News & Opinion


Dame Maggie: cancer fight has left me frightened of the theatre

The Times

October 5, 2009


Dame Maggie Smith is contemplating giving up theatre acting after being “knocked sideways” fighting breast cancer.

In an interview with The Times, Dame Maggie, 74, said that the intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy regimes, and her subsequent recovery, had left her “frightened” of returning to the stage. The winner of five Baftas and two Oscars — most famously for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie — said of the cancer, diagnosed last year: “It leaves you so flattened. I’m not sure I could go back to theatre work, although film work is more tiring. I’m frightened to work in theatre now. I feel very uncertain. I haven’t done it for a while.”

Her last stage role was in The Lady From Dubuque in 2007. “It’s one of those things you ought to keep on doing and I haven’t for a bit,” she said. “I would love to be able to, because I do love it, but I feel a great lack of confidence.” Her experience of cancer “very much” changed her. “I think it’s the age I was when it happened. It knocks you sideways. It takes you longer to recover, you are not so resil- ient. I am fearful of the amount of energy one needs to be in a film or a play.”

Fans at this year’s 53rd Times BFI London Festival will see Dame Maggie play a woman helping her grandson to solve a ghost story in Julian Fellowes’s moving tale From Time To Time.

Last year Dame Maggie found a lump on her breast. “I had been feeling a little rum. I didn’t think it was anything serious because years ago I felt a lump and it was benign. I assumed this would be too. It kind of takes the wind out of your sails, and I don’t know what the future holds, if anything. I don’t think there’s a lot of it, because of my age — there just isn’t. It’s all been. I’ve no idea what there will be.”

She revealed that she made Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince — playing Professor Minerva McGonagall — during her cancer treatment. “I was hairless. I had no problem getting the wig on. I was like a boiled egg.”

The cancer was “hideous”, the chemotherapy “something that makes you feel much worse than the cancer itself”, she said. “You feel horribly sick. I was holding on to railings, thinking ‘I can’t do this’.” Dame Maggie is planning to “stagger through” filming the final Harry Potter film, The Deathly Hallows.

“I don’t think I’ve fulfilled myself,” she said of her acting. “I don’t think I’ve been good enough.” If she returns to the stage, she wants to perform original roles. She has “already shouted” at Alan Bennett, who wrote The Lady in the Van, which she performed in 2000.

“The last couple of years have been a write-off, though I’m beginning to feel like a person now,” she said. “My energy is coming back. S*** happens. I ought to pull myself together a bit.”