Dame Judi Dench
December 11, 2009
You will never want to be on the receiving end of the Dench glare. The mouth tightens, the hoods on the eyes flare. I had asked what she thought of the prospect of a Conservative government and the glare was her response, followed by five seconds of silence and then the sullen pronouncement: “I’m not too hot about that.” Gordon Brown needn’t feel smug, though. She just sighed at his name and said quietly: “I’m not much a fan of any of them now.”
Indeed, Dame Judi Dench, dressed to-day in black, would like it to be known that she is nobody’s national treasure. She may be one of our most esteemed actresses, but she begs that we divest ourselves of the twinkly, matronly image we have of her. She doesn’t help herself; she’ll soon pop up reprising her role as Miss Matty Jenkyns on the BBC’s Cranford Christmas special.
“National treasure? I hate that. Too dusty, too in a cupboard, too behind glass, too staid,” she says tartly in that wonderful, commanding yet playful croak of hers. “I don’t want to be thought of as recognisable — I always want to do the most different thing I can think of next. I don’t want to be known for one thing, or as having done huge amounts of Shakespeare and the classics. I hate speaking as myself. I could never do a one-woman show. But I love being part of a company. On stage I am not trying to be myself, I’m trying to be someone else, the more unlike me the better. I remember someone who saw me in Juno and the Paycock said I was completely unrecognisable. How marvellous. I’ve done two sitcoms, lots of films. Look at my character [an obsessive, damaged stalker] in Notes on a Scandal. You wouldn’t want to ask her around.” Of the actor who once said he expected her to be a “saint”, she sniffs: “Well, he can’t have known me that well.”
In her new film, Rob Marshall’s star-stuffed musical Nine, Dench, 75, plays the brisk and sagacious wardrobe mistress, with sharp bob, to Daniel Day-Lewis’s ago- nising film director: a bracing comic role that undercuts the film’s more ponderous tendencies, as Day-Lewis’s life and work are complicated by the ravishing likes of Penélope Cruz, Nicole Kidman and Marion Cotillard. Dench has sung before — in her career-defining Sally Bowles in a Sixties production of Cabaret, in The Comedy of Errors, The Merry Wives of Windsor and A Little Night Music — and thinks Marshall is “a genius. I went to see him and we didn’t get to the coffee. I just said, ‘Yes please’.”
She followed the advice of Hal Prince, the musicals’ producer, who once told her it was essential she sang in the same voice she spoke in, “my broken-glass voice” as Dench calls it. Many of Nine’s musical numbers take place on a soundstage. “I liked that. I’m more comfortable on stage, where there is an audience to tell a story to, as opposed to a film set where you are not in charge at all. On stage you can hear an audience’s reactions. Within two minutes of a play starting you know how the evening will go. On film you’re more reliant on the director. The moment he leaves you, you’re like a child learning to walk.”
Marshall treated his troupe as a company of players, although at the world premiere in London last week its producer Harvey Weinstein said Dench was the film’s “diva”. She roars. “I had no film career until Mrs Brown, which Harvey oversaw. He gave a lunch for me at the time and I told him I had his name tattooed on my bum. I hadn’t, I had my make-up lady design something that I showed him. He’s never forgotten it.” So she isn’t a diva? “I am very un-divaish,” Dench says. “Very rarely in 52 years in the business have I met anyone who has behaved in a selfish way.” What about Sophia Loren, who plays Day-Lewis’s mother in Nine? “I’d never met her and she arrived on set just as I was about to perform my number. She sat and watched. I said to Rob: ‘I can’t have ever been more frightened than at this moment.’ It was like someone had given me an enormous injection. I suddenly had to be on the ball.”
When she was young, growing up in York, Dench had wanted to be a ballerina. Her parents took her and her brothers to the theatre and she remembers going backstage at one production and seeing “an actor who had looked so wonderful on stage out of his wig, sitting wearing a vest and braces and the magic went rather. Later, when I did Toad of Toad Hall, I suggested we keep our make-up on in case of any similar young-person visits.” As a teenager she wanted to be a theatre designer, but gave up on that after seeing a stripped-down production of King Lear at Stratford, where an enormous flat disc was the only furnishing on the stage. “It was my Road to Damascus moment. I was completely bewitched by it. I knew I’d never be that good.”
She went to Central, the acting school, where mime ignited her actorly passion. Her first role was as Ophelia in Hamlet. She’s played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Lady Macbeth. On television, she and her late husband, Michael Williams, played a married couple in A Fine Romance; with Geoffrey Palmer she appeared in the sitcom As Time Goes By. Since 1995 she’s played an icy M in the Bond films. Her awards tally embraces ten Baftas, seven Laurence Olivier Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, two Golden Globes, an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress, for Shakespeare in Love) and a Tony Award. “The passion doesn’t lessen over time,” Dench says, “but you get more anxious. You always worry about getting employed. But I love what I do.” What? Surely her exalted position means that she is insulated from such insecurities. “No, no, no, that’s a fallacy,” she insists. “You become more anxious. You’re only as good as the last thing you did. But that anxiety feeds what you’re doing. It gives you energy. It’s very much part of me. You know that right behind you, stretching back as far as you can see, are other people wanting to play the same part and probably better than you.” She “loathes, loathes” ageing. “I don’t like it at all. Suddenly I get up out of a chair and can’t rush across the room. But there’s nothing I can do about that, alas. My energy levels are OK, but I can’t see very well. People have to come up and wave at me. If a restaurant is too dark I can end up talking to the backs of chairs.”
Glenda Jackson once said she’d given up acting because she didn’t want to end up playing the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, I say. “Nor me,” says Dench. “I was offered it a few years ago by Peter Hall and I told him where to get off. You get asked to do ‘flashback’ parts, except you’re the one having the flashback, you’re never in the flashback itself.” In defiance of ageing, she will be playing Titania in Hall’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, early next year. “I could do it tonight. I played her at school, then the first fairy, then Hermia. Then I played Titania for Peter in 1962, then the film. If it’s not stuck in there” — pointing to her head — “it’s never going to be. Shakespeare is like a song, it keeps a very strong meter in your mind.”
Not everything Dench touches assumes a golden sheen. Last year, the play Madame de Sade got terrible reviews. “I didn’t read them,” she says. “Once, a long time ago, I read some bad reviews and I made the decision not to read the reviews. You get some critics who don’t like you, or the play. But they don’t to do it every night. I don’t want to be affected like that. I loved doing Mad- ame de Sade. A friend told me not to apolo- gise for myself or the play, and I won’t. Then I cast it all off and go and put my feet up under the chimney with my family”(her daughter Finty and Finty’s son Sammy).
Williams died nine years ago. Does she miss him? “You bet. I don’t expect you ever get over that. Time changes something, I suppose, but you miss the basic things. Michael was a realist, down to earth, a Lancashire man. I’m a Yorkshire woman and so that was pretty volatile, I suppose. He was Cancerian, I’m Sagittarian. He would say: ‘I’m always rushing for the dark, you’re always rushing for the light. If we hold in the middle, there’s a kind of balance’.”
Could she find love with anyone else? “It’s not something that’s ever happened. I’ve loved living in the same house, in the same grounds with my family. Sammy was 4 when Michael died and he does look extraordinarily like him sometimes.” She says she can feel lonely (“Who doesn’t, that’s why I have a theatre family”), but she doesn’t think she’ll ever remarry. Does she think about dying? “Yes, I think about it all the time, but I push it to the back of my mind.”Why? “Because of fear, of course.”
Just as Dench scoffs at being a national treasure, she says she doesn’t feel fulfilled. “No, no, no, no, I hope not. Being fulfilled is closing the drawer again and I don’t want to do that just yet. I’d bore myself silly. I wouldn’t learn anything new. I’d just sit around and I hate wasting time. I hate waste of any kind. I love quiz programmes. I am riveted by The Weakest Link but I’d be too terrified to appear on it.”
Part of playing Titania isn’t just to cock a snook at ageing, but to support the Rose Theatre. “I’m doing my bit to keep it open.” She is angry about the Government’s funding and attitude to the arts. “I am concerned, of course, that they’ve taken a lot of the subsidy to the arts away for the Olympics.” She sighs. “There’s no question that the recession has had an effect on the arts, especially on British films. Things are not being greenlit as much and it is more difficult for people to get work.
“When you go abroad people always talk with such love about British theatre, but the irony is it’s not appreciated by the Government as it should be. The state of the arts has always been, and will always be, precarious. But there is something so alarming about the huge cuts made to com- panies, particularly when you read of the astronomical amounts some people are earning.” Should funding be set and ringfenced? “Yes it should. I mourn that there are so many repertory companies that aren’t around any more. I don’t want the arts to take the form of a reality programme. I heard somebody say the other day that it is good if people can bring drink and food into a theatre and get up and go if they don’t like the play. Well, yes, go out if you don’t like it, but where do you draw the line? They tell people not to take pictures of us on stage but when you look up you see 100 red lights twinkling at you.”
Celebrity culture has led to a “quick fix” mentality on the part of younger actors, Dench says. “They think a big part will change their life, without any back-up. Young actors go into a run and don’t do all the performances. That would have been unheard of at one time. I know I can sus- tain a run because of my training.”
All this rumbling anger may help to get rid of her kindly image — still more so if the rumours of her having a foul temper are true. “Of course I have a temper,” Dench scoffs. “Who hasn’t? And the older I get the more angry I get about things. It’s not sudden anger, it smoulders and then if I really let it go on for a bit the shit hits the fan. I get very angry about general injustice. I get angry about the way people say ‘Tomorrow X will make a speech about X’. Just let them say it. I get furious about the whole business of not allowing conkers in school, and banning things because they are supposedly dangerous. I am riveted by the current Iraq inquiry, though angry already because I feel it will end with a report and nobody’s actually going to be arraigned for what happened.”
Would she like to see Bush or Blair in court? “I’d like the buck to stop somewhere and know where that buck stops.” A moment later she gives me the Dench glare over the prospect of Prime Minister Cameron. However, she is looking forward to making the next Bond movie the year after next. “They’re exciting. They give you street cred. Everything is so beautifully made. I get to say frightfully cool things and behave in an autocratic way and give Bond a hard time. What could be better?”
Her close friend Maggie Smith has just come through breast cancer and Dench also worries about illness. “You get up one morning and can’t walk across the room and you think: ‘Oh Christ, what’s packed up now?’ ” As for plastic surgery, “I’ve considered it, but I’m too old now. Every time I go to America I wonder if there is some process where it could all be sucked out and I could be out of there in time for dinner” — she pulls her barely wrinkled skin back on her face — “but I’m frightened it would all drop off under the anaesthetic.”
Dench says she is an optimist (“a glass half-full person”) and is naturally warm. Oh dear, the “national treasure” thing may have to stick, I say. She fixes me with a look almost as bad as the Dench glare: she is suddenly the crisp, haughty, commanding M. “Please stop using that phrase,” she says coldly. “And it is your mission to make sure everyone else does too.” I’ll accept the mission, though I’m not banking on its success.