Doesn't hurt to experiment

Doesn't hurt to experiment


IMPECCABLE PERFORMER Judi Dench. Photo by Misha Erwitt/The New York Times

She has an Oscar, a Tony, two Golden Globes and nine Baftas. The greatest stage actress of all time? Maybe. A recent London poll thought so. But there she was, barefoot and curled on a hotel sofa here, laughing herself hoarse while recalling a formative performance — as a snail. It was a kindergarten play. Dench, five or six at the time, did some improvisational slithering that grabbed the audience’s attention, and not in a good way.

“It’s as if I was wearing those woolly snail tights 10 minutes ago,” said Dench, now 76. “I don’t have a good memory for routine things — like that I have to go out and buy, you know, some bacon and a belt. But I do have a good memory for my friends and the things I’ve done.”

That steel trap, along with Dench’s sense of humour, is on full display in a new book, And Furthermore (St. Martin’s Press), that chronicles her 54-year career. The book, starts at the beginning, in 1957, when Dench was cast as Ophelia in an Old Vic production of Hamlet. From there it proceeds, production by production, through 2010, sharing memories good and bad, along with a bit of life advice.

Dench refused to label And Furthermore an autobiography or memoir. She said she preferred to think of it as a 268-page addendum to Judi Dench: With a Crack in Her Voice, a 1998 biography by John Miller. Miller and Dench, who are longtime friends, compiled And Furthermore from transcripts of taped conversations they have had over the years.
“I hasten to add this is not the final word,” Dench writes in the preface, noting that she plans to keep on working “right to the end.”

At an age when most people are slowing down, Dench seems to have energy to spare. She is part of Clint Eastwood’s next film, a biopic of J Edgar Hoover, titled The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, for which she shot in India for nine weeks. The film is about a group of British retirees.

She will pop up in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, guest star in the London production of the musical Sondheim on Sondheim and reprise her role as the prickly intelligence chief M in the next James Bond movie. “What is the percentage of people doing the job they absolutely love in this world?” she asked. “Two per cent? Three? Surely not more. I don’t want to rest.” She added: “It’s like putting a car in a garage. It’s hard to get it started after that.”

Even so, Dench very nearly didn’t go to India because she was “rather fearful” of travelling to a developing country. She pointed to a passage in And Furthermore to explain her reluctance. A trip to West Africa with a repertory group early in her career ended with her getting malaria. (Although seriously ill, she went on as Viola in Twelfth Night anyway.)

Dench is well known among actors for her generosity and approachable demeanor. But if And Furthermore contains any revelations, Miller says, it’s that she is not to be trifled with. “If people tried to take advantage of her good nature, they soon regretted that,” he said by telephone from Britain.

Awards also try Dench’s nerves. Don’t get her wrong, she loves receiving them — particularly her Oscar, which she won for her brief portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love (1998). But Oscar campaigns and the long lead-up to the ceremony leave Dench, who has been nominated six times, more than a little cold.

“By the end you’re absolutely cross-eyed,” she said. “You can’t really award prizes for acting anyway. Acting is such a personal, imperfect kind of art.”

When a reporter said she would most likely be back on Oscar’s red carpet before long, if her track record was any indication,  Dench’s eyes narrowed. “I just want to enjoy the minute — the right now,” she said.

And Furthermore will disappoint fans who want a peek at Dench’s personal life. It’s strictly off-limits. (“I think you’re entitled to keep those things to yourself if that’s what you wish,” she said.) But readers will walk away with a keen sense of her philosophy on life: take your art seriously, but never yourself.

Consider, for instance, what happened in 1976, when Dench was performing in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Comedy of Errors. One night before the curtain went up, she found a single person in the audience — a lady in a green coat — and decided to aim the performance squarely at her. “I did it absolutely directly at her,”  Dench said, “and I told everybody that I was doing it for her.” The woman left at intermission.

Dench said another get-over-yourself moment came in 1986, when a London theatre was named after her. The announcer at the naming ceremony inexplicably gave her this introduction: “Here she is! Miss Judy Geeson.” (Geeson is a British actress.)

Dench said her husband, Michael Williams, who died in 2001, was upset but that she was not. “It’s very good for you to have things like that happen,” she said. “Don’t presume that you are so special that mistakes can’t happen to you.”