In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Professor Dolores Umbridge puts Hogwarts through hell by subjecting Harry to brutal penmanship-related detention, enacting myriad restrictions on the school, and attempting to eradicate Dumbledore’s Army (although, to be fair, they were technically a direct threat to her regime).
But in week 5 of EW’s Binge podcast, Imelda Staunton — the actress behind the not-so-pretty-in-pink Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher — absolutely delights, telling hosts Marc Snetiker and C. Molly Smith all about how she tapped into and played pure, unadulterated evil.
“I don’t have to have sympathy at all, not in the slightest,” Staunton (Vera Drake, Maleficent) says of getting into the villainous character who, for the most part, inspires a large portion of Marc and Molly’s recaps this week: Harry’s top ten ALL-CAPS MELTDOWNS. (Come on, you had to know we’d get angsty for book five.)
“I think she’s a bloody monster and to be played as such,” Staunton continued. “I don’t need to understand what she does, but from a character point of view, she believes she’s doing the absolute best for that school. Yet again, I have embraced a completely and utterly deluded woman.”
She embraced this misguided character with help from director David Yates, who went on to helm the remaining films in the original series as well as the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (out Nov. 18). “He made it very clear to me and said, ‘Look, this woman is into ethnic cleansing,’ and that’s quite political,” she recalls. “He said, ‘That’s what this is, the pure-bloods and all that.’ I thought, ‘Christ, of course that’s what it is,’ so it became very serious. That’s when you go, ‘Right, I’m not just a lady in a very nice array of pink outfits. This is madness and cruelty dressed up.’”
Umbridge is horrible, to be sure, but she made for an interesting, challenging acting experience. “It’s fascinating to play because you want to get your head around it” Staunton explains, and jokes that she doesn’t actually want to get her head around it, “but I want to make sure that I serve the purpose in the story and it was very difficult. I loved doing it, but I have to say, the most difficult scene to do, which did leave me feeling pretty bad for a couple days, was actually the scene where I make him do the lines and it happens in his hand.” You know, the “I must not tell lies” detention scene.
“That touched into something that you think, ‘Gosh, we’re all capable of great cruelty.’ It was a horrible, horrible feeling,” she adds. Perhaps the worst part here — and really, throughout this fifth film — is that Umbridge, again, thinks she’s doing good. “She’s not sort of twirling her mustache and saying ‘Muahahaha,’ it’s the absolute and utter belief that actually it is going to help and that’s, of course, so much more frightening.”
She’s frightening, alright. Frighteningly good.
For more from Staunton’s interview — including what she now thinks of the color pink and her thoughts on how Umbridge held up in Azkaban — subscribe and listen to the podcast. Send your questions and comments on Twitter to @marcsnetiker and @cmollysmith, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. EW’s Binge is produced by EW’s Cristina Everett and edited by Will Malnati of At Will Radio.