In a small room in a large hotel in London, a woman often described as our greatest national treasure — the actress who once beat the Queen into second place as Britain’s most liked and respected person — is sounding off about modern life. She isn’t holding back. As she has grown older, Dame Judi Dench says, grey eyes sparkling with laughter, she has become more and more angry.
“I hear myself saying things that I know old people say. Like when I want to ring up about something,” her voice lowers dramatically, “and I get that f*#king recorded message which tells me to press one, two, three or four, and then you press four and there are two more recorded messages and you cannot talk to anybody! It makes me absolutely mad.” What happens when she finally gets through and the operator realises to whom they’re speaking? “I don’t give them a chance to comment. I just give them an absolute mouthful and ring off.” She chuckles.
Dench is not at all what I expected. On the one hand, I am used to reading that she is saintly, sweet and suburban. This is clearly not the case. She wears her anger with twinkling pride. On the other, based on her recent parts — including a pair of queens, Lady Bracknell and a borderline psychopath — I was imagining someone grand, slightly terrifying.
On ‘Rage’ and fashion
That last expectation increased after seeing her latest film, Rage, a strange, experimental project that features 14 actors playing fictional figures in and around the fashion world, who give monologues before a plain backdrop. There’s Jude Law as a self-absorbed model; Eddie Izzard as a slick mogul; then, as fashion critic Mona Carvell, Dench looms on screen, her mouth a bloody slash, eye sockets lined with kohl. Carvell is a skull of a woman, much given to haughty pronouncements: “Fashion is not an art form — if it’s anything at all, it’s pornography.” She is tough, steel-eyed, sour.
The woman who plays her is none of these. Well, tough, possibly. But rather than seeming grand or intimidating, Dench is actressy in the best way: spirited, playful, her ring-heavy hands gesturing expressively, touching wood, miming a memory.
I ask what she thinks of Rage, and she says she hasn’t seen it, and motions to the poster, “I’m reading the cast list for the first time now!” She was attracted to working with British arthouse director Sally Potter, and the fact that it was unlike anything she’d done before. “I like to do something that’s not expected, or predictable. I had to learn to smoke a joint, and I set my trousers alight. I’ve never been good with cigarettes.”
Rage is the latest twist in a surprising late film career. Dench is 74, and just over a decade ago — at an age when most actresses are bemoaning the lost limelight — she began a path to six Oscar nominations. “It’s all very surprising,” she says, “because it came so accidentally. It came because Harvey (Weinstein, the producer) saw Mrs Brown, which had been made for television, and said it should be a film.” Weinstein’s company, Miramax, went on to distribute Iris, Chocolat and Mrs Henderson Presents; Dench has joked that, “Harvey’s name is tattooed on my bum.”
An unpredictable film career
Her film career seems even more unlikely when you consider that, as a young actress, Dench was told that she had “everything wrong” with her face. She doesn’t seem to have been bothered. “I didn’t think I’d have a film career at all, but theatre’s what I love most, anyway. If you’d said to me 49 years ago that I’d come to enjoy the process of filming, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
Dench’s love of acting stretches back to childhood, and a junior school performance as a snail. She grew up with a GP father, Reginald — official doctor to the Theatre Royal, York — a passionate Irish mother, Olave, and two older brothers. The family were keen amateur actors; in the 50s, father, mother and a teenage Judi appeared in the York mystery plays.
Has she had any period out of work, I ask, and she slams her glass on the table and grasps the wood for luck. Should I not even have asked? She shakes her head, tight-lipped, eyes darting nervously. “I’m not going to answer!” she says finally. “I’ve always been very, very insecure about where the next job is coming from.”
But surely she can rest on her laurels? “No,” she says quickly. Is she a workaholic? “Yes,” comes even quicker. She has just filmed the musical Nine, and says that when she was cast, “I was absolutely overcome. I don’t take any of it for granted, ever.”
As a young actress, Dench loved being in rep, where you could “make mistakes, and have a go at playing some terribly old person when you were 23. Ideally, what I’d like is to be in a company and not be doing the same play every night.” She harks back to Stratford in the 70s, when she “was doing Macbeth, and Comedy Of Errors, and Much Ado, and King Lear. It was around this time that her status as a national treasure began to build, and over the years this has inspired some quotes that, even if jokey, are nauseating.
Stephen Fry said, “Railings should be built around Dench so that all may admire her in an orderly and respectful fashion”; Kate Winslet said she “would work with Judi if I had to be a tea lady hovering in the back of frame”; and Ian McKellen was moved to suggest that “one of the great joys of being alive in England in the 21st century is being around when Judi Dench is.”
I ask how she feels about being designated a national treasure, and she makes a face. “I don’t like that very much, I’m afraid. That sounds pretty dusty to me. It’s Alan Bennett and I behind glass in some forgotten old cupboard. I don’t like it at all.”
Is there any role that could banish that reputation? She points to Barbara Covett, her character in Notes On A Scandal, a creepy, conniving, deluded woman. “I think that gave it a bit of a boot.” She was upset a few months back when the British Board of Film Classification published its annual report, which said that every film she swears in prompts complaints from the public.
“That upset me terribly, because I thought, in a way, that cancelled out the last 52 years. I thought ‘Does nobody ever believe anything I do? Can’t they for a minute think that I am playing another person, in another world, with another personality? Must they write and complain that it came out of my mouth?’ I was very depressed about it.”
She thinks her saintly reputation may stem from the fact that she has appeared “in situation comedies, so I’m in people’s sitting rooms a lot”, and it probably is the breadth of her career that inspires such wide-reaching devotion.