When the police interrogate housekeeper Vera Drake about her second job, she says she ”helps girls in trouble.” This judgment-free view of abortion makes Imelda Staunton’s Oscar-nominated performance all the more heartbreaking: Vera is as caring as she is ignorant. Director Mike Leigh wrote an elaborate backstory to help the actress (but not the audience) understand the character’s difficult choices. Staunton tells EW about this dream role.
What were your own immediate reactions after you saw Vera Drake for the first time?
I didn?t know what to make of it. But Mike knows that. He let about 10 of us see the film first before the cast and crew. The thing is, of course, you?re still in it, really, and then to see it on-screen is a very difficult thing to do, because you?re so in the character. It was very difficult the first time. I couldn?t make any comment about it; I didn?t know what to say. Then I saw it three weeks later, and I was distanced from it. Then I could be slightly more objective, and I know I?m a bit biased, but I think it?s a really good film.
How do you think the politics of and attitudes about abortion have changed between 1950 and now? Have they even?
Well, I think they did change, and now it looks like they?re going backwards?I would like the film, as Mike would, to contribute to some debate about abortion, but also to say, ””Okay, look, it?s never going to go away; we?re stuck with it, unfortunately.” I don?t know how we got there in the first place, but we?ve got it. So are we going to make it illegal and unsafe or legal and safe? Are we going to go back in time to the ?50s or are we going to move forward?
Besides your having similar working-class backgrounds, how else — if at all — do you identify with Vera?
I don?t, really. We were so strict about creating a person who had nothing to do with me, creating her from other people I?ve known plus the women I read about and researched. She?s a different person to me. So in a way I don?t identify with her at all, really.
Did you do any housekeeping?
Oh, yes, that was all improvised. I spent time doing that. And Mike created a flat for them to live in. We lived their lives, and came home and had tea and cooked and talked about the day, as they would in real time. We spent about two or three hours doing that at a time.
And what about the humming? I understand you couldn?t hum any actual songs [because rights were too expensive]. So how did you come up with those melodies?
I don?t know. [Laughs] I just knew I mustn?t make a recognizable tune. Because it didn?t matter what she was humming; it was her mood, rather than what it was.