Bow down to the tattooed queen

Bow down to the tattooed queen
I watch as Dame Judi Dench eats her chilled corn soup with saffron and sips champagne. At 82, she is just as elegant as you would imagine, with silver hair, ice-blue eyes and crisp diction. She’s five-foot-one, but her reputation is towering.

Dench is one of the greatest British actors — a star alum of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Sally Bowles in the London production of Cabaret and an Oscar winner for her eight-minute turn as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. She died in James Bond’s arms, as the murdered spymaster M. And she has portrayed so many queens on stage and screen that when she plays a duchess, it seems like a demotion. So what to talk about with this regal creature? Well, what else? Lingerie, tattoos, rap music, younger men, sex and her hobby of embroidering cushions with raunchy sayings. This dame, as it turns out, is full of mischief.

Dench got an Oscar nomination 20 years ago for playing Victoria in Mrs. Brown, the saga of how the queen grew close to a younger man, a servant who doted on her after her beloved Albert died, outraging her household. Now she is back in Oscar contention for Victoria & Abdul, the saga of how the queen grew close to another younger man, also a servant who doted on her after the other one died, again outraging her household.

Dench is far more padded as the older Victoria. “She was 46 inches around her waist, and she wasn’t tall,” the actor told me. “It was difficult to go to the loo. Impossible, actually.” Even though her name became a synonym for priggishness, I observe, Victoria was a sexy little thing, wasn’t she? “We are not amused,” Dench says with faux hauteur, offering the line associated with Victoria. Comparing the queen to the interior of a tree, she said: “She had a huge passion and need inside her. She had a happy life with Albert and then those years with John Brown, and then I’m sure she’d certainly given up by then and was just caught up in the drudgery of everything. And suddenly, that wonderful kind of flowering, where she thought, ‘This is really something worth living for.’”

She said she understands that “heady state” well, discovering someone you can laugh with and learn from. “As a person,” she said, “I’m very, very susceptible. For 60 years, I’ve fallen in love with people.”

Is there any advantage in women getting involved with subordinates? She said they could get smitten with “the dustman, the postman, the butcher or the prime minister. It happens to be about the people.”

I ask Dench about her younger man. “This is where I get up and throw the table down and sweep out,” she said with a puckish smile, pounding the table.

Actually, she’s quite open about her new beau and he’s with her in New York. Dench’s husband of nearly 30 years, the actor Michael Williams, died of lung cancer in 2001. She met David Mills, a conservationist, in 2010, when he invited her to help open a new red-squirrel enclosure at the wildlife centre he runs near her home in Surrey, England. He is 74, and she prefers to call him a jolly nice chap rather than a partner. Despite losing some eyesight to macular degeneration, Dench still seems elfin, determined to focus on “the pluses.”

I tell her that I read a recent interview in RadioTimes with Ginny Dougary that she pointed the reporter in the direction of “a lovely naughty knicker shop” in Covent Garden but told her not to buy everything there because she was going, too. “I like it,” Dench conceded to me about lingerie, “but I don’t think about it.” She also told Dougary that older people should never give up on sex, noting that “of course, you still feel desire.”

I ask about her tattoos. She had Swarovski crystal body art spelling out ‘007’ on her shoulder for a Bond gala and premieres and had ‘Carpe Diem’ engraved on the inside of her wrist in St. Martin’s for her 81st birthday at the urging of her daughter, Finty.
I ask her if there’s a trick, when you’re the daughter of a doctor and a wardrobe mistress, to playing a monarch as well as she does. “It is more difficult finding out why you’re saying the lines,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing a monarch or you’re playing a slut down the street. Same process.”

The vision of herself that Dench likes best, she has said, is Tracey Ullman’s spoof of her as a rebellious “national treasure,” shoplifting; throwing poop from her pup, Coriolanus, into trees; breaking all the china in a posh shop; kicking over trash cans and signs; writing “I hate pigs” with a fire extinguisher when she finally gets arrested.

She detests being called “a national treasure.” “I hate that,” she tells me. “It’s not just tedious. It’s some old rock in a cupboard that the glass is shut on and nobody gets it out to dust it. I loathe it. I just want to be called a joker. A jobbing actor. Somebody who has a laugh.”

I ask Dench if she will miss being in the next Bond film. “No,” she said, adding, “I had the most wonderful time.” She understood why Daniel Craig made a joke about slashing his wrists if he had to do another Bond film. “It’s a huge commitment,” she says. “But he has a ball. And the thing is, he wants a theatre career, too. And he went and played Iago, didn’t he?”

Does President Donald Trump remind her of any Shakespearean character? “Oh, no, Shakespeare didn’t get round to that,” she says, giggling again. “That would be terrible.”

Dench, who got her start in 1957 playing Ophelia and later worked her way through Viola, Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra, says that Iago is the superior antagonist, pointing out that Trump should not be compared to Iago at all. “Iago was very sharp, intelligent,” she says. “Quite a witty man.”

I say that Trump is our problem, not hers. “Oh,” she corrects me in her soft voice, “it’s all of our problem. I think people are sharing it.”

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