing, or have any opinion about what she is doing, I'm just doing the job that is required for this story, so that wasn't an issue at all.

Q. What about research? The body language of your character, for instance? Her manner of speech? She had certain rhythms?
Imelda:
Well, you know, it was six months of research, discussions, improvisations and sort of, it seems, you're unaware of how it's all attaching itself. Even when we were doing it, with the actors, even though you don't talk about the film at all with the other actors, but we were going, 'how are we doing this? How is it happening?' But it just sort of organically starts to appear and happen, but one bit of the research that sort of surprised me was that the majority of abortionists that were in Holloway Prison were mothers and grandmothers.
Mike Leigh: You read a lot of letters from them.
Imelda: Yeah. We all have our perception of back-street abortionists - evil, single woman in a basement, with a piece of metal - and not a mother, or certainly a grandmother.
Mike Leigh: Obviously, as we all know, you can research anything and that's what we did and so you talk about the language, it's there to be discovered. And actually it's fascinating, because you can - and people did - look at movies or radio programmes, old news reels, etc.

Q. As a Mike Leigh virgin coming into the project, was it slightly daunting, or being like the new girl at school?
Imelda:
No. Because also at the beginning I worked on my own with Mike. I was frightened before I started but literally the minute we started, it was great - plain sailing.
Mike Leigh: There is this sort of myth that there is a kind of mesonic coven of people and new bods, you go through a blooding ritual... it's a load of old rope, frankly, I mean there are dozens of actors in this that I haven't worked with before, and there's always lots of new ones and young ones. You know, people come and go and anyone that's good comes back for more. But there's a bit of a club, in a way, for people who can tell stories about it, but the Imelda Stauntons of this world, who are pretty tough characters in their own right, don't really come in wet behind the ears.

Q. So, Imelda, what was your response when you first realised all these things that Mike's just explained?
Imelda:
Yeah, it was really shocking and very frightening. I had a very, very big pain in my chest that I couldn't quite believe what was happening. But you go with it and then what happens is that you discuss how you felt afterwards, with Mike. But he makes that then happen on-screen and he makes you feel what she felt - and that's the magic.

Q. The film has opened in America where, undoubtedly, a lot of the pro-life people will take the son's comment as their position, so I wondered when you were evolving the character, how you evolved the idea that she doesn't like the term abortion?
Imelda:
Well that's all researched as much as anything else. So there was nothing in there that I made up, as it were. Her terminology - 'coming away' and 'helping girls out' - is all researched and read and soaked up.

Q. So does that mean that they distanced themselves from how they referred to what they were doing?
Imelda:
I don't think they would consider it distancing themselves. It's like doctors have a language they use, and I would imagine that was the language which was how to explain that, simply.
Mike Leigh: I don't think she is distancing herself in the sense that there have always been people, mostly women, in all societies at all times, in the next street, the next village, the next town, or whatever, who know how to do this, in one way or another, and it's plain that she doesn't.... she's not in denial of anything. She obviously puts in one part of her head that she knows it's illegal and she knows that the shit could hit the fan sometime, but she doesn't concern herself with that, because she has something to do. But I mean it's something that would be perceived as a natural thing to do in those particular social circumstances. And so I don't think there's any actual euphemism involved as such, it's just that for those people, that's what it is. Obviously, if you look at it from another perspective, which plainly the film does and has to, as well, which is from the abortion perspective, from the medical perspective, then it becomes something, in a way, negative or bad. And one doesn't take any sides in saying that, that's how it is basically.

Q. When you discovered that a lot of the abortionists you researched were mothers and grandmothers, did you also find that a lot of them were doing it as a selfless act, as Vera does in the movie?
Imelda:
Oh yeah, I mean there were some who did it for money, but there were some who didn't, so absolutely. But those women were your neighbours round the corner and a lot of women would help their friends' children out, so a mother whose got a pregnant 16 or 17-year-old, there wouldn't be any charge for that.

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