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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 life.

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 the screen?
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?
At school.

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 year.

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

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