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Thrilled to be a toad woman

Imelda Staunton knows a nice, evil role when she sees one.

July 08, 2007|Mark Salisbury | Special to The Times

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, toad-like 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 Thatcher," says Staunton ("Vera Drake"). 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 12, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
"Harry Potter" actor: An article in Sunday Calendar about actress Imelda Staunton, who is featured in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," said the character of Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge was played by Timothy West. Robert Hardy plays the part.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 15, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
"Harry Potter" actor: An article last Sunday about actress Imelda Staunton, who is featured in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," said that the character of Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge is played by Timothy West. Robert Hardy plays the part.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 15, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
"Harry Potter" actor: An article in the July 8 Calendar about actress Imelda Staunton, who was featured in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," said the character of Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge was played by Timothy West. Robert Hardy plays the part.

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." (Yates equates her to Oliver North. "He went under the radar and did the dirty stuff because he knew that's what the administration wanted," he notes. "Umbridge is doing the same thing. She's getting rid of Harry Potter because the ministry would really like that.")

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 Wednesday.

The adaptation of the sixth book, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" -- also being directed by Yates -- begins filming this year and will be released by Warner Bros. in November 2008.

She's not evil at all

PERCHED on a couch in a London hotel, Staunton couldn't be more different than 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 '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 in the "Harry Potter" movies. "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.

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