Actor/ Professional eccentric
Imogen and I met on Blue Monday and spent a glorious evening cooking frittata, sharing ‘foot in mouth’ stories and book recommendations, and drinking virgin pina coladas.
Ellie: Right, I want to start chatting because we’ve already said so much tonight that I haven’t recorded and I’m really bummed isn’t in the interview. So the first question is what do you love?
Imogen: Good question. What do I love? It must be really interesting hearing how people interpret that differently. I love, um… acting. I love feeling like I’m part of a team – or a little family – for a while, but also knowing that I get to leave the family after a while. That’s my ideal thing. It’s like the best of all the worlds. I think that’s why I act, because it’s a way of being legitimately as big of a commitment-phobe as I am.
Ellie: That is amazing. That is the polar opposite of me. I used to mourn each show so deeply.
Imogen: Oh I think it’s ideal. And you get a new family, like, four months later. You pick up at least one gem with each family. It’s brilliant.
Ellie: I think that’s where I got sad: I used to think that every show would gift me ten new best friends. I’ve had to re-examine that over the years and learn not to go in with such high expectations. Realistically I’ve only taken one or two really solid friendships from shows. I found so many of my friendships couldn’t survive outside of the intensity of seeing each other every day and having the show in common.
Imogen: I mean they can’t survive to an extent, but for example: I went to the National the other day and saw a girl there who I worked with, and we haven’t kept in touch socially, we haven’t met up, but immediately we had so much shared common ground. We had been so vulnerable together, so even though we hadn’t maintained a friendship, she knows me. I love the fact that every time you leave a job it’s a whole bunch of people who really know you. You don’t have to do the bullshit that you have to do with so many other people in your every day life.
Ellie: Bit like group therapy.
Imogen: Exactly. You’ve been stripped back with them. Anyway, so I love that. I love knitting, I’ve got really into knitting. I love 2018. It’s been good to me. Got really into ‘Ozark’, which is brilliant television.
Ellie: YES. Oh wait, I’m thinking of ‘Okja’. Sorry, carry on.
Imogen: I’ve also heard that’s good. I love my female friendships. They are just being extra great at the moment.
Ellie: Fantastic. What do you love about yourself? Sorry, I’ve somehow managed to get paprika in my eye- hang on…
Imogen: Earlier last year I removed my eye make up with nail varnish remover. That was not something that I love about myself. What do I love about myself? I’ve got great tits. That can stay in. It’s my favourite thing about my body. I’m worried about them being on the brink of collapse.
Imogen: I just feel like something is changing. They’re good; I like them about me. I’m very positive; I like that about myself. Quite adaptable. I think I’m a pretty good listener, a good friend. I’m very good in a break-up; many people come and live with me after they break up with people.
Ellie: Oh I see, good in other people’s break-ups?
Imogen: Yes, a good post-break-up friend in the immediate aftermath. I’m trying to think of recent additions to me; things I’ve got better at. I’ve got better at being honest in sex. I’m proud of that. Fully stopped faking it last year.
Ellie: That is something I think I struggle with: communication around sex. I don’t know if it was a result of my experiences growing up that meant I have always felt very uncomfortable talking about sex. It’s weird: I don’t consider myself prudish if I see it or talk about it in the context of other people, but if I have to communicate to a partner what I like and what I don’t like that makes my insides go all nervy.
Imogen: I think that there is a difference between feeling like you should have to talk about that and wanting to talk about those things and feeling like you can’t, feeling you’re not able to. I have no issue talking honestly with people I know I’m only going to see a handful of times – fuck-buddies basically.
Ellie: Because there is an emotional disconnect?
Imogen: There is an emotional disconnect and I don’t really give a shit. I don’t care if they think XYZ about me. But last year that changed and I feel much more confident expressing myself with what I like and what I don’t like. Particularly when it comes to something that a lot of men do, which is to immediately fall back on ‘you’ve been a bad girl’. I mean that is a whole other interview. There is a default admonishing that happens between a man and a woman sexually – default kinky – and actually the gender politics of that default are complicated and very, very real.
Ellie: Do you think that comes from being a generation brought up on porn?
Imogen: Being brought up on porn and women being in the service industry. Typically, the default fantasy is ‘I’m punishing you for something’. The number of times I’ve been – oh mum you are not going to be reading this interview – the number of times I’ve been in a sexual situation and someone will start off spanking me. Even the subtlety of ‘You like that don’t you?’ – there is a shaming in the way that a lot of men talk to women during sex.
Ellie: Yes, it wouldn’t be a turn on if you said ‘no, not really’.
Imogen: ‘No, I’m not that into it’; that isn’t how that dialogue goes.
Ellie: Like you’ve broken character.
Imogen: Yes, exactly, and the character has been given to you before you even make out. And also it doesn’t happen the other way really: ‘you’ve been a naughty boy’ isn’t something we hear a lot.
Ellie: Partly because it sounds massively admonishing in a maternal way.
Imogen: I find it all so interesting. So yes, I’ve got much better at being honest sexually and I’m proud of that. I’ve got much better at being on my own in terms of my time. I used to be someone where more than half an hour alone in the house and I would start to move a pot plant around a lot, but know I spend time with me, myself and I, which I like.
Ellie: I really struggle to spend time with myself, and feel like it doesn’t count if you have an input like music or a podcast; truly spending time alone with you and your thoughts, the value of that. Having no external stimuli, just going for lunch with yourself and spending quality time with yourself. I think I struggle because I associate my thoughts so much with worrying. I’m a chronic worrier, so I get scared to spend time alone worrying. I used to be afraid of my earplugs because when I put them in I was really, really left alone with my thoughts because they cancelled out all other sound.
Imogen: God, that’s horrid.
Ellie: That is something I would really like to work on: enjoying spending time with myself. I’m always saying: can you imagine how incredible life would be if your inner narrative was your best friend and spoke to you with kindness and encouragement? If the person you really looked forward to spending time with was yourself? I really want to move towards that.
Imogen: It’s a very important skill to cultivate.
Ellie: Wouldn’t it be amazing if at the end of a day of rehearsals you couldn’t wait to get home to spend time with yourself, instead of being sad when everyone goes home?
Imogen: KNIT! Knit.
Ellie: What is the biggest challenge that you are facing in your life today?
Imogen: I’m very lucky: I have very few challenges, so I think it would be very dishonest for me to immediately have an answer for that. I’m very aware of the fact that I exist in a bubble of great privilege, mentally and literally. Um. I… (laughs) I just don’t have a job. I guess you want a greater answer to that but I’m pretty happy. I’m pretty happy right now. This time last year I would have had a bigger, emotional answer to that, but I don’t know. I really want not to waste time. That would be the biggest thing, because I sometimes am far too un-anxious. And months can pass. And normal people would have been very frustrated and anxious that they are achieving almost minus things and I am just pretty chill, and it takes like a year before I want to slap myself on the wrist and be like ‘hey, nothing happened and something probably should have in that time’. So my biggest challenge is probably not haemorrhaging time because it is important, time. I want to make the most out of things in a way that I haven’t done enough of before.
Ellie: It’s fascinating. I procrastinate a lot, but I do it in a self-sabotaging way. Really weird things, like emails: I’ll leave them for ages as if I’m scared of them. But with you it doesn’t sound like that. It really does sound like you’re just very chilled.
Imogen: Which is a blessing, but it’s annoying when there are people who get off their arse and do things. I could do with punishing myself a bit more. Like exercise! Brilliant example. I know people who will hate on themselves just the right amount to get fit. They will go to the gym and be in pain… and then they will go back to the gym, whereas what I will do is as soon as I’m in any sense in pain or displeasure, I will just not do that thing anymore. I don’t have the bit of me which is like ‘yeah this is bad right now but there is going to be a pay-off’.
Ellie: Two things from that. Firstly, I am totally with you on the gym front, I-
Imogen: No, that’s not true, you go to hot yoga. You went to your first class and you said it was awful and then you went back. You had no guarantee that you would enjoy that second class. Whereas I went to Bikram Yoga once, was sick, and then never went to Bikram Yoga again. That is the difference here.
Ellie: Now I’ve forgotten what I was going to say Imogen! I know the first thing I was going to say is about the use of the word ‘punish’ and ‘gym’ in the same sentence. I feel really strongly about changing the dialogue we use around exercise and the gym, all these words like ‘punish’, ‘kill’ and ‘shred’, for me – I think it’s so unhealthy for there to be an attitude that you should have to punish your body in order for it to be better. Maybe I’m being really naïve here but I don’t understand why we don’t go for a narrative of encouragement and motivation and some joy.
Imogen: Because it hurts! Because it hurts so much!
Ellie: But it hurts – well, maybe it hurts because we’re all so desperately unfit as a nation, but it hurts when you are trying to obtain a body that you’re not supposed to have; when you are pushing beyond your body’s boundaries to try and get the ‘beach body’ or whatever disgusting campaign is hot at that time-
Imogen: No, it hurts when I run.
Ellie: (Laughs) Oh that is the other thing I was going to say. You know when you’re younger and you don’t want to do PE (or any other subject for that matter), when you’re at school you do like eight things a day that you don’t want to do, even at university or drama school…
At this point Imogen began unwrapping ‘celebrations’ chocolates…
Ellie: Which one are you going for?
Imogen: I don’t know, you’ve left all the good ones and I’m not used to that so everything is confused.
Ellie: I know we’re a bit weird, I eat all the Bounty bars.
Imogen: Yeah, that’s fucked up, you should have that looked at.
Ellie: As we get older we have fewer things asked of us that we don’t want to do, and that is why for me personally, going to the gym for instance – I really struggle to go because in life I struggle to make myself do things that I don’t want to do. In a totally spoilt way.
Imogen: We are so entitled. Totally. So spoilt.
Ellie: Which women inspire you and why?
Imogen: Diana Athill is my number one bae. Everyone should read her books. She is a nonagenarian who has, throughout her life, bucked every trend, in terms of gender politics and what was expected of her as a woman of her time – just gave the finger to so many things and remained fabulous, and not steely or a difficult woman, just a powerhouse. Her writing is extraordinary. Other women… my mum. She is pretty great; she has been a woman in a man’s world for a long time and nailed it. She has given me a huge amount of hope about growing older because she got much happier when she hit about fifty, and I think in my head I thought that your personality had been decided for you when you were about thirty. Watching my mum over the past ten years has made me realise that it is an ever-fluctuating thing.
Ellie: That is so true. I think that in the world nowadays we aren’t exposed to enough older people. After a certain age older people just drop off of our tv screens or out of films, and also because of our obsession over youth and looking young, the older people we see don’t look like older people. So I think we have a deep fear inside of us, especially as women, that at a certain point as we get older we will just fade away to grey.
Imogen: I think there is also this pressure that you have to decide what kind of person you are, and with our education system you have to decide that when you’re about four and a half, but we think that as an adult you decide around thirty and then you’re done. My mum has managed to be so many different things: she was a business woman, then a documentary-maker, then she decided she wanted to be a writer so she is doing that now, and has just revealed herself more and more to me, and is now one of my best friends and is making me look forward to growing old. That’s nice that I said that.
Ellie: Sad that she can’t read it.
Imogen: Apart from that, all of my female friends; all of whom are absolutely amazing people.
Ellie: I think this is my favourite question – I love hearing people open up about this and just, love it: what assumptions do you find that you tend to make about other women?
Imogen: What assumptions? That is a good question. That they are fitter than me. And I’m often right.
Ellie: Physically? (Laughs) SorryI don’t know why I find that so funny.
Imogen: Yes. Not like ‘you’re fit’, just that they are fitter. And it’s not an assumption because it’s always right. Um. Considering how much of a chip on my shoulder I have about my lack of fitness you would think I would do something about it. But that is a perfect example of my aforementioned tendency not to do anything about something that bothers me and it will remain that way. Um. Other assumptions. Uh… I don’t think I do it much, I have to say. I don’t tend to do that ‘I bet she’s happier than me’ or ‘I bet she’s more fulfilled’. No. Um…
Ellie: I feel like I jinxed it by saying it was my favourite question.
Imogen: I feel like I’ve fucked it because you wanted me to have a better answer and break down and tell you about my insecurities. And I do have them, but probably not about this, not about other women. Women have always been my saviour, because I went to a mixed school in which the boys just made my life hell. I had no interest in boys full stop. I just didn’t want them to be in my life at all. And I’d never had sisters and I always really wanted them, and so I went to an all-girls school and it was the best thing in the world. Almost all the teachers were women as well. I was just immediately like ‘all women are great’. I was never really bullied by girls; I found it quite easy to form those relationships. So they’ve just always been great in my life. When I was in my twenties I developed a really tightly knit group of women around me that has been the best thing to happen to me in the last twenty years, without a doubt. They make me happier than anybody else. I think women kind of only represent good things to me.
Ellie: That is amazing. What a brilliant answer. You’ve made me really happy. How wonderful to have had women be so inspirational and a kind of sanctuary across your life.
Imogen: Yeah, the problems have always been men!
Ellie: For you which stigma surrounding women would you like to see go?
Imogen: The motherhood thing can fuck off for a start -?that we all have to have kids, because frankly there are loads of people here and we should stop making more ones and adopt some of the fucked up ones. I think there is a really good play out there waiting to be written in which everybody born after 1980 has to adopt one child. It would massively curb overpopulation and would mean that every family contained an immigrant, a genetic immigrant. So the idea of ‘where are you from?’ and the gallons of judgement that come with that question would totally change.
Ellie: It would totally shift ideas of community.
Imogen: Someone write it. You heard it here first. I think it should be okay for women to say that they don’t want to have children without being regarded as some kind of social pariah, or someone with a broken womb. The assumption that it means that they can’t have children, rather then they’ve always found children fucking annoying and that’s fine. That can go. The loneliness thing: I think it should be equally okay for a woman to say that she is lonely and wants a man, even needs a man, or a woman… needs a partner. I think we are sometimes in danger of glamourising independence and demonising co-dependence, to the point of forgetting that we are pack animals and that we innately lean towards procreation. Even if I’m now completely contradicting my last point. It’s a complicated issue.
Ellie: Maybe it doesn’t have to be about procreation, more that we are innately drawn towards ‘relationship’ and nesting and the idea of other.
Imogen: I have found in the last couple of years that telling my female friends that I was lonely provoked a very unusual and anomalous slight awkwardness, because it’s not a cool thing to say even if it’s true. It’s not fashionable to say ‘I would like a partner’ because you’re supposed to be able to do everything on your own now. You’re supposed to go to your Hotpod yoga and do your morning pages and take a hike in the LA hills and at the end of it, wham bam you’ve found yourself and you can masturbate to that the rest of your life.
Ellie: I mean, that’s how I live. So how, for you, has gender affected you within your work?
Imogen: Well I’ve done less work. I’ve worked less because of it. I’ve worked in far more two-dimensional roles because of it; I’ve played the same character probably several times because of it. I’m worried about an expiry date on my career because of it.
Ellie: I get endlessly told as an actor that it’s not a race, it’s a marathon, and that I’ll be more castable in a few years. But what people don’t understand is that for women it can feel like there is a giant clock ticking above your head, especially if you put on top of that that you want to have children; there is also a ticking clock before your life changes completely and your work undoubtedly changes as a result. There is a lack of understanding over how painful it is to feel like what you love, what you are passionate about, has an expiry date because you are a woman.
Imogen: 100%. Completely. I always think it must be like that for athletes as well.
Ellie: I get it as a singer as well: I find it really frightening that there will be a time when I can’t sing. It will deteriorate. It’s like when you listen to Julie Andrews; it’s so sad what often happens to the female vocal cords.
Imogen: At least that’s biological I suppose, rather than a result of conditioning. I suppose the other way gender affects me at work is that it gets me work; it gets me jobs, especially in my non-acting work. I use it constantly, as part of my toolkit. Which is always a tricky one when it comes to the arguments raging at the moment, that for every maybe five times I’m wolf-whistled, I flutter my eyelashes because I’ve left my Oyster card at home that day and I have every confidence that it will get me through the barriers. I think there is a whole country of unexplored stuff going on in that argument. If somebody took away my ability to use my sex appeal as a weapon of choice, I would be fucked. I mean identity-wise I would feel bereft, and I’m very aware that that is a ticking clock, and when that does go away I think it’s going to be mental for me. You wake up and that’s not part of your armour anymore. That’s why we shouldn’t have to use it in the first place, because that isn’t a thing for men – to have something they need in order to get them work and money that one day gets snatched away. The importance placed on women’s physical appearance and ability to flirt and to manipulate. It’s not a comfortable thing to think about but it is there.
Ellie: Have you ever felt shame as a direct consequence of being a woman, either at work or in your personal life?
Ellie: That was quick.
Imogen: I’m really lucky: I haven’t had negative experiences like that at work as a result of my gender, and I haven’t felt shame. I think that’s partly working in theatre rather than film: I think it’s a far less shame-driven industry. I mean I’ve had people be dicks. But it didn’t make me ashamed. I think, and I’m aware this is going to be a divisive topic, but I have experienced what some people would consider to be sexual harassment, but I didn’t feel harassed by it so I wouldn’t class it harassment. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place, sure, but, like, I’ve been groped at a party by a drunk director and it didn’t bother me for more than one second. I forgot about it until about six months ago when someone I was with mentioned it. Something I had found funny and just thought: ‘God you’re a sad old man’. I mean he has got me in for auditions since. But I didn’t feel violated. But I could be wrong, I could be so used to that kind of behaviour as a given that I’ve had to develop a thicker skin around those situations.
Ellie: What’s one bit of advice that you either wish you had been given or could go back and give your younger self?
Imogen: So much. Don’t do things just because it’s going to be really funny to tell them afterwards. Don’t do things just because they are going to make really funny stories. I did that for most of my twenties, and it stopped being funny for everyone else a long time before it stopped being funny for me. I think my obsession with being the raconteur and the class clown way outshone the reality of how experiences made me feel, to the point of making very large life decisions because I liked the idea of being the one who did it. I think I spent a lot of time doing things for the tale at the pub.
Ellie: That was such a good answer. I know a lot people that I wish I could give that advice to. That is such a good way of putting it, ‘for the story’.
Imogen: I was telling my friend something I’d done the other night at the pub and the way she rolled her eyes and said ‘Immie’ had such a message of ‘Not again’. That made me feel ashamed. That may be the only thing that makes me feel ashamed: my female friends not respecting me; one of my girls not liking or respecting me.
Ellie: Part of this project involves passing on questions from woman to woman, to allow communication between women who don’t even know each other. So I have a question for you from Lily Howkins: what in life, or in yourself, would you say is your greatest source of strength?
Imogen: What a lovely question, thanks Lily. Um. Hope. The future is always the thing that makes me the happiest because I don’t know what it is. I quite often get overwhelmed with excitement over the future and what’s to come. Not that I have a lot to look forward to, just blind optimism. I’m very good at holding on to that tomorrow. See now I’m worried that my sarcasm is not going to translate to the page and things like ‘holding on to that tomorrow’ are going to make me out to be some weird, glib ‘Annie’ co-writer. Do I get to ask a question now?
Ellie: Yup. You’ve just jumped the gun – that is the last question.
Imogen: Um. If you had to drop one mask that you wear for a whole year, which mask would it be?
Ellie: Very Good.