Celia Imrie: 'People go wild when I tell them I was a fighter pilot in Star Wars'

‘I hate days off’ … Celia Imrie.
‘I hate days off’ … Celia Imrie. Photograph: Chris Floyd/Camera Press
‘I hate days off’ … Celia Imrie. Photograph: Chris Floyd/Camera Press

As her portrayal of a foul-mouthed gran in Better Things finally reaches UK screens, Celia Imrie talks about commuting by cruise ship, her funniest ever sketch – and taking up trapeze at 68

Rebecca Nicholson

Last modified on Thu 24 Sep 2020 09.57 EDT

Celia Imrie is calling from Nice, where she has spent most of lockdown, finishing her fifth novel. “Isn’t it magic, the way that it works?” she says down the line, in that familiar voice, immediately recognisable to anyone who has caught one of her 170 or so screen performances. “It never ceases to amaze me, because you sound as if you’re next door!” Her enthusiasm is so warm and pervasive, she can even make a humble phonecall sound like a marvel.

Imrie says people in Britain must think she’s been on holiday for the last three years. In fact, she has been starring in the gorgeous US comedy Better Things, whose fourth season is only now airing on the BBC, after a near-criminal delay in bringing it to UK screens. The series, created by and starring Pamela Adlon, is set in Los Angeles, and follows the lives of a jobbing actor in her 40s (Adlon), her three daughters, and Phil, her eccentric British mother living next door, who is straight-talking, foul-mouthed and unbothered by social norms. It has just been renewed for a fifth season, though right now, for obvious reasons, Imrie is not sure when they will be able to get back to business.

The role of Phil, loosely based on Adlon’s own mother, came to Imrie largely by chance. She had travelled to the US to discuss a part in another show, playing Patrick Stewart’s wife, but that didn’t come off. Someone else had already been cast as Phil, but that didn’t come off either, and the stars aligned. “It’s pure luck that I met Pamela and we hit it off,” she recalls. “I think she’s remarkable.”

‘If I’m not in a script, I throw it in the bin’ … Imrie in Better Things, with Hannah Alligood as granddaughter Frankie.
‘If I’m not in a script, I throw it in the bin’ … Imrie in Better Things, with Hannah Alligood as granddaughter Frankie. Photograph: Suzanne Tenner/BBC/FX

Imrie even enjoys being in LA to film it, though only when she’s working. “I hate days off. And when she gives me a script that I’m not in, I just throw it straight into the bin in front of her, to make her laugh.” She chuckles. “She knows I’m a nightmare.” Adlon has a nickname for Imrie. “She calls me, rather marvellously, ‘a dame in shit’. And I’m so happy with that. It’s glorious, really. We’ve got to the stage now where we can be really rude to each other, which of course is a huge compliment.”

Imrie rarely flies: she travels to New York by boat, then takes three trains across the US. “Ship, I have to say, Rebecca,” she says correcting herself. “I’ve said boat in some interviews, and it’s very, very bad form – because it’s the Queen Mary 2, and it’s definitely a ship.” The journey usually takes around 10 days, in all. “I really would go to the ends of the earth for Pamela, so it’s no hardship.” Besides, she says, she loves to travel that way, to see a country by rail. “It’s quite an adventure.”

Either Imrie follows adventure, or adventure follows her. In 2011, she released her fabulously entertaining autobiography, The Happy Hoofer, a riot of a life story so eventful that it is hard to know where to begin: the time she was kidnapped on a film set in Scotland, the meal where she accidentally fed her friends poisonous berries, the horrifying, traumatic period she spent as a patient of the notorious “brainwashing” psychiatrist William Sargant, or the time she was on holiday in Italy and narrowly avoided being killed by a landslide? The list really does go on.

Globetrotter … Imrie and Judi Dench in 2012 hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Globetrotter … Imrie and Judi Dench in 2012 hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Photograph: Fox Searchlight Pictures/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

When she sat down to write about her life, did she have any idea how dramatic it would be? “No, actually. I can remember, somebody said to me, ‘Are you going to write your life story?’ I said, ‘Oh God no, I couldn’t think of anything worse.’ And they said, ‘If you don’t, somebody else will.’” Tantalisingly, she adds: “Obviously, I probably haven’t said everything that happened.”

In The Happy Hoofer, she compares acting to being on “a board game of snakes and ladders”. Where is she now on the board? “I think I’d like to say I’m about three steps up a ladder. The fact that Better Things is going on for 10 weeks in Britain has got to be a good thing. But you never know.” She was speaking to her agent only yesterday. “And I said, ‘I’m not trying to be dramatic, but I have to be realistic about my age.’” She is 68. “I’ve got to be braver and not always be the supporting role. With the time I’ve got left, I’ve got to go up that ladder and reach for higher points.”

Imrie has survived two pulmonary embolisms. I wonder if those experiences changed her. “Yes, definitely. I was given another chance, and another chance. There was a great friend of mine, a director, who had a bicycle accident and sadly injured his head, and his outlook afterwards was of such great optimism. And so yes, you absolutely have to grab hold of everything that’s flying by.”

Considering just how much Imrie has been in since the early 1970s, you get the sense that she has always loved grabbing what flies by. I ask her if people in Britain still know her best for her work with Victoria Wood. “Often, but that’s a different generation now, funnily enough.” In France, people know her from Mamma Mia! “And also, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a great success over here, and Doctor Who. Also, if ever I tell anybody that I’ve been a fighter pilot in Star Wars, they go wild.” She laughs. “That’s really worth it. I guess Finding Your Feet, and things like that. Oh, and Nanny McPhee. Kids get a bit frightened of me if I go near them.”

She worked with Wood for years, eventually winning an Olivier for returning to Miss Babs in Acorn Antiques: The Musical. I’m desperate to ask her about being one of the diners in the famous Two Soups sketch, in which waitress Julie Walters takes an age over her and Duncan Preston’s order. Ever the pro, she is happy to oblige. “I can tell you absolutely truthfully that Duncan and I never got through it in rehearsals. It was a disaster, because we knew what was coming up, and we knew how long Julie was going to take coming through the doors. Even though we knew it was going to happen, we were uncontrollable. It was really quite difficult.”

Space warrior … Imrie in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
Space warrior … Imrie in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Photograph: Lucasfilm

What got them through the one and only live take, in front of an audience, was the responsibility they felt to the sketch. “If you look carefully,” says Imrie, “I am clenching my inside cheeks so hard – I had blood in my mouth.” Does she miss working with Wood? “Oh, of course, absolutely. We were a great team.”

She loves being part of a team. While lockdown has given Imrie time to cook more, try painting and make a mosaic for her bathroom, as well as finishing her new novel (the writing career followed The Happy Hoofer), she misses the camaraderie of acting. “I love the back and forth and answering each other. That’s the whole point.” Over the course of her work, she has taken great delight in learning new skills for roles, from canoeing to piano to typing. “Anything I can learn new, I absolutely love, of course.” Recently, she took up trapeze, for a new film called Love, Sarah. “I did. I didn’t really learn, but my character was in the circus, so I did get the chance to have a lesson. It was great. All sorts of things I’ve learned!”

Talk of travel, in particular, seems to light her up. “Going to Mazan, a beautiful part of France, to do … the thing with Benedict Cumberbatch? Rather a grim tale of his taking drugs all the time?” Patrick Melrose? “Yes! Well done. Perfect. I got to go to Mazan near Avignon, which I’d never heard of before, and it was gorgeous. And then I’d just jump on the first bus I could find on my day off, go round in a circle and then come back again.

“Oh, and going to Bulgaria when we did After Ever After, the Cinderella film with David Walliams. When would I ever have thought of going to Bulgaria? And then in the middle of the night changing trains and getting a bus from Zagreb? Because I don’t fly, and I was determined not to miss my train.” She pauses for a moment, as if she has just arrived back. “Marvellous adventures.”

Better Things series 4 is on BBC Two on Sundays at 10pm, and iPlayer; in US, see FX on Hulu.

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