Imelda Staunton: Why film doesn't have to portray older women as cardigan wearing bridge players

New comedy Finding Your Feet presents a different perspective on ageing. Georgia Humphreys talks to two of its stars.

Celia Imrie as Bif and Imelda Staunton as Sandra in Finding Your Feet. PA Photo/Entertainment One.
Celia Imrie as Bif and Imelda Staunton as Sandra in Finding Your Feet. PA Photo/Entertainment One.

Finding Your Feet is far from your average depiction of the “golden age”.

A moving comedy about a diverse group of energetic baby boomers, it starts with Sandra, played by Imelda Staunton, discovering that her husband of 40 years is having an affair with her best friend.

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After moving in with her 
laid-back older sister Bif (Celia Imrie), we see how the uptight character struggles to fit into her new world, but when Bif manages to persuade a reluctant Sandra to join in with her community dance class, she starts to give life a second chance.

“It is refreshing that we’re not all just plain women sitting around a card table in cardigans – although that could be quite funny,” says 62-year-old Staunton of the film’s appeal.

“We get to cover so many bases and it’s nice to be able to show that without it having to be, ‘a love story’.”

Imrie, 65, agrees, and points out the subjects discussed in Finding Your Feet would never have made it to screen 10 years ago.

“Old people dancing – I’m just going to put it bluntly now – or divorce conversations, dementia conversations; honestly, it’s quite raw,” she explains. “Those topics would not have been considered able to make an interesting story.”

The sisters the actresses portray are complete opposites – well-to-do Sandra has been busy raising a family in Surrey while desperately trying to keep up appearances as a member of the ‘tennis set’, while hippy Bif lives in a council flat on an East London estate, and doesn’t care what anyone thinks about her.

Having fallen out over a CND march years back, it’s been a long time since the siblings have seen each other, and when Sandra turns up on Bif’s doorstep with no-one else to turn to, the dynamic is certainly entertaining.

“In the initial stages, you just think, ‘Well, how on earth is this going to work?’” remarks Imrie, who’s starred in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Calendar Girls and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, “and it doesn’t – for a while.”

The problem is, neither sister approves of the other one’s life choices, and it’s an interesting look at how differently people’s lives can turn out: “Beware the woman who wants what she thinks is a happy life,” London-born Staunton, whose character revels in the fact her husband has recently been knighted.

“A woman who’s happy to sacrifice her own life for being on the arm of her husband, whose life is obviously so much more important than hers,” muses Staunton, “[Sandra] doesn’t mind that, because it means she gets the title, she gets the kudos – well, how’s that going to help anything?”

Feeling like we have to be something we’re not is an issue many of us can relate to though, the stars admit.

“We’re lucky, in a way, because we can be other people all the time, if we want to be,” says Imrie, who was born in Surrey. “That’s a very good release, actually. You’ll walk a long way to find somebody who’s completely OK with where they are.”

“Society is always telling – particularly women – what you should look like, what you should be like, how you should sound, what you should do, and yet, we’re told, ‘Be yourself’,” exclaims Staunton, known for roles such as the terrifying Professor Umbridge in the Harry Potter films. “’Don’t be old – but be yourself’, ‘Don’t look old – but be yourself’.”

Timothy Spall, David Hayman, John Sessions and Joanna Lumley, join Imrie and Staunton as fellow dancers, and together, the high-spirited group tackle everything from a Viennese waltz and the jive, to disco and salsa.

Their group scenes are both hilarious and endearing as they rehearse for their dance recitals, which are at the heart of the film. Shooting felt very natural thanks to so many of the cast knowing each other and working together previously.

In fact, Imrie and Staunton first met four decades ago, when they performed in cabaret on the stage in 1978.

However, while the group’s chemistry came easily, some of the dance moves needed, well, a bit of practice at home.

“I was in the bathroom, trying to get them right,” admits Staunton.

“I was chasing my tail a bit because we were amongst dancers who’d been dancing all their lives and they were so fast,” says Imrie. “But it was great – and a challenge.” And “challenge is what you yearn for” adds Staunton, who’s previously been Oscar-nominated for her role in Vera Drake.

Finding Your Feet has drama and realness to it, but it’s also uplifting: “[It’s] ultimately positive, and that’s, in this world, an excellent idea,” says Imrie. The hope is audiences will “just have a good afternoon, or night out”, notes Staunton – and that it offers a change from what she feels is so often found at the cinema.

“You go past a load of posters for films and most of them are blokes holding a gun, and you think, ‘Right, OK... Is there another story to tell here? Anywhere?’” she quips.

However, when it comes to roles for women of their generation, Finding Your Feet shows the film industry is evolving for the better.

“I want to ride the wave of the films that Celia has been making, whether it’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or Calendar Girls, that show people over 50, over 60, over 70; have got a point of view, have a sense of humour, can jump into a very, very cold pond, can dance, can sort out their lives,” says Staunton. “We can absolutely do all those things.”

Finding Your Feet (12A) is out in cinemas now.