As M in a Bond film
Given how nice everyone says Dame Judi Dench is, there seems to be a surprising amount of fear around her. The PR people for her new film, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, are more on edge than usual. When I’m shown in, it’s not hard to see why. Judi Dench is indeed very nice, very welcoming and often very funny. At times, she’s also touchingly vulnerable. But there’s a steeliness there, too.
Dressed all in black, her grey hair cut short as always, she sits straight-backed on the sofa, almost motionless, yet with an air of great alertness. Nothing, you suspect, escapes her. And when she trains her green eyes on you, she has a look that both invites complicity and at the same time says, “Be careful — don’t come any closer.”
This can be disconcerting.
However, there’s something else about Judi Dench that’s even more disconcerting. Certainly it’s not something I’ve ever written about a 77-year-old before: she’s sexy.
I suspect Dench herself would shriek with laughter at the idea — she doesn’t seem to take herself that seriously — but it’s true. And it’s not just me.
When I mention this to the PR afterwards, she looks thoughtful and says, “Mmm, a lot of men say that.”
Based on Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is about a group of pensioners who believe they can live in style in India for less money than they’d pay for a crummy old folk’s home in Britain.
It’s a charming, very touching film about people trying to find happiness before it’s too late, and it comes richly stuffed with acting talent — there’s another dame in the shape of Maggie Smith, along with Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton and Dev Patel.
Yet when Dench first read the script, or rather when her daughter, Finty, read it and gave her a potted version of the plot — she never reads scripts, she says — she viewed the whole thing with a good deal of apprehension. “I’ve never been to India before and I didn’t know how I would react to the poverty.... I absolutely loved it and I can’t wait to go back.”
One of the reasons she liked it so much was that scarcely anyone knew who she was. “I was recognised a little bit in Rajasthan because of the Bond films [in which she plays M] — nothing else.”
There was another reason why Dench had her doubts about the film. She plays a woman whose husband has just died and ever since the death of her own husband, Michael Williams, 11 years ago, she’s steered clear of playing widows.
“I think if I’d played a grief-stricken widow too soon after Michael died I might have over-egged the part. Or at least I don’t think my judgement would have been that good.”
“I had this extraordinary energy after Michael died. I went off to Nova Scotia and did six weeks on The Shipping News. Then I came home and two days later started Iris. Then I did some more work on The Shipping News. And two days after that I started The Importance of Being Earnest. I found working at that pace and doing those kinds of parts helped me. Whereas playing a grief-stricken widow would have been no help at all.”
‘ALL I EVER WANTED WAS TO BE EMPLOYED’
| Judi Dench in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
In fact, she’s always set a pretty daunting pace. “I’ve worked for 54 years, almost continuously,” she says proudly.
“People seem to have this idea that I’ve always been very ambitious. Nothing could be further from the truth.
All I ever wanted was to be employed.”
In retrospect, it was almost inevitable that Dench became an actress — her father was the GP for York Theatre Royal, while her mother was the wardrobe mistress. But to begin with she wasn’t too keen on the idea. “Oh no, I wanted to be a theatre designer. That was what I had really set my heart on.”
She was, she says, a happy child — “I think my parents gave us a lot of confidence. But I was quite naughty, especially at school.”
Was she confident with boys? She looks at me in astonishment. “No! Absolutely not. I remember a boy called Christopher… God, he’ll laugh reading this, if he’s still alive. He wrote to me asking me if he could accompany me back from a Quaker meeting. We walked along the walls of York. It was quite windy and my coat blew up at one point and he caught hold of it. When I got back I wrote him a letter saying, ‘I can never walk along the walls with you again as you touched my coat.’ Can you believe that?
And then, decades later, when I was in Cabaret, he came backstage with his wife and he said, ‘I’ve got something in my wallet that may interest you.’ He took out this unbelievably tattered piece of paper — and it was the letter I’d sent him.”
While she may have been lukewarm about acting, she still appeared in plays at school and, later, in the York Mystery plays. “I was an angel one year and then the Virgin Mary, so I was going in the right direction, as it were.”
However, it was a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Michael Redgrave in King Lear that finally prompted her to try for drama school. As soon as she left, in 1957, she was cast as Ophelia opposite John Neville’s Hamlet at the Old Vic.
“I wasn’t very good and the part was taken from me when the play went to America. I was very shaken, very depressed. Then six months later, I got the part back because the actress who replaced me went off to do something else. And in that six months I’d learnt a considerable amount. It was John Neville who told me, ‘You’ve got to decide why you want to be an actress. Don’t tell anyone the reason, but keep it at the forefront of your mind.’ I’ve done that ever since and I’ve never told anyone what it is.”
‘I don’t like to think about the future too much’
She and Michael Williams met when they both starred in The Duchess of Malfi. When he first proposed in the late 1960s, she was in Australia.
“I said, ‘No, but ask me again on a rainy night in Battersea.’ So he did a few months later, and this time I said ‘yes’.”
They married in February 1971. It was a famously happy marriage, something pretty rare in the theatre, especially when one partner is so much more successful than the other.
“It must have been insufferable for Michael when someone came and praised me and ignored him. He was a terrific actor, but he always lacked confidence.”
For her part, Dench came to depend on Williams, especially his judgement. “He was the one who would read everything I was offered and tell me if it was any good. And he would tell me about my performance.”
Since Williams’s death, she’s had to rely on directors to tell her where she’s going wrong. Does she ever feel they are intimidated by her?
“God, I hope not. I laugh a lot, have too many jokes. From the outside, it could look as if I don’t take it seriously, but I do. I take it deadly seriously. I just don’t see why I can’t enjoy myself as well.”
Last year, almost for the first time, she had a lengthy break from acting after a production of Sondheim on Sondheim in which she’d been due to appear was cancelled.
“I’ve had a break since last February, when I came back from working with Clint Eastwood on J Edgar, to about three weeks ago, when I started Bond. And I’ve absolutely loved it! I’ve finally proved to myself that I can do nothing.”
Except that Dench’s idea of doing nothing sounds pretty busy to me. At her home in Surrey, in the house she shares with her daughter and grandson, she spent a lot of time painting.
“I’ve always loved painting, although I never show anyone what I’ve done. Mainly because I don’t do it well. But it’s like a form of visual diary for me. A way of fixing things in my mind.”
“Someone said recently, ‘Will you do something this time next year?’ And I thought, ‘That’s a long way off. Is it a part for someone with a Zimmer frame? Am I going to be able to get up and down the stairs? As it is, I can’t see steps, so I have to have someone point them out. Actually, I don’t even like to think about the future too much.”
But in so far as anyone’s path is clearly mapped out, it’s hers. There will be more parts, more plaudits and — doubtless — more statuettes. Where does she keep them all, I ask. In the loo?
She gives another embarrassed shrug and shakes her head. “No room anymore.”
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel releases in Calcutta this Friday