Actors in a Mike Leigh joint sign on knowing nothing about the movie they'll make. But for his latest working-class drama, the director granted an exception for Imelda Staunton, telling the character actress (''Shakespeare in Love'') that her saintly London matriarch leads a stealth life as an abortionist. ''He just said that,'' says Staunton, ''and it's gonna be in the '50s, and that's all you need to know. But he also said there's not going to be a moral. Rather than pro or against, we're showing it as it was.'' At just under a million dollars, the film's budget was small even by Leigh's standards. ''My last picture, 'All or Nothing,' was not a commercial success,'' he says, ''so that affected the backing for 'Drake.' But then, it's never easy making pictures when the deal is total freedom.'' For Leigh, total freedom involved six months of improvisation and research for the actors to develop their roles. ''It feels luxurious but never indulgent,'' Staunton says. ''Ask any actor who's worked with him, they'll say it's the only way to work.''
WHAT'S AT STAKE An Oscar push for Staunton. And, apparently, the budget of Leigh's next film.