Imelda Staunton, who on Nov. 9 will become the third actress to portray Queen Elizabeth II on the Netflix hit The Crown (and the first to play her since her death), came to Hollywood’s attention as the nurse to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Viola in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love. But it was her leading turn in 2004’s Vera Drake that established Staunton, then 48, as a talent to be reckoned with.
The film, from British auteur Mike Leigh, tells the story of a modest woman living in London in 1950. Her day job is housekeeper; but on the side, and unbeknownst to her husband and children, she performs abortions for young women. She takes no money for the act (to her knowledge — one of Vera’s collaborators charges clients behind her back), which she performs via a dangerous technique that involves a syringe, carbolic soap and disinfectant. As she tells an inspector upon her arrest, she does it because the women “need help. Who else they got to turn to? No one.”
As with all of Leigh’s films, the script only came together after six months of improvisational rehearsal. The actors who played Vera’s family members weren’t even aware that she performs abortions in the film — not until the day they rehearsed a police raid on the family home. The performance earned Staunton an Oscar nomination, a Golden Globe nomination, the BAFTA and the Volpi Cup for best actress at the Venice Film Festival.
“It’s a very provoking subject,” Staunton told THR ahead of the film’s release. “It’s very personal and private and complex and emotional. This film looks at this impossibly sad topic with compassion on both sides. There’s no religion or politics per se; it just looks at the bare facts. Legal or illegal, abortion’s been with us for centuries. It will always be with us.”
Staunton has worked steadily in film, TV and theater ever since but remains best known to audiences worldwide as Dolores Umbridge, the villainous Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who terrorizes Hogwarts in 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.