How do you make an Oscar-winning, theatrical Dame of the British Empire happy? After all, Dame Judi Dench appears to have everything. At the age of 76 she still has a thriving career, critical plaudits and a host of triumphs to reflect on from nearly 60 years working on stage and screen. But it doesn’t take much to make her smile. “Very simple things make me happy,” she begins hesitantly. “We have a friend coming over this evening. It’s Halloween and we’re putting out lots of candles. That makes me happy. Clean sheets make me very excited, too.”
Dench calls out to her daughter Finty, who is in the kitchen, “What else has made me happy recently?” she asks. “Rajasthan,” comes the answer. “Oh yes,” beams Dench, remembering. “Nine-and-a-half weeks in India. Rajasthan is quite wonderful. It felt like being in the Arabian Nights.”
She travelled to India a year ago to shoot the John Madden film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which opens in cinemas next year. “The only drawback,” she says, “was that I missed the first lot of Downton Abbey on television.”
Herself a veteran of many period pieces, including the recent Cary Fukunaga movie adaptation of Jane Eyre, and Cranford on BBC1, Dench is a fan of Julian Fellowes’ Sunday-evening confection, which stars her friend and fellow Dame, Maggie Smith.
“I do love that show,” she says. “I’m completely hooked and I find that it’s one of those things that when I am watching it I’m so engrossed and it’s only when I’m stopped by those ghastly, irritating adverts that I realise I’ve been thoroughly absorbed. It’s like a wonderfully good book when you forget your surroundings.”
Dench’s surroundings oscillate between stage and screen, big and small, and in contrast to many of her peers – Smith and Vanessa Redgrave, whom she has known since drama school, for example – she’s saved her most famous performances for later in life, only breaking into largescale moviemaking after 1997’s Mrs Brown. Her turn as Queen Victoria, playing opposite Billy Connolly, earned the first of her six Oscar nominations (she’d win a year later with her Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love). “Mrs Brown holds a very special place in my heart,” she says, “because I had done so few films before that. I had no film career to speak of. It was made for television and it was [Hollywood super-producer] Harvey Weinstein who said that it should be in cinemas.
“It completely changed my career. I suddenly got offered film scripts. I hadn’t avoided films before, I just hadn’t been asked to do them. It’s not false modesty. I never made films because I never had the flair for it, and because my passion is the theatre I thought, ‘That was that!’ But with Mrs Brown I returned to America after 38 years. I remember Billy Connolly and I went back, and I fell in love with New York all over again.”
She used to live in London with her husband of 30 years, actor Michael Williams, who died in 2001, but now lives in Surrey. “I’m very much here in this country,” she notes. “People think I have got a pad in London but I don’t; I live down here in the country. It’s the place to be.” When she’s in London, however, Dench says that she can stroll down Oxford Street without too much hassle. “I find the British public very thoughtful and generous,” she laughs. “Mostly people ask whether they could have an autograph for their grandfather!”
Dench was born in York in 1934, her father, Reginald, introducing her to the stage while working as a doctor at York’s Theatre Royal. As a child, she was said to be sprightly, hot-tempered and talkative, one teacher suggesting that the most important lesson she should learn was how to be quiet. Her temper, apparently, sprang from her Dublin-born mother, Olave, a fiery woman who once hurled a vacuum cleaner down the stairs at an overly pushy sales rep.
Her latest role sees her portraying august actress Dame Sybil Thorndike in My Week with Marilyn, which tells the story of the making of The Prince and the Showgirl, the 1957 movie in which Laurence Olivier directed and co-starred opposite Marilyn Monroe. The production was plagued with problems, with Olivier and Monroe at loggerheads throughout. “Marilyn wasn’t an easy person to cope with – certainly not for Sir Laurence – but Dame Sybil felt genuine sympathy for her and stood up for her,” says Dench. “I know that to be true.”
Dench recalls meeting Dame Sybil several times. The first was in 1958, when Dench, in one of her first roles after leaving London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, was in Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic. “She came round to see us afterwards and was so charming. We were young actors and she was lovely to us and strongly encouraging and gentle.” Which is exactly how she comes across in My Week with Marilyn. “I think they got very, very close to how Dame Sybil was in the script,” continues Dench, who also praises Michelle Williams for her role of Monroe: “She is just wonderful,” she coos. “She has that same fragile quality.”
Half a century on from those early days in the theatre, Dench’s film career is in full swing – she spent two weeks in LA this year shooting Clint Eastwood’s J Edgar, in which she plays President Hoover’s mother. She is currently immersed in the secret world of 007, returning to Pinewood Studios for Skyfall, her seventh James Bond movie, where she reprises the character of M, Daniel Craig’s boss.
“I couldn’t possibly pick a favourite Bond,” she says. “Pierce Brosnan and Daniel are very different characters, but the wonderful thing about both of them is that they have this slightly selfmocking quality, which is irresistible. It must be a terrible burden to be suddenly cast as James Bond.” She laughs. “Just think, you’d have to wear good suits for the rest of your life.”
As the James Bond films’ longest-serving current cast member, Dench has become something of a fan favourite, although her commitment to the franchise has come at a price, preventing her from joining the illustrious British cast of the Harry Potter films. “I was asked to think about Harry Potter but I couldn’t consider anything as I was doing Bond at the time,” she says, “and I wasn’t allowed to talk about it either. I’m very excited about the new Bond, though.”
With Dench ensconced at Pinewood, she has no immediate plans to return to television, her last major outing being Cranford in 2009. “I have just done something for Simon Schama about Shakespeare, but there’s nothing else,” she says. “I haven’t been asked.”
It is difficult to imagine someone not asking her again soon. Is the Dowager Countess of Grantham in need of a visit from a long-lost friend? Perhaps Julian Fellowes should be told.
My Week with Marilyn is in cinemas now