Celebrity interviews

Cover story

Dame Maggie Smith

The Times

October 5, 2009


Once advising Michael Palin that sarcasm didn’t suit him, Dame Maggie Smith described herself as “the acid queen”. She rarely gives interviews and a mysterious, intimidating aura has long surrounded her. You  sense she wouldn’t suffer fools, in fact anyone she took agin, gladly or otherwise. One theatre insider says that she requires “careful handling”.

It was reported last year that Smith, 74, was receiving chemotherapy and radiotherapy for breast cancer, and when we meet on the South Bank, in London, she looks tired, a little bloodshot and embarks immediately on an impassioned rant about the dreadful traffic jam she has just endured in Waterloo. She lives in rural Sussex. I ask how she is, aware of the cancer elephant in the room. She smiles gently. “I’m OK…OK…OK.” Her voice is far from grand. She looks frail, but remains pin-sharp, wry and witty.

Smith is of the same generation as her good friend “Jude” ( Dench), Eileen Atkins and Vanessa Redgrave. She is famous for her first Oscar-winning performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 1969, and less so for her second for California Suite almost a decade later. She began her career in theatre at 16, worked with Laurence Olivier, and has appeared in many films including A Private Function, A Room with a View and Gosford Park, for which she earned a third Oscar nomination. She has won five BAFTAs. Her imperious characters generally echo the “acid queen” persona; even if they are cameos, you know Smith will inevitably scythe the air with vinegary asides.

Playing Professor Minerva McGonagall, she’s about to film “the last Harry Potter” (and the Deathly Hallows), but Smith isn’t “forever at it”, as she describes Dench’s formidable acting output. Indeed, she will reveal, she is racked with doubt about her acting future after being “knocked sideways” by her illness.

At this year’s Times BFI London Film Festival, she plays the grandmother of a boy uncovering a ghost story in Julian Fellowes’s lean and moving film, From Time to Time, set just after the end of the Second World War. Smith parries beautifully with her young co-star Alex Etel.

“I haven’t seen it,” she says. “I wasn’t well during filming. I had shingles. On my head.” She grips her grey bob dramatically. “Aagghh. I have never known anything so painful. I had to wear a wig for the role so it was a nightmare. One doctor told me I had been bitten by a wasp. I didn’t think that sounded right. I was in such pain. I was screaming and doing a lot of crying. They give you masses of pills, but nothing touches it. Now it’s just itchy.”

Drily, she adds that “the last couple of years have been kind of a write-off, though I’m beginning to feel like a person now. It was a pity to do the film when I was so below par, but my character wasn’t meant to be frightfully vivacious.”

The cancer must have made it harder. “It was hideous… not so good,” she says tightly and looks for some wood to touch. The chemotherapy, she says, “was very peculiar, something that makes you feel much worse than the cancer itself, a very nasty thing. I used to go to treatment on my own, and nearly everybody else was with somebody. I wouldn’t have liked that. Why would you want to make anybody sit in those places?”

Smith had found a lump on her breast. “I had been feeling a little rum and didn’t know why. I was never nervous, well I was, but I didn’t think it was anything serious because years ago I felt one before and had been hurled into hospital. It was benign and assumed this one would be too. It was a bit unnerving when it wasn’t. But treat- ment is so swift you don’t have time to think about anything.”

Telling her family (two adult sons and their loved ones) was “awful. It [the illness] kind of takes the wind out of your sails, and I don’t know what the future holds, if anything. I really don’t know.”

She says that she has received the all-clear from doctors, and goes back for a check-up later this month, adding that she’s disposed of the hats and caps she bought to cover her baldness: “You think they’re going to work and they don’t.” It was “very weird” to lose her hair. “So weird. Oh, it’s awful. You really do feel horribly sick. I was staggering around Waitrose and felt ghastly. I was holding on to railings, thinking, ‘I can’t do this’.”

She filmed Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince mid-treatment. “I was hairless. I had no problem getting the wig on. I was like a boiled egg.”

Smith says that she accepted the possibility of dying. “I was relieved to be the age I was, because by now you feel like it’s all over anyway. That’s why I hated seeing young people receiving treatment [at the Royal Marsden Hospital, London]. I couldn’t bear that, it didn’t seem fair. To be honest, you feel so ghastly you wouldn’t mind dying a lot of the time.”

She struggles for words. “I felt… I was just… 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]. I’m not quite sure if it’s like getting back on a horse or a bike. Not that I’d do either, I’d fall off. It’s one of those things you ought to keep on doing and I haven’t for a bit. I would love to be able to because I do love it, but I feel a great lack of confidence. Being unwell and having withdrawn… I haven’t been in London for so long, it’s quite scary up here.” Smith is clinking the ice absently in her mineral water. It will seem unimaginable to many that she is talking about giving up theatre, I say. “Well, there’s a limit to what you can do. I’m not into that argument there aren’t any parts for older women, though. Anyway, why should there be? If there’s work I’ll do it and if there isn’t… I’ve still got to stagger through the last Potter.”

Growing up, “it never crossed my mind to be anything else”, she says of becoming an actress. “I started after school in rep.” She was born in Essex, her Geordie father Nathaniel was a pathologist, her Glaswegian mother Margaret a secretary. “We moved to Oxford because of the war. My brothers (six years older than her and twins) were going to be evacuated and my parents decided, ‘No, let’s all get the hell out’. God, it’s so long ago, we can’t go back there,” and she puts her head in her hands. The mists of memory, I say. “Fog is more like it,” Smith replies mordantly.

At school she remembers “trooping off to Stratford” to see Richard Burton in Henry V. “He was wonderful. There was a great deal of swooning in the lower fourth, I remember. I wasn’t very academic. Miriam Margolyes went to the same school, though a long time after me, as she never ceases to point out.”

It was a happy upbringing. “My parents were baffled by all of us. They were as encouraging as they could be but they didn’t know that my brothers would turn out to be architects [Alistair is dead; Ian lives in America]. It was so far away from what they knew. I read a lot. My brothers were my biggest influence. They were creative and went to architecture school. Ronnie Barker went to the same one, but didn’t keep it up obviously. My dad was into classical music. It drove my mother mad because he was quite deaf and played it loudly.” She laughs. “The whole of Churchill Road was forced to listen.”

Smith performed on the Edinburgh Fringe, then in revues, cabaret and then began serious theatre, with Olivier at the Old Vic. Was he impossible? “Fairly impossible,” she says gently. “He was extraordinary. We were all scared of him.”

Acting was “habit-forming and exciting. That’s the sad thing. That huge amount of energy and desire goes. God knows where it goes, but it does, then acting becomes a frightening thing to do and that’s not good. I think the pressure becomes huge when you become aware of criticism and the importance of getting a good review. Then the next thing has to be as good or better and of course it can’t be, so in the end you get very nervous.” Did she? “Yes, horribly so,” she replies quickly.

The crunch moment wasn’t winning the Oscar for Brodie. “It didn’t make any difference whatsoever. We were opening a play at the National, so I didn’t go to the Oscars. I hadn’t thought about films. It was quite odd and an enormous surprise. A lot of people win and don’t get much work afterwards. It didn’t make much of a difference to me. I was always in the theatre.”

But it stayed with us, I say: reshowings on TV, the iconography of the character . . . “I was incredibly fortunate, it’s a foolproof part. It was like a big present.” At the time she was married to the actor Robert Stephens, with whom she had two sons: Toby, the well-known actor, and Chris, also an actor whose love of cycling in congested London panics his mother.

Their father was a drinker and unstable. “It was very, very turbulent,” Smith says of their six-year marriage, which ended in 1973. “The moods, medical treatment…” she shudders, adding that she coped “with great difficulty. He was a mad person, but he was a terrific actor. He frightened a lot of people. When people are out of control it’s very scary. The boys were very small and that was partly why we went to Canada [with second husband, the playwright Beverley Cross, in 1975]. It was good to be away from the whole atmosphere.” Smith had also been badly knocked by a set of negative reviews. “I was bloody awful, the critics were right. My life was a mess. Everything was impossible.”

The critics followed her to Canada and later to New York, where her neighbours included Katharine Hepburn and Stephen Sondheim. “She [Hepburn] came round with a basket of eggs and some marmalade one day and I nearly fainted. We’d see her outside shovelling snow and there was a completely mad fan opposite who would shout ‘Hello princess’ to her.”

Smith lived in Hollywood just after the Manson murders and “the place was sold out of dogs, cats and goldfish, anything people thought might protect them. I loved the insanity. You’d be driven to filming in your pyjamas.”

Stephens didn’t see his sons for years. “But Toby was eventually in Stratford with him, acting, so we kind of all got together in the end.” Cross, however, was her true love. They had met on the steps of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford years before but he was married “and in those days divorce took a lifetime”, and while acting in London Smith met Stephens and married him. What a collision of circumstances.

“I knew I would be with Bev eventually,” she says, smiling. “Everyone did. It seemed inevitable. He was great…” She trails off, stares at the ice in the glass, drops her voice: “Why do people die? It’s horrible. Let’s not go there, it’s too sad. I miss Bev. It’s almost 12 years now, I can’t believe it [he died of heart disease], and Robert’s even longer [he died of alcohol-related disease in 1995]. But I’m good on my own. What’s tough is when you are away from home, then going back and there’s no one there. But I see a lot of my friends, particularly Joan [Dame Joan Plowright]. There’s a difference between solitude and loneliness.” She dotes on her four grandchildren, “aged 4 and down”, two boys and two girls evenly split between her two sons. “They call me Granny Mog. Bev used to call me Mog.”

The cancer, the loss, the talk of giving up acting, the frailty… part of me wants to shake her and activate the feisty Maggie Smith evident in those waspish performances and commanding public persona. You are one of the most esteemed and respected actresses of your generation, I say. “I don’t know that,” she says dismissively. “I don’t know what other people think of me. You can only go by what you yourself do. I don’t think I was respected or loved.” There are no characters Smith wants to play. She’s not really a classical actress, she accepts, and prefers original roles such as Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, which she performed in 2000, “because when you do parts other people have triumphed in it’s horrendous. I can’t see why you’d do The Importance of Being Earnest [she once played Lady Bracknell]. That f***ing hand- bag is stuck in everyone’s head. I don’t think I’ve fulfilled myself. I just would have liked to have been a lot better. I don’t think I’ve been good enough.”

She has never considered television. “You keep seeing the same people. They’ve got to stop showing Stephen Fry.” She laughs wickedly. “He’s on all the time, and then he’s in the commercials beseeching you to buy tea.”

Smith must see some kind of future for herself? “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.” Illness has changed her, then. “Very much so. I think it’s the age I was when it happened. It knocks you sideways. It takes you longer to recover, you’re not so resilient, and I am fearful of the amount of energy one needs to be in a film or a play. It is up to me, I ought to do more exercise, I used to do a lot of walking. But my energy is coming back. I’m going to Africa with friends soon.”

She pauses. “Ageing isn’t the nicest thing. You end up feeling like you couldn’t go to Los Angeles because [she stretches the skin of her face] it hasn’t been put in the right place. They put old people away somewhere.” As for love, Smith shakes her head: “I’d rather be on my own and remember what I had, which was pretty special.”

She needs to get Alan Bennett to write her a role, I say. “I know. It’s pointless,” she says, laughing. “I’ve already shouted at him a lot.”

She has no regrets, she insists. “I don’t think you can. Let the cards fall the way they may. Things happen, don’t they? Sh** happens. I just think I ought to pull myself together a bit.” As Smith smoothes down her oatmeal jacket (a present from “Jude” when they filmed Tea with Mussolini in Italy), she apologises if she has been maudlin. “The worst thing wasn’t losing my hair, it was it growing back this awful grey colour,” she says, laughing saltily. “This for a woman who had her hand in the colouring pot for so many years.”

Come on Mr Bennett, get writing: it’s time for Dame Maggie Smith to return to the stage.