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Mike Leigh makes films about gray lives, and as he arrives at the executive lounge of a hotel in D.C.’s West End, the 61-year-old Briton looks the part. Every item of his clothing is a shade of gray, as are his beard and close-cropped hair.
By comparison, Imelda Staunton appears almost glamorous. The diminutive 48-year-old actress, who plays the somewhat mousy title character in Leigh’s powerful new drama, Vera Drake, has a blond streak in the front of her light-brown hair and blue eyes that are much more vivid than in the film, the tale of a ’50s London cleaning woman who does pro bono (and illegal) abortions on the side.
Yet as soon as the two settle into the lounge’s plush yet oddly constricting high-back chairs, it becomes clear which one of them is the director. Leigh brusquely declines to be photographed while he’s being interviewed, and sends a publicist out of earshot “so we can concentrate.” Over the course of the interview, he frequently challenges the exact meaning of the questions he’s been asked, and he occasionally revises Staunton’s answers to queries about her own experience making the film.
“Concentrate” turns out to be one of Leigh’s favorite words, along with “control,” “focus,” and “distill.” Vera Drake was difficult to finance, he reveals, in part because its predecessor, All or Nothing, was a financial disappointment. (Most of the money for the new movie came from France’s Studio Canal.) But the long gap between Leigh films also reflects the time it takes “just to get into the right frame of mind.”
And then, of course, there’s the time-consuming way the director makes films. He begins with only an outline, develops the characters during months of improvisations, and then, finally, writes a screenplay. “At the end of the day, I am the guy with no script, and I won’t discuss casting,” Leigh notes. “I prefer to have good actors that I choose, like her, as opposed to people imposed on you for some irrelevant and not very productive quasi-commercial reason.”
Vera Drake is only the second film, after Topsy-Turvy, that Leigh has set in the past, but he dismisses any possible significance of that fact. “It makes sense to set it at a time before the [abortion] law is changed,” he says.
“The notion of making a film related to abortion—to some degree you’ll be familiar with such related issues being in lots of my previous films. I’ve dealt variously with having children, not having children, pregnancies, unwanted pregnancies—and the question of abortion has cropped up. And I felt it necessary to deal with this in a sort of central way. There were women who were around when I was a kid who did what Vera does. So I’ve been brewing this idea for quite a long time.”
Leigh rejects the suggestion that Vera Drake is, more than his other films, about a single issue or character. “It would be quite inaccurate to talk about this film as being just a film about abortion,” he responds. “There are a lot of issues on the go in this film, and obviously, in a sense, this film is part of an ongoing investigation into families and family dynamics. Once I start on a film, I start to tap into things which I then realize have been preoccupations or are ongoing preoccupations. Quite a difficult question to answer, as you see.”
He laughs. “And a difficult chair to sit in, as well.”
The director argues that his Secrets & Lies and Naked “are in one sense ensemble films, but they all do focus on central characters in a fairly conventional dramatic way. Each film is different, and each film has its own requirements, and plainly this is a film about a woman who has to be the focal point of what happens. But I don’t think, if I may say so, that there’s any very interesting conclusions to be drawn from the fact that some of them focus on one character more than others.”
“Do you think,” asks Staunton, “it’s anything to do with the fact that it’s called Vera Drake?
“Well, of course,” Leigh acknowledges. “Although you know that we christen the film last. Having made the film, we then decide what to call it.”
Staunton was seen recently in Bright Young Things, playing a very different sort of character: the prime minister’s wife. For her, however, the contrast between the two jobs was more a matter of technique.
“No comparison whatsoever,” she says. “Bright Young Things was a day’s work. You don’t do that much research, you haven’t got that much time—just get in and do it. With this, you know it’s a long process, you have the time, there’s so many elements involved. It’s a completely different job.”
With Leigh, actors make a six-month exclusive commitment and work much of that time creating their characters’ complete life stories. “I lapped it up, because it was so different,” Staunton says. “I found it extremely intense and rewarding. I thought it would just be much more frightening, but it wasn’t. Creating a character from when they’re born is something that you never have the time in any other job to do. It was six months of being that family.”
Yet Leigh does not want his actors to live as their characters, Staunton explains. “You might do an improvisation for an hour, two hours, and then you stop and discuss it, completely out of character, just as we’re talking now. And then you go back in. So you’re always objective about it.”
Vera’s husband and children don’t know she performs abortions, and Staunton was not allowed to tell the actors playing those roles before the moment in the rehearsals when that was revealed. “Well, that’s what had to be done,” she says. “That part of the film was the result of a seven-hour improvisation. I didn’t know there were any police coming.”
“You didn’t know there were any police,” Leigh interjects.
“No. And the family didn’t know what I was…”
“If I may answer that as well,” Leigh continues. “It’s very interesting, the way you put the question—‘they were out of the loop’—but in a way the characters are in the same convention of reality. So that in fact, it’s not accurate that anybody is inside the loop or outside. Everybody is in and out of a complexity of loops. All of which interlock and create the dynamic tensions out of which material can be distilled.”
Although Leigh likes surprises, he disdains them after the rehearsal process ends. He has never sprung a plot twist on performers while the camera was rolling. “I think it’s rubbish to do that. It’s nonsense. This is all about creating raw material, out of which you then structure and distill in very precise terms.
“If you actually look at the material that’s on the screen, there’s no way that could be actors behaving spontaneously in front of the camera. It’s far too organized, well-written, well-photographed, properly acted, and all the rest of it. I have never been attracted by ad-libbing on camera. There isn’t a sequence in this film that had to be taken to the cutting room and cut in a quasi-documentary way.”
The purpose of the surprises in rehearsal, Staunton says, is to create an emotional reference point. “You’re totally drawing on the feeling that you felt when it originally happened. You don’t have to think, Now, how would that be? You know exactly how it would be, because it was there.”
Staunton says she doesn’t use Method acting but appreciates being able to draw on an actual experience that’s related to the events she’s portraying. “I’m given the opportunity to really find it, not to have to use something else. I use what the situation is, as opposed to having to manufacture something.”
The actress, who has done much live theater, doubts that she could do the same thing on the stage. “Trying to do that every night might be difficult.”
Leigh is quick to volunteer an explanation of how his rehearsal technique differs from the theatrical tradition: “There are a whole variety of ways that actors tackle the problem of how to bring alive what’s going on. People are forced to pull tricks. And that’s not a criticism of the actors; it’s what they have to do. In what we’ve done, the answer of how to do it is there, in the work.”
The question of the possible relationship between theater and his method “gets asked a lot,” the filmmaker says, “because the convention of rehearsing does exist in theater, and it doesn’t in film. But what goes on in those rehearsals in theater is pretty much just dealing with the moment, not creating a world.”
He pauses barely a beat. “God, this is an uncomfortable chair!”