STAUNTON, IMELDA - TAKING WOODSTOCK
Oh no, she cried when she got the script for Taking Woodstock, but it was a
challenge and she had to do it, says Imelda Staunton, who plays the grumpy mum
to the young man who cut the deal to have the legendary music festival in their backyard.
What was the starting point for you with this project?
My agent rang me and said, “Ang Lee's doing a new film about Woodstock, would
you be interested?” Because I'd worked with him before, on Sense And
Sensibility, and I knew James Schamus, I said, “Oh, I'll be in that!” It was a
joke! Ha ha. So he said, “OK, they're sending you the script.” So I read it, and
I thought... No. No. Wrong casting. Then my agent said, “They'd like you to do
it.” (Laughs) I thought, Oh no! Oh no! So it was frightening, and a challenge,
but I had to do it.
Why did you think it was the wrong casting?
I thought they should cast a bigger woman, an American, all that stuff. But then
I had to say to myself, “Look, it's a character, whether she's big, small, fat,
thin, Jewish, Irish, schizophrenic, a murderer, whatever – I have to give it a
go.” I'm of Irish-immigrant stock, so I just had to be true as I could to her
Was it difficult to keep the character from straying into caricature?
Of course it was. She is bigger than life, and on film that's difficult. So I
had to trust Ang to say, “That's OK.” And sometimes he'd say, “No, you're being
too much of a caricature.” But I can't judge it. Well, there's nothing I can do
about it now! But I always wanted to make sure, hopefully, that it was truthful.
And also, all the other characters in the film talk about her as being a
monster: “Oh, your mother's a tank”, “Your mother won't let that happen”, so I
had to listen to that as well. I couldn't say, “Oh, I'm going to play it more
subtly.” Because that's not who she is.
How did you feel when you finally saw the movie?
I found it very moving, actually, especially the Vietnam stuff. And there was
this boy who was trying to get hold of his freedom, whether it was his sexual
freedom or whatever. And I felt the sadness of his parents, who were locked into
lives that can never change. That's a pretty universal subject, isn't it?
Families who messed up and who can't change. And I loved the druggy scenes. It
was so beautiful.
Did you enjoy the scene where you accidentally eat a hash brownie?
Yeah. That was a great release. But it was quite cold that night. We had the
rain machine going. It was freezing, actually. We had a lot of hot water bottles
in between takes. It was that cold. But it was lovely to do. After all that
tension, it was great to be able to do that.
Has Ang changed since you first worked together?
He said to me that he was very, very frightened doing Sense And Sensibility, and
he was frightened because of his English. I didn't find it a problem, but I
think he feels more comfortable now. But he's still as direct and focused as he
was – that hasn't changed. And I like that, when he says, “No, no, it's a
caricature, it's too much.” I like that directness, rather than someone who
says, “Ooh, that's marvellous! Now, could we just try it a little differently?”
It's a waste of time otherwise.
Is there a difference between being directed for the stage and directed for
There's a certain element of your screen acting that is left to the director and
the editor. I've just finished doing a West End play, Entertaining Mr Sloane,
and with a play it's up to you on the night. You've done all the work with the
director, and then you are in control of it on the night. Now, on a film set, I
could do eight takes of a scene and think, Ooh, takes five and six were
marvellous! And then they'll use take two. It's out of your control. So you have
to trust the director and let go.
Where were you in 1969?
Were you aware of it?
Not particularly. Not the Jimi Hendrix kind of thing. I was 12 or 13, so I was
listening to The Monkees. I wasn't really a hippie girl.
Are you now?
Oh yeah! Janis Joplin? Yeah!
Do you have any memory of it happening?
Not really. I remember the moon landing. It's lovely having that reference in
the film, isn't it? And all the stuff with Emile's character and Vietnam.
Obviously, we had to have Vietnam in there. But you don't see much of the wider
world in this film. Well, you see a little bit – the residents who are against
the hippies, the young people, all of that. You still had that buttoned-up
society, and the whole idea of this generation questioning authority was quite a
new thing going on. Whereas now it happens more.
Did you ever discuss any of the film's themes with Ang?
Not really. We only did three days' rehearsal – normally, you never get any
rehearsal – and three days is hardly anything, so all we concentrated on was the
family. We can't deal with the film concept, that's his job. So my work was
confined to researching the 20s, the 30s, the 40s, from her point of view. But
that's what happens 99 per cent of the time. We were lucky to get any rehearsal
time at all. That's why I make sure that when I first get the script I do an
awful lot of work on my own, at home. Hopefully not completely forming the part,
but I think a lot about it and just let it settle somewhere, so it's at the back
of my mind.
How was it working Demetri, a first timer?
He's fine. He's so open and fresh, and willing to learn. And also, for him,
because he writes all his own material, it must have been strange to have been
locked into a character that he couldn't change. I remember one day he said, “I
think it would be funny if I did such-and-such.” I said, “No, it would be funny
if you did that, but not if Elliot did it. You must stick with what the
character is.” As a comedian, of course, he sees those possibilities, and if the
role was more comic, that would have been fine. But it wasn't that comic.
Did you have any fun playing such a battle-axe?
Not at all. And the minute you start thinking it's amusing, it isn't amusing.
She's very damaged. She's a woman who's struggled and fought all her life and
will not let it go. Cannot let it go. She will not stop working. It's like
Chekhov: work, work, work, that's all she knows. And she's probably very angry
about it when she sees all these people having a good time. But she's blinkered,
and it's unfortunate to have someone like that in your life who is unable to
show any emotion or love. For her, love is working. She's the kind of person
who'll say, “Listen, I've given you clothes, I've fed you, haven't I?” Well,
yeah, you might say, but there was no care. So no, I didn't find her funny. I
know I looked funny...!
How did you research the real woman?
I read the real Elliot's autobiography, and I spent a small amount of time with
him. But I didn't want to know every single detail. I thought I had to have some
of my own essence and my own imagination, but still be true to what was there.
One day Elliot's sister, her daughter, came and visited us, and I was rather
glad she didn't stay to watch me doing any scenes – she was there being an extra
– because I felt quite sensitive about her seeing me as this not very nice
woman. I thought I'd feel a bit awkward if she was watching me do that, so I was
glad she wasn't there.
What did Elliot tell you about her?
Elliot said that there was much more than was in the book. She was tougher.
But she does emerge as sympathetic...
Does she? Hiding all that money and not telling her husband? Jesus, that's bad!
But it's not as though she's been hiding the money and hasn't done a stroke of
work in her life. She's worked for that money. But the idea that she doesn't
tell her husband...? It's sort of unforgivable.
Can you relate to her work ethic?
I've always been very careful with money. Always. Because my parents didn't have
a lot of money, there were times when they struggled. I've never spent money I
haven't had. But I don't have it in the cupboard. Or do I...? (Laughs) No, but I
have always been careful, and I think that's a result of that. I think, Right, I
must be careful. But I think her husband understands her. She has worked every
day of her life to survive. She works hard, she puts food on the table, she's
done all the right things, and maybe he admires that about her and he loves her
for the effort she has constantly put in. Maybe we don't understand that, but I
think you can say that about a lot of relationships: “Why are they together?”
And we're talking about another era. separating was not an option and marriage
was something that was not taken lightly. People stuck with relationships for
better or for worse. I'm not sure if that's the right thing, but people did.
Do you think the 60s were a better, more innocent time?
Well... I do and I don't. There are still good things now, It's very easy to be
doom-laden about the whole post-9/11 world that we're living in. But I think
there are still good things. There are a lot more music festivals now. That's
rather good, and it might be a result of how uncomfortable the world is at the
moment – people are saying, “Can we just have a nice couple of days without
watching the news 24 hours a day and being depressed?” I think there are good
things going on, and maybe people will look back on this time and say, “Well,
people talking about the climate, and they were recycling, and they were making
an effort. Yes, the British government with their expense claims – that was a
bit worrying. But there were good things going on as well.”
Have you ever been to a big festival yourself, like Glastonbury?
I've never been to a festival! This is my year! Do you think I could open the
festival? I think so, yeah. (Laughs) My daughter is 15 and she's been to an
underage one. So she's been to one. I've never been to one. It's got to be this
Would you let her see Taking Woodstock?
Yeah! No problem. She's just seen me on the London stage being naked, so she'll
just have to face it.
Did you warn her about the nudity?
No, I didn't tell her. She came to the first performance. I was naked under a
layer of negligee. Afterwards she said, “You were great – but we need to talk.”
So I think she can handle this film.
Published January 14, 2010
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Imelda Staunton in Taking Woodstock
Directed by Ang Lee
Working as an interior designer in Greenwich Village, Elliot Teichberg (Demetri
Martin) is also still glued to the family business out of a sense of – to save
his overbearing parents (Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman) from running their
dumpy Catskills motel, El Monaco, into the ground. Upon hearing that a planned
music and arts festival has lost its permit from a neighbouring town, Elliot
calls producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) at Woodstock Ventures to offer his
family’s motel to the promoters and generate some much-needed business. Elliot
also introduces Lang to his neighbor Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who operates a
600-acre dairy farm down the road. Soon the Woodstock staff is moving into the
El Monaco, the locals are unhappy – and half a million people are on their way
to Yasgur’s farm for “3 days of Peace & Music in White Lake.”
Available in Australia on DVD since December 2009