In her long and distinguished career, Staunton has played more than her share of sinners and saints, everything from Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” to a literal fairy godmother in “Maleficent.” Still, most people likely remember her most from two wildly different characters, the malevolent Umbridge and the title role in “Vera Drake,” the embodiment of compassion and the role that earned her an Academy Award nomination for best actress.
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The fact that she can play benevolent and sinister works to great effect in her latest film, “Amulet,” the feature writing and directing debut of actor Romola Garai. A horror film with roots in feminism, body horror and vengeance, the uneasy thriller tells the story of a former soldier (Alec Secareanu) who lodges with a young woman (Carla Juri) in charge of her ailing mother. Staunton plays Sister Claire, the nun who sets up the living arrangement and continues to counsel Secareanu as strange and unexplainable things begin to happen in the decaying house.
To say anything more would be a disservice to the smart, twisted thriller, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is available on demand July 24.
Staunton spoke to Variety about supporting new voices, the excitement of working in a new genre, and her roles past and present — including taking over the role of Queen Elizabeth II for upcoming seasons of “The Crown.”
Romola Garai is best known for her work as an actor. Had you worked with her before?
Yes, in 2004, in a play called “Calico” about James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. And I’ve seen her work since, and I think she’s phenomenal. We have the same agent and the script was sent to me and I said, “Oh my God, I’ll do it!” It was exciting because the horror genre is something I know nothing about and because it’s her and I wanted to help her.
I was curious about that because aside from “The Awakening,” which is more of a supernatural drama, and an episode of “Tales of the Crypt,” it doesn’t look like you’ve done much horror before.
No! I mean my character in “Harry Potter” was horrible, but it’s not horror. I hope this opens up a whole new world. It’s not something I know much about. And I’m one of those people who loves a weird story or something that makes you say, “Oh God, don’t go up those stairs! Don’t open that door!” I love those movies.
“Amulet” is definitely full of unexpected surprises.
It’s so not what you expect. And Romola was a dream to work with. I’m rather jealous, but she can do it all. I was shooting something else at the time so I only had five days for my part. We did it quite quickly and she understands actors, she’s got a great eye, she has wonderful energy. On films like these, they don’t give you any money, but if you’ve done the prep and cast it right, you can go in with all guns blazing. And on top of all that, she handled these special effects, which add so much time and expense. I love supporting new work and new writing, and you must always work with younger actors because they’ll teach you how to do it.
You’ve worked with special effects before in several big studio films.
Yeah. And they’ve got money to literally burn; I feel they sometimes have too much money. If you’ve got a certain amount of money, you just make it work. You cut corners and you become inventive and imaginative. These huge studio films have much more money than sense. You just go, “Oh God, the waste.” And there wasn’t an inch of this film that was wasted. I think that thinking comes from the theater, as well. You don’t have that much money and you have to be inventive.
You mentioned Umbridge being “horrible”; are roles like that fun to play?
Oh, yes! They’re the best. You can go to places that one shouldn’t go to, and that’s interesting. These people who are desperately unhappy or unloved go to a very dark place because that’s all they know and they can’t help themselves. It’s always fascinating to look at the journey of that person’s life, to create your own narrative for the reasons for their actions. People like Mrs. Lovett; she’s an animal, really, she’s clawing to make a living. She’s desperate. Or you get somebody who had a very bad childhood and had terrible things happen in their lives that made them shut down and lack empathy.
This makes me want to see a prequel about Dolores Umbridge.
(Laughs) “Umbridge: The Early Years!”
It’s such a memorable role that so many people saw as children. Do you find people cower a little when they see you?
Yes, yes, a little! And I can understand that. The power of that writing and that character that she had was appalling. So I can understand that kids hold that very vividly in their minds. And I’m very, very grateful for that role. It was much more serious than I had imagined, considering all that pink she wore. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” was the first “Potter” for director David Yates and I, and we both were very aware that we wanted to make it extremely serious and threatening without any fireworks. It had to be a very steely interior of her evil quality rather than looking evil. I remember the great costume designer and I discussed how she has to be really soft on the outside, so you have no idea the evil is there. We didn’t want edgy and sharp and angular, we wanted motherly and soft. I want all the elements to play against what I needed to do. I didn’t want any help visually. I wanted to look the very opposite of what she was.
You’re set to take on another iconic character when you take over the role of Queen Elizabeth II on “The Crown” in Season 5. Are you preparing already?
I am, though we don’t start until next July. Olivia Colman finished filming Series 4 about a week before lockdown, can you believe it? So they managed to get that in the can. I’m slowly and quietly getting on with it, reading and listening and doing all that stuff.
What’s it like to see your predecessors, Colman and Claire Foy? Usually when you’re sharing a role, you are filming at the same time.
Well, I’ve seen them and I’ve seen the real Queen over all these years. So I’ve got good research not only in the drama show, but in her real life. So I’m not spoiled for choice there. And everything’s bloody daunting. I’m sure it was very daunting for Claire Foy to start it. For all three of us to go, “Please, don’t drop the baton!” It’s the royal relay. So I have my work cut out for me and it’s terrifying and exciting and a huge responsibility and I can’t wait.
Have you met the Queen before?
I have. I actually sang at her 90th birthday and we were invited to a tea for all the performers and she was there. I think the first time I met her was in 1986, she came to see a show I was doing. The Queen Mother actually came a couple of times to shows I did. I met her at ceremony when I got the OBE and William gave me the CBE. It is weird to think I’ll be doing it; of course it’s bloody weird! But it’s not my job to wonder how they’ll do it. It’s just my job to try and turn in some sort of bloody believable performance.