NEW YORK — Most actresses like to meet the real person who inspired the role they're about to tackle. Not Imelda Staunton. Not for her latest job.
The English stage and screen star plays a mother who for years held out hope that her estranged and troubled daughter was still alive, only to discover she'd been murdered by a serial killer.
"I didn't want to meet her because I didn't know what to say. What do you say to a woman who's had that happened to?" Staunton asked.
Staunton would eventually meet her counterpart twice, which informed her searing portrayal of a mother struggling to find answers in the series " A Confession " available this week on Britbox.
The six-part series based on real events from writer Jeff Pope focuses on how a detective played by Martin Freeman broke strict police protocol and put his career in jeopardy to lure a confession from the serial killer.
The killer has murdered and buried the bodies of two young women whose families live a few doors apart in the southwest English city of Swindon. The disappearance of one of the women in 2011 prompts an investigation into whether an eight-year-old missing woman case is connected.
Staunton plays Karen Edwards, the mother of the long-missing young woman. The actress calls Edwards "terribly forthcoming" and said she couldn't fathom the grief Edwards felt after years of hoping.
"I always push to the back whatever I'm feeling because I just think I can't even touch what she's gone through her entire life," she said.
The series is not a typically lurid chase to catch a murderer. No killings are shown and "A Confession" is more interested in the effects of the crime and the way the police's actions get caught in a legal dogfight.
"It was beautifully written. There was no sensationalism in it, no voyeuristic qualities. It is straight down the line, sort of journalistic writing, if you like," said Staunton. "We didn't want to make it any more gruesome or sensational than it already was."
The first half of the series unravels the crimes and then the second half deals with the fallout. Judges find the way the serial killer confessed to the second crime — without a second Miranda-type warning — voided the case, infuriating victims and the lead detective.
"You'd like to think that common sense would rule and here it didn't," director Paul Andrew Williams said. "I think with anything when you have a blanket rule that's not based on individual scenarios, then I think there's always going to be trouble."
Williams, who also directed several episodes of the hit series "Broadchurch," says that show is almost the opposite of "A Confession." If "Broadchurch" was a classic who-done-it mystery, the killer is revealed in the very first episode of the new series. "Viewers are interested in what the characters are dong," he said.
Staunton agreed to the project after a stint singing Stephen Sondheim songs in a revival of "Follies" at the National Theatre. She was looking for a change of pace and the writing for "A Confession" drew her in.
Staunton is known to millions as the tyrannical teacher Dolores Umbridge in the "Harry Potter" films. She earned an Academy Award nomination in Mike Leigh's "Vera Drake." Last year she shared the screen in the "Downton Abbey" movie with her husband, Jim Carter, who plays the butler, Mr Carson.
She was due to hit the stage again this summer for a revival of "Hello, Dolly!" at the Adelphi Theatre in London. Performances were to begin in August but she's not sure if fears over the coronavirus will permit it.
"None of us can answer any question at the moment to do with the future," she said. "It's interesting that we are all in the same boat." But then she quickly adds: "Some of us have better life jackets than others, let's not beat about the bush there."
One job she's looking forward to is slipping into "The Crown," Netflix's hit drama series about the British royal family. Staunton has been tapped to be the last actress to play Queen Elizabeth II, taking the crown in the fifth season from Olivia Colman, who, in turn, succeeded Claire Foy.
"I would like to be able to take that baton and do the final run and bring it home, as they say," Staunton said. The actress has the utmost respect for the real monarch: "I think she's remarkable. She's remarkable in her resilience and in her fortitude."