Friday, 02 March 2012

Acting? It's just animal intuition

Amid rumours of her impending blindness, Judi Dench talks to Chitra Ramaswamy about fear, grief, growing old and why she refuses to rest on her laurels…

Written by Chitra Ramaswamy

A few things we all know about Judi Dench: she is one of the best things about Britain, up there with fish and chips, The Beatles and the NHS; she has a wicked sense of humour; she has a voice as cracked and powerful as an earthquake; she is a national treasure; she is a Dame. Oh, and she has the most twinkly eyes in the business. I could go on, but she wouldn't like it. In fact, she really doesn't like to talk about herself.

When I ask her if she can watch herself on screen – 'No, no, I can't do that,' she says, appalled. Is she able to judge her own performance? 'Look at it dispassionately, you mean? No, I can't.'

19442521So she never thinks she has nailed a part? What about Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown, that led to her first Oscar nomination at the age of 62? What about her pinched, poisonous turn as Barbara Covett in Notes On A Scandal, a performance that forced us to rethink our image of her?

Now, she's properly horrified and fixes me with those glittering, hooded eyes. 'Never, ever, ever,' she announces. 'I have never thought that. Very good screen actors can look at a take after they've done it and see something, then go back and translate to the screen what they have seen. That's supreme. I can't do that.'

She may love the company of actors, and her craft, but she doesn't like talking about it. She would rather disappear. Part of this is down to good old-fashioned British modesty of the stop-making-a-fuss sort. But it's also, I suspect, because Judi Dench doesn't get how good she is. People talk about her extraordinary emotional intelligence, her ingenious ability to cover the entire spectrum of feeling, often in a single scene, and sometimes without even using that famous voice. 

But she doesn't see it like this. 'Animal intuition,' she says sharply, correcting me. 'That's all. It has nothing to do with intellect or intelligence of any sort. It's gut feeling.'

However, John Madden, who first directed her in Mrs Brown and Shakespeare In Love and has recently finished working with her on The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, disagrees. As far as he is concerned, working with her is like 'having a Stradivarius. An incomparable instrument. She has one of the great instincts – so true, simple and specific. And that's combined with an astounding modesty, a genuine belief that she hasn't got much to offer, that she doesn't really know what she's doing. If you've been lucky enough to work with her, it will count as one of the most extraordinary blessings of your career'.

And so to the Stradivarius herself. She is very glamorous, dressedin black, her silver pixie crop shimmering like a jewelled cap. Her eyebrows are plucked into fine arches. She seems a bit scary, more M than Mrs Henderson. Those eyes can go from a soft gleam, as though brimming with tears, to hard, bright and cold as diamonds.

I tell her about Madden's comments. Modesty was the word he used. 'Well, I don't know about that, do I,' she replies, a bit crossly. Then she realises how modest that sounds, and bursts out laughing. This is why she is such a great actor: everything is on the surface, you can see the play of emotions sweeping across her face and you never know what to expect next.

Judi Dench doesn't prepare for a role in the traditional sense. She doesn't read scripts. Until he died, in 2001, her husband Michael Williams would read them and then tell her whether or not to take the part. These days, her agent does it. With The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Madden went to her house and pitched the script to her directly.

'Well, I can't read now, anyway,' she tells me. 'I have to have someone read to me.' Judi recently admitted she is suffering from macular degeneration, a disease of the retina that causes a progressive loss of eyesight, and said she can no longer see faces in front of her. It is, she explained in a statement, partly hereditary. 'I've got what my ma had, macular degeneration, which you get when you get old. I had wet in one eye and dry in the other and they had to do these injections and I think it's arrested it. I hope so.'

She admitted that the most distressing aspect of the condition was not being able to see the person she was having dinner with in a restaurant, or other actors corpsing on stage. But she was determined not to let the condition beat her. She added: 'You get used to it. I've got lenses and glasses and things and very bright light helps. I can do a crossword if it's bright sunshine, but if a cloud comes out the next minute I can't see.'

It must be frightening, but then, as she told me, fear is her great motivator, and part of what keeps her working so tirelessly in her 70s. 'I'm always fearful,' she says, throwing her arms up so her bracelets chatter. 'And the day I'm not fearful I shall walk home and shut the front door and put my feet up the chimney. Fear generates in you a huge energy. You can use it. When I feel that mounting fear I think, "Oh yes, there it is!" It's like petrol.'

27332413Born in York in 1934, Judi Dench was steeped in theatre from an early age. Her father, a doctor, was the GP for York Theatre Royal and her mother was the wardrobe mistress. She remembers seeing her brothers on stage at school. 'My brothers did Macbeth and George Bernard Shaw's Caesar And Cleopatra. And my parents used to take me to the theatre. I remember seeing A Cuckoo In The Nest. I laughed so much when a man jumped out of a trunk that I actually made myself sick. My mother had to take me home and bring me back the next night to see the rest of it.'

She wanted to be a stage designer initially and it was only when her brother Jeff started to pursue acting at the Central School Of Speech & Drama that she caught the bug. She applied, was accepted and ended up graduating with a gold medal and a firstclass degree.

Her professional stage debut was with The Old Vic Company in 1957, as Ophelia in Hamlet. The reviews were mixed.'They were terrible,' she says. 'Not all of them. Kenneth Tynan gave me a good notice. And Milton Shulman. See how I remember that, 54 years later?' She laughs.

In 2010 Dench was voted the greatest stage actor of all time. But it was only in 1997, with Mrs Brown, that Hollywood grasped her talent and she made the transfer to the silver screen. Since passing her 60th birthday, she has received six Oscar nominations.

What was it like being feted by Hollywood as an older woman? I wonder. Hollywood is famous for ignoring women over 40. 'There are only so many parts,' she says. 'It's no better here. I've been very lucky.' What about talent? 'No,' she replies. 'It's called good luck. Being in people's minds.'

In 2001, her husband of 30 years died. Theirs was a famously solid marriage and Michael Williams, her co-star in 1980s sitcom A Fine Romance, gave her a red rose every single Friday. They had a daughter, Finty Williams, together and Judi's grandson Sammy, now lives with her. After Michael's death, her film career continued to go stratospheric and she has worked non-stop ever since.

Fear may be her big motivator, but what about grief? 'Yes, that is a fact,' she says. 'After Michael died, there were a lot of things [being offered] and my agent said, "We can't do them all." I said, "We have to try." And so just after he died I started The Shipping News and went out to Halifax and Nova Scotia for six weeks. I flew back and within a day started Iris... and people underestimate how remarkable people are in this business. They are not full of self-regard. I have the most incredible friends who have got me through difficult times.'

Grief is a vast, and often uncontrollable welling up of emotion. Did it have an impact on her acting? 'A director would have to tell you that,' she replies, retreating again. But then her eyes glisten like tiny wet pebbles and she starts talking. 'Grief generates incredible heat in you. If you can put it to good use, then at the end of the day you are very tired and you've forgotten how you're feeling. You know?'

Judi Dench's range has always been extraordinary. Now that she is in her 70s, her fear is increasing. She worries about forgetting lines. This is probably why she continues to be such a great actor. She still feels as if she's in freefall. 'I don't think there are many advantages of getting old actually,' she says. 'I wish I were younger. I suppose the advantages are you know lots of people and hopefully you're wiser and more capable. It is fatal to think it's all fine and you know you can do it. There is always something to trip you up.'

Is she easier on herself now? More comfortable in her skin? 'No,' she laughs, eyes ablaze again. 'I still try and look tall, willowy, blonde and 45. And then argh! I catch sight of myself and think, "That can't be me."' She sighs and laughs.

'I don't know,' she says, her voice cracking. 'You just have to get on with it, don't you?'

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is on general release.



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