The 'R' word alert

Hollywood diaries

The 'R' word alert

“Do you know what a man who makes arrows is called?” Judi Dench asks me. “No? Well, today I learnt he’s called a fletcher. And yesterday I learnt that William Shakespeare’s mother was called Mary and her first two daughters died. I didn’t know that.”

She has, she says, gleaned those snippets of information as part of her determination to keep her brain active by learning something new every day. No doubt wary of the problems faced by 74-year-old Michael Gambon, who recently announced his retirement from the stage because it takes him “forever” to learn his lines, Dench works hard at keeping her mind sharp.

Having just turned 80, the Oscar-winning actress is doing everything she can to stave off the inconveniences of growing old. She takes “preventive” supplements to stave off memory loss, but more effective is her outlook on life. Her maxim, she says, is “look for the pluses”.

“There are not many positives,” she says of old age. “You have to make your own positives. You have to think, ‘Oh well, today I can at least walk across the room.’ ”

Young at heart

Isn’t the knowledge she has accumulated over the years something of a positive? “I don’t know. I’d rather be younger and not know so much,” she says firmly.

“I know more about things but I don’t think I’ve got any more sensible or any more grown-up than I was when I was at the Old Vic. I found a card the other day that said, ‘Don’t grow up, it’s against the rules’, and I thought how wonderful.”

This time last year she was involved in an Oscar campaign for Philomena, for which she had earned her seventh nomination. However, she couldn’t even watch the show due to a heavy schedule of promotion for her new film, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Surely, though, her favourite won the award. “I kept my fingers crossed for Eddie Redmayne,” she admits.

The original Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which followed a group of seven British pensioners who moved to a newly-opened Indian hotel claiming to cater to the “elderly and beautiful”, took the film industry by surprise. Based on author Deborah Moggach’s 2004 novel These Foolish Things and starring Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton and Ronald Pickup, the film became an unlikelt hit.

Cannily tapping into a market that had been all but ignored by Hollywood — the “silver screeners”, as they were dubbed — the film quickly became a phenomenon. Older people who had all but given up on cinema-going came out in droves for The Exotic Marigold Hotel.

“We had no expectation or anticipation that the film would find the audience it did the first time around,” admits director John Madden. “You obviously hope you find an audience when you are making a film, otherwise you wouldn’t be making it, but it certainly transcended any of our and the studio’s expectations.”

The sequel sees the return of the original cast plus several new faces, with Smith’s curmudgeonly Muriel now running the hotel for Dev Patel’s Sonny and Dench, Nighy and Pickup’s characters joining the workforce in Jaipur.

“The first film just seemed to gather momentum,” says Dench now. “I think because it was about people of a certain age wanting to defy their age and get on with doing something and not sit back and be retired.”

The film’s message of older people taking risks and starting new lives at retirement age is one that particularly appeals to Dench. “I think that’s what the whole film is about,” she says. “I don’t want to be told I can’t do something. I’ll just have a go at it and I may make a terrible mess of it but I’d sooner make a mess than not have a go at all. I don’t think age matters at all. What matters is your determination not to give up and not to stop learning new things, which I absolutely applaud.”

Second chances

For her, “retirement” is the rudest word in her dictionary. “And ‘old’ is another one. I don’t allow that in my house. And being called ‘vintage’. I don’t want any of those old words. I like ‘enthusiastic’ and I like the word ‘cut’ because that means you’ve finished the shot.”
Speaking about India, she says, “My character in the first film says of India, ‘It’s an assault on your senses,’ and that’s exactly what it is. I mean, the colour and sound and noise and smell and taste — you become unbelievably bewitched by it. How lucky we were to get to return.”

Most of the cast are old friends, having worked together in the past. Dench and Smith have been close since they shared a dressing room in 1958 when they appeared together in As You Like It and she and Nighy, with whom her character becomes romantically involved in the film, have worked together before — “a lot of times on stage, four times I think, and on television and lots of things like that so there’s a shorthand between us.”

“In India, we had a wonderful time and we even rode a motorbike together. The first time was four years ago when he hardly knew how to drive it and I didn’t have a nerve left in my body, but at least this time it was four years later and he’d had time to practise.”

Madden, who earned an Oscar nomination for directing Shakespeare in Love, describes The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel as “a melancholy comedy”. He says: “Melancholy can be a very fine emotion because it implies an acceptance and embracing of things. This is a movie where there are no facelifts — everybody is the age they are and the camera gets right in there and counts all the wrinkles. These are people who have grabbed a second chance at life.”

A significant new addition to the Marigold Hotel’s residents is Guy Chambers, an American writer, played by 65-year-old Richard Gere. “We decided that someone new should come to the hotel but we didn’t go to Richard until we finished writing it,” says Madden. “He jumped straight in. He was able to bring that kind of instant romantic frisson that has a ripple effect on everyone at the hotel. His character is sort of shedding his skin at this moment in his life and I think Richard put a lot of himself into it.”

Madden prefers to call The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel “a companion piece” to the first, rather than a sequel. “I like to think about it like that because a sequel tends to imply that you are trying to make the same movie again, which we didn’t intend to do. It’s particularly poignant because these people can’t go on forever. Every moment is precious.”

Dench, for her part, plans to use those precious moments wisely. Although macular degeneration has robbed her of much of her eyesight, she has taken up tapestry again. “I thought I couldn’t do it but now I have been given this wonderful magnifying lamp and I find I can. If you get the canvas a bit bigger it’s surprising what you can do.”

Her most recent piece of embroidery? “I did a very rude cushion for a friend,” she says with a laugh. She won’t reveal what it said.

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