When it came to casting for the role of a free-spirited older woman, it isn’t surprising Celia Imrie got the call, writes Esther McCarthy.
IN THE latest role in her lengthy career, Celia Imrie plays a free-spirited woman who refuses to bow to society’s norms and conventions.
It comes as little surprise to discover the writers wrote the character with Imrie in mind. For this 65-year-old star of stage and screen has always marched to a different beat.
“It’s a very clever piece of casting, I think, all round. We’ve all got something that we share from our work and our lives,” she says of the role, in new British drama Finding Your Feet.
Imrie plays Bif, a women who lives a free and unhindered life in London, who takes in her sister, Sandra (Imelda Staunton). Her cosy life has been thrown into chaos by the discovery that her husband has been having an affair. The sisters, who are very different, have become estranged over the years.
“I love dancing for a start and that’s a very big part of the joy of the film. Also I loved that she’s not following the rules of what you’re supposed to do. And I guess people would say that’s sort of what I’ve done in my life.”
Imrie has never married, although there has been romance in her life. She resolutely vowed never to wed, and even remembers asking her mother, as a seven-year-old girl, what she and her husband would talk about if it were only them in the house.
“My horror, my absolute horror!” she says of the mere idea. “I said to (fellow actor) Eleanor Bron once: ‘I’d be so frightened that he would think I was boring’. And she said: ‘Wouldn’t you be frightened that you would find him boring?’
“It’s got me into trouble, by the way. It’s not necessarily been a smooth path to not play by the rules. I’m quite glad I’ve stuck to my guns.
“And although sometimes I might think: ‘Oh it would be nice to have somebody there all the time’, most of the time I’m jolly glad I’m free.”
When she wanted to have a child, she again took the road less followed, becoming pregnant (much to her mother’s dismay) at the age of 42 following an agreement with actor Ben Whitrow. She set out her plans with him in advance, including that she would not look for money and would raise the child alone. When news of the arrangement became public, it caused quite a hoo-ha.
“I’m very grateful that I have my wonderful son,” she tells me. “Sadly Ben, Angus’s dad, has died now. We did have a romance, but I was very straightforward, because I was 42 when I had Angus, and so I knew it was my last chance, really, having left so many things to the last moment.
“But I was quite straightforward about… I wouldn’t ever ask for a penny and I’d bring the child up on my own. Angus adored his father, his father adored him. We all had a very nice time and it wasn’t conventional but that’s not always the best way either. I don’t like to judge people, and you’ll always be criticised, but then… blah blah blah. That’s life!” she laughs.
She and Withrow remained great friends and she still misses the actor, who passed away last September. “It’s very sad, and I’m childlike in that I find it very difficult to believe that someone you loved is no longer in the world. It sounds so simplistic but it is very difficult.”
Finding Your Feet, a charming comedy/drama, sees her getting to work with actors she has known for years, including Staunton and Timothy Spall.
“Everybody goes on a journey in the film, don’t they? They don’t stay where they are. That’s very attractive, and also to be with my friends onscreen, that really helps. We all know each other from various different parts of our lives. That’s a wonderful sort of velvet carpet to the whole film in a way, because we don’t have to play the familiarity of being sisters, or being best friends.
“We don’t talk about it very much, that’s the joy. You do work much quicker, because you sort of don’t mind making a fool of yourself in front of them, and you trust each other, and you can have a joke, send each other up.
“I just think that as I’ve gone on, I’ve realised that, particularly on film actually, you have not to be afraid to show your soul. That sounds a bit dramatic, but you have not to be afraid to show the inner part of you. You want to not be afraid to expose yourself.”
She’s very much on board with the movie’s ‘seize the moment’ ethos and given recent life experiences, it’s not difficult to understand why.
In 2016, she was strolling along the Promenade Des Anglais in Nice — a city where she spends much of her time — when a terrorist ploughed a lorry into the crowd during Bastille-Day celebrations, killing 86 people and injuring hundreds more. “I’m really lucky to be alive, actually, that’s no exaggeration.
“It was ghastly and it was really why I couldn’t write my third book (she is also a successful novelist) about Nice, because it was too sad, too horrific actually.
“They call it a catastrophe and that’s putting it mildly, it was completely grim.”
On the evening of the attack, she was soaking up the atmosphere while planning her birthday celebrations.
“I was literally seconds away. I’ve always been in the fantasy land of thinking that Nice puts on a firework display especially for me, because it’s Bastille Day and my birthday’s the next day. So I always love the fireworks over the sea. And I was right there.
“Nice city is immensely dignified and graceful, the way it seems to have gone forward. It’s just another reason why, personally speaking, I want to grab every second of every day.”
She feels it’s “quite wonderful” that son Angus, who has followed his parents into acting, has a number of movie roles on the way, and is happy for him to take his own path.
“I think that’s important. And the great thing is we won’t be going up for the same parts,” she laughs. “I’m immensely proud of him.”
Imrie turned 65 this year, but is busier than ever, with a new series of TVs Better Things and her first horror film on the way.
You get the impression that retirement is not her bag.
“Actors don’t really, if you think about it. I have a theory in a way that we do live on this magic drug called adrenaline, which I think keeps us young.”
- Finding Your Feet opens on Friday, February 23