Imogen Stubbs: ‘I don’t know many happy actors’
The dilemma of the older actor – and this applies especially to women – is that as soon as you feel you’ve nailed it, nobody wants you any more. Imogen Stubbs, now in her mid-50s though looking a lot younger, is ruminating on the lot of the mature actor.
“I believe actors get more interesting as they get older,” she says. “You’ve lived, you’ve loved, you’ve made mistakes, you’ve encountered death, you have so much to share in the way of experience, but this is also precisely the time the parts aren’t forthcoming any more.”
It sounds like a gloomy prognosis. However, when we meet, Stubbs is anything but. Rather, she seems energised and excited about playing a drunken American matriarch in The Long Road South at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington.
“One of the fun things about getting older is that occasionally you get to play character parts, which I love,” she says. “The woman I’m playing in this is alcoholic, damaged, dysfunctional, disappointed by her marriage, but she also has moments of lucidity and Tennessee Williams-like lyricism. I lapse into a southern accent a few times during the course of the play. When you’re playing drunk, anything is possible.”
Paul Minx’s powerful play is set in the mid-1960s in the unhappy home of an affluent, white, Midwest American family whose African American servants are planning a trip to Alabama to join a civil rights rally against their employers’ wishes.
It is probably the greatest dramatic challenge Stubbs has faced since her acclaimed 2008 performance in Scenes from a Marriage at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, directed by her then husband, Trevor Nunn. Charles Spencer, in his review for The Telegraph, described it as: “The performance of her career, by turns sexy, funny, scared, desolate and desperate.” She recalls: “I had to play unbelievably drunk in Scenes from a Marriage, to the point where I did actually feel off my head drunk at times, even though I was stone cold sober.” The story of a marriage in terminal decline, it turned out to be horribly prophetic as Stubbs and Nunn separated soon afterwards, following 21 years of marriage, and are now living amicably apart.
If the TV and film roles for which Stubbs is best known – Lucy Steele in the memorable 1995 film of Sense and Sensibility, the title role in the TV detective series Anna Lee, and featured roles in series such as Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Moving Finger and New Tricks – have generally played up to her ‘posh totty’ image, her stage roles have been far more diverse and unexpected.
“I do like a challenge. I’m not keen on reproducing what I’ve already done. That’s not interesting for me or for the audience. I want to do things that frighten me a bit, like Shakespeare. I’d love to go back to Shakespeare now that I’m older,” she says. Earlier in her career, Stubbs served time with the Royal Shakespeare Company, distinguishing herself in a notable revival of Aphra Behn’s The Rover, with Jeremy Irons and Stephanie Beacham, and as Desdemona opposite Willard White in Trevor Nunn’s 1989 production of Othello, later filmed.
It is an impressive track record for someone who was never that sure about being an actor in the first place. “I did a lot of comedy when I was at Oxford, and I think I had some idea I’d be a sort of English Goldie Hawn. Then I was cast as Sally Bowles in Cabaret at the Wolsey Theatre before I’d finished the course, and that went quite well. Sally is an ordinary girl who thinks she is extraordinary, and I could relate to that. I got swept up by the dream of what acting can really be,” she says.
“I’m not madly ambitious. I think a lot of young people choose acting because they don’t want to settle for being just one person. You can pretend you are lots of different people. You don’t want to be hemmed in by an expectation of being a particular kind of person. It’s a childlike thing in a way, deferring taking responsibility for who you are.
“When I was a younger actor, I neglected so much of everyday living, keeping in touch with family and friends, that kind of thing,” she adds. “Having children [she has two by Trevor Nunn] changes all that. It didn’t stop me working, but it changed my attitude towards taking responsibility.”
Q&A: Imogen Stubbs
What was your first non-theatre job? I worked as a waitress at Brown’s in Oxford.
What was your first theatre job? Sally Bowles in Cabaret.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? You are enough.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Working with Paul Scofield in Heartbreak House.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Don’t be apologetic. Go in thinking: “If you don’t pick me, it’s your loss.”
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? A travel writer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? Not hugely, but I don’t go out of my way to tempt the fates.
Her daughter, Ellie Nunn, is also an actor and, not surprisingly given her parentage, passionate about theatre. Did Stubbs have misgivings about Ellie’s decision to follow in their footsteps?
“Yes, of course, because I don’t know that many happy actors, and you always want your children to be happy first and foremost. However, she really, really wanted to do it, and I do think she has a lot to offer. She is Trevor’s daughter in the way she responds to text. As a child, she used to read Sondheim’s lyrics under the bed covers.”
Though she has done her fair share of TV and film, Stubbs now seems happy to concentrate on theatre, though she insists there is more to life than acting.
“Acting is great, but I don’t think one should just focus on one thing in life. There are so many things I’d like to do – documentary film-maker, sound engineer, travel writer, dancer. When I was little, I wanted to be a nurse or a physiotherapist. I’m still trying to decide what I’d like to do with the rest of my life.”
She surprised everyone 12 years ago by morphing into a playwright whose debut work, We Happy Few, though not well received by the critics, has provided more than adequate staple for the amateur circuit. It is about an all-female troupe of travelling players in the 1940s and was directed by Nunn.
Meanwhile, she is content to play a drunk American racist for the director Sarah Berger, founder of the So and So Art Club in London that aims to generate new work for the acting profession.
“So many actors have a reason to get up in the morning because of Sarah,” says Stubbs. “We all want to be part of a family of actors, part of a company, and Sarah has provided those opportunities. I have enormous respect for what she has achieved with So and So.”
Like a lot of middle-aged actors who have enjoyed success earlier in their careers, Stubbs appears to be quite ambivalent about what she calls the “dog eat dog” world of entertainment, in which actors are called for audition and then kept in the dark for weeks by producers and directors.
“One of the hardest things about being an actor is that it’s not in your power to steer your career in any particular direction. There are lots of people I’d love to have worked with, but those opportunities didn’t come along. I regret that the casting process is kept so secret from the actors. Nobody keeps you informed of what’s going on. You feel impotent. You’re just somebody out there in the dark, hoping someone will remember you.”
CV: Imogen Stubbs
Born: 1961, Rothbury, Northumberland
Training: Oxford University,RADA
Landmark productions: Cabaret (1984), Othello (1989), A Streetcar Named Desire (1996), Hamlet (2004), Scenes from a Marriage (2008), The Rainbow (1988), Anna Lee (1993-94), Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Agent: Olivia Homan, United Agents
We need your help…
When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.
The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.
We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.
Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.