Soft but Evil: Imelda Staunton on Playing Believable Villains Despite Appearances

Earlier this month, defying the lockdown, Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge) appeared in Talking Heads, a monologue series filmed observing social distancing rules. We have more good news: Her newest film, Amulet, has got a video-on-demand release, and she hopes to thoroughly spook us.

Amulet can be described as a feminist revenge horror, and as such, it was a first for Staunton: “My character in Harry Potterwas horrible, but it’s not horror. I hope this opens up a whole new world,” she told Variety. Romola Garai’s writing and directorial debut stars Staunton as Sister Claire alongside Alec Secareanu (God’s Own Country) as veteran Tomas and Carla Juri (Blade Runner 2049) as Magda. Although she shot her scenes in only five days, Staunton enjoyed it: “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.” The Oscar-nominated actress doesn’t mind a tight budget either:

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.



Staunton also spoke about preparing to play Queen Elizabeth II in the final season of The Crown, which starts filming next July: “I have my work cut out for me, and it’s terrifying and exciting and a huge responsibility, and I can’t wait.” Having met the real royal family, she added, “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.”

She is a master of believable performances. An entire generation of viewers still cowers from her because of her memorable take on Dolores Umbridge:

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 [me], 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.



Staunton jumped at the chance to take the role of a nun in Garai’s horror. Since Harry Potter, she has obviously kept her love of playing characters that are outwardly inconspicuous but absolutely evil at the core:

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.

She also joked about a Harry Potter prequel titled Umbridge: The Early Years!, which sounds equally intriguing and horrifying. Don’t miss Staunton’s hair-raising performance in Amulet, available now on VOD services.

Dora Bodrogi

I am a writer, a critic, a researcher, a traveler, and a Ravenclaw through and through. My main fields of interest are representation, gender, and LGBTQ fiction, history, and censorship. Incorrigible doodler and theatre kid.

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