Imelda Staunton on the Importance of 'Confession' and Preparing to Play Queen Elizabeth II (Exclusive)

Imelda Staunton
Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

The English actress talks to ET about starring in the true-crime Britbox series and her upcoming role in 'The Crown.'

Longtime screen and stage actress Imelda Staunton is no stranger to iconic roles, from her celebrated performance as the Baker’s Wife in the West End production of Into the Woods to her Oscar-nominated turn as a working-class woman who performs illegal abortions in Vera Drake. She’s also conjured up evil as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films and most recently reunited with Maggie Smith to slug it out as Lady Bagshaw in the Downton Abbey film. 

In January, it was confirmed that the 64-year-old actress will take over as Queen Elizabeth II in the fifth and final season of The Crown, which will easily be her most iconic role yet. Staunton will replace Olivia Coleman, who makes her final appearance as the Queen in the upcoming fourth season of the historical Netflix drama.   

“I’m greatly honored,” Staunton tells ET about being approached by creator Peter Morgan and his team to complete “the last lap” of the series and finish out what Coleman and Claire Foy before her started in the first four seasons. “I don’t want to let the air go out of the balloon and I really have to bring it home. I would love to do that for all the people who have gone before me.”

At the time of our conversation, The Crown just finished production on season four before “the world has gone upside down,” she says of the coronavirus outbreak that has halted production on film and TV. And while she hasn’t seen any scripts, she is in the midst of her own research into the Queen, especially now that she has extra time at home. 

In the meantime, fans can get their fill of Staunton, who appears in two new British series debuting in May. The first is Trying, a relationship comedy, on Apple TV+ and the other is the limited true-crime drama, A Confession, coming to the streaming platform Britbox after first airing in England.  

The latter tells the story of Detective Superintendent Steve Fulcher’s (Martin Freeman) efforts to catch the killer of 22-year-old Sian O'Callaghan who first disappeared in March 2011. Meanwhile, Karen Edwards (Staunton) watches as Elaine O’Callaghan’s (Siobhan Finneran) search for her missing daughter reminds of her own efforts to find her 20-year-old daughter who disappeared eight years prior. 

The series recounts the unbelievable coincidences and even more shocking complications that unfold as both families’ lives become intertwined when it becomes clear the same man is behind the disappearances of both young women. While the story sees justice for some, not all were satisfied with how Fulcher handled the case, leading to even more unexpected twists. 

Imelda Staunton as Karen Edwards in 'Confession' on Britbox. - Britbox

“It’s a heartbreaking story,” says Staunton, who was initially unaware of the crimes until she signed onto the series. But once she learned of it, she felt it was important that this tragedy was told -- and “told with great intelligence and sensitivity,” she adds.

Helping the actress cut through the headlines and be true to Edwards’ experiences was the fact that Staunton got to sit down with the mother for several hours, “observing the things she was saying,” Staunton says, adding that “my job is to get the essence of this woman.” 

And what’s seen on screen is a harrowing performance as Staunton captures a decade of this woman’s life “that was fueled by utter grief and anger,” which can be seen in an exclusive preview of the premiere episode in the video below.  

While Staunton admittedly doesn’t normally seek out true-crime series as something she watches at home -- she happens to like documentaries and series about gardening -- the actress credits this current “golden age” of TV that has allowed for shows like A Confession to be made. 

“There’s so much wonderful stuff being made and written. I feel very grateful that I've been in this particular piece and able to get this story out there,” Staunton says. 

A Confession is available to stream Tuesday, May 12 on Britbox.