LONDON -- Two years before she was offered the role of Dolores Jane Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a friend of Imelda Staunton's called her up to say he'd just read J.K. Rowling's book and that there was a part in it she'd be perfect for. "So I read it," Staunton says, "and thought, 'Small, squat, ugly, toadlike woman - thanks a lot.'"
But her friend clearly wasn't the only one who had her in mind to play Umbridge, a character Stephen King has described as being "the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter." When it came time to cast the role, Staunton was director David Yates' sole choice.
"She's a great serious actor who can also do wit really well," he says. "For the Potter universe, you need that slightly heightened, slightly playful, slightly eccentric thing. But when you peel away a layer, there has to be something really substantial underneath."
With her fondness for pink clothing and fluffy kittens, Umbridge appears, at first glance, to be something of a laughingstock, all rules and regulations, order and neatness, "a bit [Margaret] Thatcher," says Staunton. But her benign exterior, inappropriate laughter and desperate desire to be loved serve to mask a "very serious, disturbed human being" with a cruel, abusive streak and fundamentalist outlook.
Arriving at Hogwarts as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Umbridge is loyal to Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge (Timothy West) and his smear campaign against Harry. After achieving the status of Hogwarts High Inquisitor, she insists that all must conform to her way of thinking, eventually taking the law into her own hands.
"She's there to, that terrifying phrase, cleanse this place," says Staunton. "Her goal is to make things orderly and clean, everyone thinking like she's thinking, that terrifying Nazi-type behavior. She doesn't even like children."
Umbridge, even in her pastel pinks, goes a long way toward setting the darkest tones in the film franchise - this one based on the 800-plus-page fifth book from Rowling, who will publish the seventh and final installment just a few weeks after the movie opens at midnight tonight.
Perched on a couch in a London hotel, Staunton couldn't be more different from her character, except in height (petite). Dressed optimistically for the British summer in beige linen trousers, with a cream cardigan over a blue camisole, her hair darker and less severe than Umbridge's, her smile warm and open rather than the rictus grin of her character, Staunton comes across as being rather nice, really.
"Having seen [her in] Vera Drake, I thought, 'How on Earth is she going to come across as anything but the nicest woman in the world?'" remembers Emma Watson, who plays Hermione Granger. "But she's perfect. There's something very distressing about Umbridge, probably because she has the classic appearance of some sort of aunt. But she is this very cruel person."
Staunton was determined that Umbridge not be a one-note baddie. "You have to make it real, to do it truthfully," she says, crediting Yates with toning down her villainy. "I wanted [it] to be ludicrous and funny and real and threatening."
The role allowed her to affect a high, girlie voice and an array of creepy, disingenuous smiles, although she says she found incredibly difficult the scene in which Umbridge punishes Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) by forcing him to write lines with a quill, which then are magically scratched into the back of his hand, drawing blood.
"It was horrible," says Staunton, who'd worked with Radcliffe previously on a BBC production of David Copperfield. "I was fine at the time, but afterward, you're inside that skin for a while, and it's not a very pleasant place to be. It's an adult abusing a child, and whether you're a mother or not, for a female to do it to a child is unthinkable and unbearable and intolerable."
A 30-year veteran of stage, musicals, film and TV, Staunton was perhaps one of Britain's best-kept acting secrets until her heartbreaking, beautifully nuanced performance as a kindly, tea-drinking, back-street abortionist in 1950s London in Vera Drake changed all that, winning her the best actress award at the 2004 Venice Film Festival as well as Oscar and Golden Globe nominations.
Yates calls Staunton "forensic" in her preparation. And while she admits to always having been incredibly focused, working with Drake director Mike Leigh helped hone that side of her. Leigh's process involves six months of rehearsals and improvisations, his actors working with him to create their characters from the day they're born, acting out scenarios as if they were those people.
After Drake, Staunton went home to England, where she lives with her husband, actor Jim Carter, and their teenage daughter, although she did venture back to Hollywood for two weeks for Freedom Writers opposite double-Oscar winner Hilary Swank.
Then there was Shadow Man, the Steven Seagal spy movie, a most unlikely on-screen pairing. It was two days' work en route to another job in Greece and one "probably not to be repeated," she reflects. "It wasn't an amazing experience."
Unlike Harry Potter, it seems, which turned out even better than she'd hoped. "I thought there was going to be a lot of just waving my wand and stuff like that," she says. "But actually I had an awful lot to do with Dan and the kids. It was a wonderful acting job as opposed to a sort of special-effects job."
Mark Salisbury writes for the Los Angeles Times.