As she steps away from comedic roles to tackle King Lear’s Goneril at The Old Vic – alongside Rhys Ifans and Jane Horrocks – Celia Imrie tells The Resident why she’ll never slow down
Celia Imrie has a certain energy and zest for life that can’t be put into words. As we talk about her upcoming role as Goneril in King Lear at the Old Vic, it is immediately apparent that this is a new adventure that truly excites her.
A step away from the comedic roles, the Notting Hill local tells me, but still executed with an equal amount of passion and humour. This is because spirit is at the heart of 64-year-old Imrie, and I quickly realise that it is this honesty, warmth and humbleness that has paved the way to a successful career.
Like a lot of the characters that Imrie plays, she has no intention of slowing down and throws herself at opportunities. ‘I said that I wanted to change gear a little bit,’ she says. ‘Well, that’s kind of worked as it’s not exactly a laugh a minute this part, is it?’
She tells me how her latest adventure was heading to LA to chase a Hollywood dream. ‘I began this year sailing across the Atlantic, with a promise of a part in Sir Patrick Stewart’s new TV series. However, halfway across, the news came to me that my visa hadn’t arrived on time and they couldn’t wait,’ says Imrie.
‘But I wasn’t going to turn back. By badgering people to be seen – which you have to do in America – I managed to get a part in a new series called Better Things. It was an adventure, something I’ve always wanted to do – and I did it.’
I learn so much from the people I work with. Judi Dench has this incredible, invisible technique – she opens her soul so that, even though she’s playing someone else, it is her too
She is passionate about the way in which, as an adult, you never stop learning, and as I comment on the similarities between herself and her characters, she talks about the talent Dame Judi Dench has for applying herself to acting.
‘She has this incredible, invisible technique – she’d hate it if she heard me saying it – but she opens her soul so that, even though she’s playing someone else, it is her too,’ says Imrie. ‘It’s a brave thing to do and I’m sure I picked it up from her – not being afraid to show your heart. I learn so much from the people I work with.’
Imrie doesn’t know about any of the plans for King Lear yet, as rehearsals don’t start until nearer the performance date. But I wonder if they are going to play on elements of dark humour, instead of a focus on tragedy. After all, they have a varied and powerfully comedic cast including Rhys Ifans and Jane Horrocks.
Her own mischievous humour is apparent with her character pre-rehearsals, in her somewhat light-hearted opinion of the evil sister. ‘Laurence Olivier said that we must love the character that we play,’ says Imrie. ‘I don’t know why everyone is going on about Goneril being so horrible, I think she’s perfectly fine actually.’
It’s a huge responsibility being at The Old Vic, as I think it’s one of the most beautiful theatres in the country. I get a thrill crossing the road to it, going in the stage door – I’ll never tire of that
This cast is particularly special for Imrie too as 40 years ago she found herself a tea girl for Glenda Jackson, who is making her comeback to acting as King Lear a quarter of a century after she gave it up for politics. But it’s also a theatre that Imrie holds high regard for, and she feels grateful to be given the opportunity to return there.
‘I love it,’ she says. ‘It’s a huge responsibility being at The Old Vic, as I think it’s one of the most beautiful theatres in the country. I get a thrill crossing the road to it, going in the stage door – I’ll never tire of that.’
This isn’t the only aspect of her job that gives Imrie a thrill, however. Perhaps most important to her is the excitement of her life and this isn’t something that she’s slowing down on. ‘Dame Jude, Maggie [Smith] and I always think it’s strange to be asked if we are going to retire. It’s absolutely not a word that comes into our dictionaries because you go on and on,’ she says. ‘You’re never satisfied. It’s a compulsion actually, to keep seeking a new challenge.’
It could be this changing of perceptions toward later life that is the reason behind the success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, as well as the inspiration for her novels. ‘I think it’s so great,’ smiles Imrie. ‘Real Marigold hotels are popping up in India now!’ Great is a word that Imrie uses a lot, and it seems there is no aspect of life that she doesn’t have a lot of love for, including her Notting Hill home.
I just think the air is better in Notting Hill. I love walking around and seeing plaque after plaque and thinking: was it something in the water, or was it because in the old days it was a reasonably priced place to live for these artists?
‘I just think the air is better in Notting Hill. I love walking around and seeing plaque after plaque and thinking: was it something in the water, or was it because in the old days it was a reasonably priced place to live for these artists? Because they are all artists, writers, musicians, actors…’ muses Imrie. ‘I believe it’s still in the air and I love it. It’s still full of extraordinary characters now I think.’
Speaking of extraordinary characters, we tail off from the interview discussing the frolics behind the making of the Absolutely Fabulous movie, the glamorous and indulgent nature of us Brits, and the importance of keeping that buzz. Imrie has a wonderful way of igniting inspiration as she speaks, and I for one can’t wait to feel the buzz of seeing her tread the boards again.
King Lear runs at the Old Vic Theatre from 25 October-2 December