My father [a doctor] was exceptional – a real adventurer. Recently, I was telling a friend that we used to go on family holidays to the south of France in the 1940s, and she said, “Jude, that was a very rare thing to do.” She’s right, of course, but he wanted us to see as much as possible.
During the Second World War we used to go from York all the way down to Cornwall for a four-week holiday. These days, that’s hardly unusual, but back then we travelled in a blacked-out train. A man called Jimmy always came to meet us and we’d throw our luggage and shoes into his wooden cart and push it to this house on the cliffs. My brothers and I ran around barefoot for the whole month.
Acting has taken me to some incredible places that I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to visit on my own. In 1963, I was part of the first theatre company to tour West Africa. We performed set plays – Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Arms and the Man – and it was eye-opening, not least because any line that rhymed got a huge laugh, which is tricky when you’re trying to be a serious Lady Macbeth and plot a murder!
I’ve always felt that it’s important to get to know the people where you’re filming and that’s exactly what we did with both the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films. We shot in Rajasthan, in the north of India, and I had this marvellous assistant called Manish who had set up a school in the area. A couple of us went to visit and take the children blankets, but you have to come to terms with how much you can do for people who have absolutely nothing. You can give them money but what they really want is something to eat and something to help keep warm.
My [Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel] character, Evelyn, is extremely courageous, particularly in this film where she finds herself embarking on a new career in her 70s. I’m not brave like that. I wouldn’t have had the courage to go to the Marigold Hotel in the first place, but there are aspects of her story that I can definitely relate to.
She originally travels to India because her husband has just died and she’s at a loose end but doesn’t want to impose herself on the children. I can understand that because when it happened to me [Dench’s husband, actor Michael Williams, died in 2001] I did three films, really, really fast, with only a day or so in between. I filmed The Shipping News in Halifax [Nova Scotia] with Kevin Spacey and then I went straight into Iris and then The Importance of Being Earnest. That was my adventure, I suppose. Grief generates a huge energy in you and it’s better for everybody if you harness it to do something.
These days I can’t really travel on my own because I need someone to say, “Look out, there’s a step here!” or else I fall all over the place like a mad, drunk lady. That’s why it was just glorious going back to India again with Mags [Maggie Smith], Celia [Imrie], Pep [Penelope Wilton] and Bill [Nighy]. We’re all great friends and we’ve done masses of things together. It was like an old travelling theatre company coming back together – old being the operative word!
I’d say I’m a pretty adventurous traveller. The craziest place I’ve been is Greenland, which was for this really awful film I did called The Last Airbender. We needed a helicopter to get to our location and had to wait around in igloos to keep warm before running out to shoot a scene.
When I’m not working, I love going to places where there’s a sense of controlled chaos. Bombay is one of them, New York is another, where you’re just engulfed by people and humanity. Airports are a weird fetish of mine because I love watching people; there are so many interesting faces walking around.
I’ve thought a lot about going off on a gap year to “find myself ”, as clichéd as that sounds! I’m in my 20s and there’s always that question of “Do you know who you are?” With work, you’re in the eye of the storm, constantly surrounded by people telling you a million things, but there’s a reclusive side to me that loves travelling alone. I sit on a plane with my phone switched off and I actually have time to think.
I didn’t travel much as a child. I was dragged to India once for a family wedding by my parents [both Kenyan-born Hindus of Gujarati descent who emigrated to London in their teens] but I didn’t enjoy it much. The next time I went was for Slumdog Millionaire in 2007 with Danny [Boyle].
The first thing I remember was kids knocking on the car door whenever we stopped in traffic. It’s intense in every way and when you’re filming for three months, you inevitably start to become numb to it, which is a big statement to make. You can’t ever completely turn a blind eye but at the same time you can’t give money to them all, and even if you could, that’s not the answer. Sometimes the only way you can get by is if you switch off.
Since Slumdog I’ve filmed in India a lot and I love it because there’s such freedom. Wherever you put a camera you’re going to shoot something magical because it’s such a stimulating place. It’s the land of Bollywood where they create dreams for millions of people living in poverty. Each light we use on set comes with about ten people – local people – looking after it, and they’re all so excited to be part of making a film and a dream and, ultimately, an escape.
As one of the youngest members of the Marigold cast, it’s an odd thing to find yourself on “holiday” with such an incredible cast. We had some brilliant dinners where we’d all sit down by the lake in Rajasthan and laugh and chat. Sundays were our day off and I’d wake up and see Judi sunbathing by the pool and Maggie having tea on the terrace and Bill strolling around on his phone. I’m in the middle of India and here I am lounging around with these very British legends.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is showing on Saturday Film4; The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is released in cinemas Thursday 26th February, see the Radio Times Film review here.