At one point sitting opposite Dame Judi Dench over a pot of tea at a hotel in Covent Garden, I find myself asking her if she has that recurrent dream, the one in which you are on a stage and the curtain is about to go up but can’t remember any of your lines or the part you are supposed to play. It seems, as I am saying it, a bit ridiculous to ask that question of Dench, who not long ago was by a margin voted “the greatest actor of all time” in an exhaustive poll of the readers of The Stage magazine.
She is a woman who has hardly put a foot wrong, or missed a beat, since she first performed for an audience 60 years ago. I would imagine any deep-seated anxiety about being caught out melted away long since. But no, she admits, suddenly slightly grim-faced, that she has the dream all the time. “I’m standing there, all dressed up, and whispering: ‘What do I say now?’” she says. “It’s awful, really, but it’s the big fear. The one that never goes away.”
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Is this anxiety true? I guess so. Though talking to Dench you do have the occasional nagging reminder of what she is so profoundly good at having you forget: that if she puts her mind to it, she can probably make you believe in anything.
In the previous few days I have watched her and re-watched her as Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth I, as Iris Murdoch losing her mind, as J. Edgar Hoover’s mother, as a widow discovering India in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, and have been immediately in thrall each time.
Now here she is, oddly, in front of me, profoundly familiar, conspiratorial, engaged, gossipy, a good listener, seamlessly inhabiting the role of eager interviewee even at the age of 77, and delivering polished versions of stories that she has honed for just such an audience. The one about how her mother and father came to see her in “Romeo and Juliet” early in her career, and her dad was so engrossed in her performance that at the line “Where are my mother and father?” he responded: “Here we are, darling, in row H.” The ones about being giggly and star-struck on Oscar night.
Two years ago Dench published a memoir, dictated to a ghost writer, “And Furthermore”. It is a breezy, curious book, which treats her life as a never-ending series of wonderful adventures on the stage and in front of the camera. Parents and siblings, her late husband Michael Williams and her daughter Finty get supporting roles from time to time, but anything in the way of revelatory emotion or psychological insight is saved for Cleopatra or Mother Courage.
In the past six decades Dench has only twice had any time off from working: when she gave birth to Finty, and when she was nursing her husband, who died of cancer in 2001. She talks about her thespian fears of not being in work, but she has never experienced that state. She likes to recall how Trevor Nunn was a bit sniffy when she mentioned she had been asked to do the sitcom with her husband that became “A Fine Romance”. Her response was something of a statement of intent: “I think it is our business to do as many things as we can ... ”
I am struck, talking to her, that when you ask her about her life, she thinks first of her work. What have been the best of times, I wonder. She immediately thinks of “going to the Vic and all those plays. Stratford days on bikes. Then theatre in Oxford and Nottingham and being in West Africa with the company ... ”
We are here on the occasion of another of those ongoing adventures: Dench’s seventh outing in a Bond movie as M, in “Skyfall”, a film of which I have been allowed to see three explosive and chaotic minutes. In those minutes she appears to announce the death of 007, an obit that quickly seems greatly exaggerated.
There have been rumours that this will be Dench’s last outing as M, that in the film she identifies her successor, a shady Ralph Fiennes, before saying a brutal goodbye to Her Majesty’s Secret Service. She is too practised a Bond girl to give any of this away before the closely guarded opening night, though.
The role has become a nice punctuation mark in her life in recent years, she suggests, and of course “great fun”. Playing with gadgets as M in her first film she recalled how she became “completely drunk with power, because I can’t mend anything, or even put the ironing board up properly”.
She still likes the fact that she gets to be imperiously bossy in it, though is quick to also say that, “I would hate people to think bossy is all I can do.” She gets on well with Daniel Craig, but not well enough for him to let her in on the secret of his Olympic parachute jump with the Queen. She has been thrilled this time around to be directed again by Sam Mendes, whom she first worked with on “The Cherry Orchard” 20 years ago. “You feel great when there is someone you trust there on the bridge, a firm hand.”
Dench talks about M with the kind of self-deprecating matter-of-factness with which she discusses all her roles. It is good for her because, she says, unlike Craig, on whose shoulders the whole thing rests, she gets to take it lightly, be a bit irresponsible. It is not her most onerous assignment, even in terms of travel: “This time I got to Pinewood. And I got to Glencoe, which was very beautiful. And I got to Aldershot, which was slightly less so,” she says. The character has developed “necessarily, just by the fact I have got older, and she has to work even harder to prove she is up to it ... ”
Bond was important for Dench in one way, in that it has given her an international audience. Before 1995’s “GoldenEye” she was little known in America. She still gets asked sometimes, “Apart from M, have you done anything else?” and no doubt demurs from mentioning the record seven Olivier awards and indelible roles that included her Juliet for Franco Zeffirelli in 1960; the first London Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” in 1968; Lady Macbeth in Trevor Nunn’s landmark 1976 production; Cleopatra opposite Anthony Hopkins in 1987 and on and on.
One of the more curious aspects of Dench’s career is how long it took filmmakers to realise what she might be capable of in front of the camera. At the first screen test she went to, while she was starring at the Old Vic, a man looked at her for a long time and said: “Well, Miss Dench, I have to tell you: you have every single thing wrong with your face.” When she walked out, she vowed never to try it again. She didn’t properly for a long time.
She still feels like a beginner on screen, she suggests, typically separating her own efforts from those of “really good film actors, proper ones, who will always look at a take after it is done”. She can’t do that. “I find it too hard to cope with that idea that you can’t change it. I love the way in the theatre that you can change it every night.”
She tries to avoid seeing herself on screen at all, she says. I mention “J. Edgar”, in which, directed by Clint Eastwood, she plays Leonardo DiCaprio’s domineering mother to scene-stealing effect, and she says brightly: “What’s it like? I suppose I should see it.”
Has anything she has done on screen pleasantly surprised her, I wonder.
“Never,” she says. “I think it is always appalling to see yourself on film. I think John Gielgud used to say that he would love to have had a performance of a play he had been in to put on his mantelpiece so he could live with it and see exactly the ways he could have done it better. Because there are always ways. In the theatre you can change things ever so slightly; it’s an organic thing. Whereas in film you only have that chance on the day, and you have no control over it at all.”
When I mention “J. Edgar” she mentions, too, being “completely daunted” by Clint Eastwood. “He rang me up, and I thought at first it was a friend sending me up. So I didn’t take it seriously to start with. And then I realised it was really him and that was a tricky conversation. I hadn’t met him by the time I got on set, really. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and there was this immensely tall man standing there, a bit terrifying, but brilliant”
She still likes to think of herself a bit as an interloper in that world; it makes it easier. Who else has she been overawed by, I ask.
“Oh, lots of them. George Clooney — I was bit in awe there. And my daughter was mad about Antonio Banderas, and we were at a party and he came over and asked for a light. I thought she was going to faint. We love going to awards for that reason, to see these huge larger-than-life figures ... ”
It is quite endearing, this insistent modesty — but it is also, you guess, a way of taking pressure off herself for anything other than acting itself. She has developed other strategies for this.
Infamously she has a habit of turning up for a new part without having once read the script. She has always liked to have things read to her rather than reading them herself, and now she has the “perfect excuse” of an eye condition, macular degeneration, inherited from her mother, which makes a lot of reading impossible (though the disease will not, as some reports have had it, lead to loss of vision). “Even before that, though,” Dench says, “I have always had a director tell me the story. I want them to put it into words for me. And I am interested in what they choose to put in and leave out. That, after all, is what you are going to do for the audience. I like to have it presented to my mind’s eye.”
She adopts this approach even when choosing parts. Her husband Michael would read scripts for her and give her a line or two and she would immediately have a sense of whether she wanted to do it. Finty, also an actor, does it for her now. “I have always said that phrase: ‘What larks, Pip,’” Dench recalls, “and when Finty saw that line in the script of ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’, she told me I just had to do it. I was having doubts about going to India and so on, but she was right.” In all of this she seems to want to hand over responsibility, to restrict her choices to her acting.
In her spare time on set, she often paints landscapes — “So much better than taking photographs, because it really makes you look and remember,” she says. I ask her if the process of constructing a character is similar. “No, a painting is your decision when it comes to it, whereas if you are playing a character it is also everybody else’s decision, really, what it should be.”
Does she ever paint her characters from her mind’s eye, as Antony Sher, for example, always does? “I don’t, although when I am with a script or in rehearsal I might doodle a character’s face or something. I nearly always do that. But what I do is listen to what everybody says about you and try to assimilate that.”
She is careful about what information she takes on board. Her next role is in a film directed by Stephen Frears, “Philomena”, the true story of an Irish woman who searched for 50 years for the son, born illegitimately, taken from her by nuns and “sold” to a wealthy American family. Steve Coogan will play the journalist Martin Sixsmith, who helped the woman in her quest and wrote the original story.
“I can go and meet Philomena Lee,” Dench says, “though I am not yet sure that I will. I remember playing “On Giant’s Shoulders” about that lovely boy Terry Wiles. The first day of filming we were up near Sandy on the A1, and I came face to face with his mother and she just burst into tears and went to pieces. I was shaken by that, and ever since I have been wary of meeting the people whose lives I have been playing. But I think I will meet Philomena Lee. I think it would be good for me to meet her and get the tone of her.”
Does she always start with an inkling of tone?
“In some ways,” she says. “But anything can be useful. I wanted to be a set designer when I was young. And I still think I am as interested in a set and the costumes as anything else. I remember I was in Stratford once and only doing one play, so in my afternoons I went off and learnt how to knot a wig as they would have done back then. That gave me a wonderful insight”
Her daughter has said she knows her mother inside out, except for one thing. She has no idea what motivates her to work, the continuing compulsive drive. Does she have any idea herself?
“I just feel I have to keep doing it,” Dench says. “I never want to stop. I need to learn every day. I don’t question the curiosity. It’s like I love quizzes and things. Did you know what Nostradamus’s first name was? Michel! It’s not likely, is it?”
I wonder how often she feels she comes up against the edge of what she is capable of.
“That’s always what you hope,” she says. “I long to be asked to do, you know, the Afghan woman who learns the tightrope late in life. I remember reading the novel ‘Notes on a Scandal’ and thinking: I would love to play that woman, to try to find a humanity in that dreadful person. I was thrilled to be asked to do that.”
One role that Dench did shy away from playing was that of a widow after she became one herself. She allowed herself to be cast in that role by John Madden for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, however. What made her change her mind?
“Well, to begin with, I didn’t want people to make that connection, in a way. And what I found hardest about the ‘Marigold Hotel’ was that I looked so much like myself. I kept asking John if I could dye my hair or something. I wanted it one step removed. I think a lot of actors are very shy people, and you can only properly express yourself if you are endeavouring to be another person. It is like those moulds for gingerbread men, I sometimes think. You have to inhabit another body in a way, make yourself another shape.”
She and Williams were famously devoted; he bought her a red rose each Friday of their married life. Did acting become even more crucial to her after he died?
“Yes, it came to my rescue, really,” she says. “I went out to Nova Scotia almost immediately after Michael’s funeral and made ‘The Shipping News’ with Kevin Spacey for four weeks. And then I came back and the day after started ‘Iris’ and did all of that. And then I immediately went back to Canada to finish ‘The Shipping News’. And then I was into ‘Pride & Prejudice’. People, friends, kept saying, ‘You are not facing up to it; you need to face up to it,’ and maybe they were right, but I felt I was — in the acting. Grief supplies you with an enormous amount of energy. I needed to use that up.”
Dench by all accounts is the consummate team player, and she seems to have something of a dread of being alone. Her daughter and grandson, now 15, live with her part of the time at her house, Wasp Green, in Surrey, and on her two hectares she also has the company of “a dog, four cats, two guinea pigs, a lot of ducks and a lot of coots and ten water voles, and a huge goldfish that has died twice and I blew into its mouth twice and revived it. Lazarus.”
She grew up in a noisy household in York with drama-loving parents, her father a doctor, and two older brothers, and 17 cats (“During the war,” she says, “nobody had enough food for animals so we took them in.”) Part of her impulse to work has always seemed to recreate that — to be a spirited part of something bigger than herself. Before she goes on stage she always has the audience hubbub piped into her dressing room — “I need that sense of life,” she says. Her worst fear is “a one-woman show”. One gap in her compendious CV I note is any Beckett.
“I was asked to do that play ‘Happy Days’ once,” she says. “But she is on her own on stage with a thing in her left hand and one in her right. I thought: I can’t do that. So yes — I was beaten there. I don’t want to do anything on my own, not at all. I like that thing of actors coming together and doing that thing that evening for that particular audience. Not any audience, but this one in front of you.”
There must have been times, I say, when she hasn’t got on with her fellow players in a long theatre run ...
She thinks for a moment. “No, I’ve never been in anything when I have wished it would be over, or when it hasn’t come together,” she says.
I was, I say, marvelling at her Wikipedia page earlier. Does she ever allow herself the satisfaction of feeling like she has done enough?
She looks a bit shocked, takes a sip of tea. “I hope not,” she says with a smile. “It might well feel like enough for someone else. But it always feels like nowhere near enough for me”
–Guardian News & Media Ltd