I’m still prov­ing my­self”

She is one of the world’s great­est ac­tresses, yet Judi Dench is still striv­ing to be bet­ter. In an extraordinary ex­clu­sive in­ter­view, the “naughty” 82-year-old talks to Louise Gan­non about find­ing love again, her fa­mous friends and the joy of play­ing Quee

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Royals -

On the hottest day Lon­don has seen in 41 years, Dame Judi Dench is show­ing off her re­cently painted toe­nails as she sips a cup of As­sam tea, bare­foot in the library room of a West End ho­tel. The colour is a shiny, bright scar­let. “Isn’t it glo­ri­ous?” she says. “Red rep­re­sents pas­sion and life. And it’s a lit­tle bit naughty. Like me.” As for the heat, she loves it. “And do you know,” she says, later, “for the past cou­ple of days, I’ve wo­ken up, gone into my gar­den and taken all my clothes off just to en­joy the bliss­ful air.”

At 82 years of age, Dame Judi – naked or fully clothed – is not quite what you would ex­pect. She de­mands none of the def­er­ence due to her sta­tus as one of the world’s most cel­e­brated ac­tresses, whose awards in­clude (and this is just a cur­sory scrap­ing) an Os­car, a Tony, eight Oliviers, two Golden Globes and 11 BAFTAs.

There are no body­guards in sight, no rules of what she will and won’t talk about, no wait­ing around for her to ar­rive. There is, how­ever, a lot of laugh­ter, a good deal of re­flec­tion, many wise words and quite a sig­nif­i­cant amount of eat­ing as she in­sists we work our way through a hefty plate of short­bread, baked es­pe­cially for her.

We are talk­ing about her lat­est movie, Vic­to­ria & Ab­dul, which tells the un­told story of Queen Vic­to­ria’s extraordinary friend­ship with a young In­dian ser­vant, Ab­dul Karim (played by the ac­tor Ali Fazal). The re­la­tion­ship be­gan in the last 15 years of her reign and her in­sis­tence that Karim be given a whole host of special priv­i­leges – in­clud­ing ti­tles and land grants – so in­fu­ri­ated the royal house­hold and her son, Ed­ward VII, that Karim was driven out of the coun­try af­ter her death in 1901.

It is Judi’s sec­ond time play­ing Queen Vic­to­ria and she was drawn to the role partly for that rea­son and partly be­cause “it’s such a won­der­ful, mov­ing story which needs to be told”. The first time she played her was in 1997 in the movie Mrs Brown, which co-starred Billy Con­nolly as the Scot­tish game­keeper whose

re­la­tion­ship with Vic­to­ria – af­ter the death of her hus­band, Prince Al­bert, when the Queen was just 41 – scan­dalised the es­tab­lish­ment.

It is point­less ask­ing Judi’s opin­ion about her per­for­mance in the movie be­cause – as with all her other movies, from the James Bond fran­chise to Philom­ena, Notes On A Scan­dal and The Best Ex­otic Marigold Ho­tel – she won’t ever watch it. “I can’t, I just can’t,” she says. “I hon­estly can­not look at my­self on a great big screen. I’d just pick ev­ery­thing I did to pieces.”

There are, how­ever, com­par­isons be­tween Judi and Vic­to­ria. As queen of the act­ing world she is of­ten treated, – as roy­alty is – as a crea­ture apart from the rest of us. This is some­thing she can­not abide and part of the rea­son she prefers the slums of In­dia to the sa­lons of Hol­ly­wood. It’s also part of the rea­son she was one of the first to throw her weight be­hind a re­cent ben­e­fit con­cert for vic­tims of Lon­don’s Gren­fell Tower fire, with co­me­dian Michael McIn­tyre and play­wright Bon­nie Greer, among oth­ers. “It’s a dis­as­ter on my doorstep and I just wanted to help,” she says. “Th­ese are real peo­ple, real life and it’s im­pos­si­ble for me not to want to con­nect.

“I’m rooted in re­al­ity. Act­ing should be about want­ing to say some­thing

real. I’m not very Hol­ly­wood be­cause I do find it all so ter­ri­bly ar­ti­fi­cial. I’m not very good with pomp and pan­der­ing. You are sit­ting in a make-up chair at eight o’clock in the morn­ing and it’s not for work, it’s to go to a cer­e­mony later in the day. Ev­ery­thing is taken so very se­ri­ously and on a dif­fer­ent plane.

“The last time Mag­gie [her great friend, Dame Mag­gie Smith] was in Hol­ly­wood she was pre­sented with a mas­sage chair in a goodie bag. I mean, how on earth is she meant to get that home in her suit­case? It’s a bit over the top.”

The love of her life

Yet it was on a far deeper level that Judi con­nected with Queen Vic­to­ria this time around. Like the monarch, she fell in love as a young woman with the man who was to be­come her hus­band, the ac­tor Michael Wil­liams. He was in the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany with her, both un­known ac­tors earn­ing, she re­calls, “five shillings and 10 pence a week”.

“We were young peo­ple with not a care in the world, apart from do­ing what we loved and we were in it to­gether,” she says.

Aus­tralia holds a special place in her heart be­cause it was in Ade­laide that Michael pro­posed while Judi was tour­ing The Win­ter’s Tale. “I told him to ask me again be­cause it was so gor­geous in the Aus­tralian sun­shine with the sea glis­ten­ing and the white sands,” she says. “I said he would have to ask me on a rainy day in Bat­tersea. But I then for­got about that and said, ‘Yes’, the fol­low­ing day. So Aus­tralia was the be­gin­ning of us of­fi­cially and a very beau­ti­ful be­gin­ning.”

Like Prince Al­bert, Michael re­mained as a con­sort to his über-suc­cess­ful wife, whose ca­reer boomed a mat­ter of years into their mar­riage. Yet, at home and as the fa­ther of their only child, Finty – now 44 – Michael was her rock and the source of her sta­bil­ity and strength.

“When I played Queen Vic­to­ria in Mrs Brown, I was a mar­ried woman and I was play­ing a woman who had lost the great love of her life, but I had Michael at home,” she says. “This time, I re­lated to her as a woman who has also lost her great love. Michael

died [from lung can­cer] in 2001. We were mar­ried for 30 years mi­nus three weeks and he was ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing to me.

“You don’t think you are go­ing to re­cover. You don’t think any­one else will come into your life and make you laugh, hold your hand. And even when you are busy – I kept my­self very busy mak­ing one project af­ter an­other – you are sad. Very sad.”

She pauses. “But you are still there. And in my case – and in her case – some­one comes along and very un­ex­pect­edly you have a con­nec­tion. It hap­pened to her with John Brown and in a dif­fer­ent way with Ab­dul. And it hap­pened to me.”

In 2010, she met con­ser­va­tion­ist David Mills, 74, and slowly be­gan a re­la­tion­ship. They don’t live to­gether, but en­joy what she de­scribes as “the loveli­est chap­ter”. “You find some­one who makes you smile again,” she says. “I wasn’t look­ing. I never ex­pected to be with any­one else, it just hap­pened.

“I’m glad it did be­cause I’m some­one who loves to be around peo­ple. It’s won­der­ful to have some­one to share a joke with, eat a meal with, talk about the news to. It’s a very dif­fer­ent sort of re­la­tion­ship than I had with Michael and it won’t re­place it, but I’m happy and I count my­self lucky this hap­pened to me.”

Judi be­lieves that her glit­ter­ing ca­reer is also down to luck. If, right now, she was to meet her teenage self, she would tell her, “You are go­ing to be so lucky. You’re go­ing to per­form Shake­speare on stage and you are go­ing to have a won­der­ful life.”

Stage star­let

The only daugh­ter of a York­shire doc­tor has elec­tri­fied the stage as well as the small and big screens from the mo­ment she walked out on stage at the Na­tional The­atre as Ophe­lia, just a few months af­ter leav­ing the Royal Cen­tral School Of Speech & Drama, in 1957. It was clearly more tal­ent than luck that won her parts as spy chief M in the Bond films, Lady Brack­nell in The Im­por­tance Of Be­ing Earnest and ev­ery ma­jor fe­male lead in the Shake­spear­ian lex­i­con.

Judi her­self sees it dif­fer­ently and be­lieves that she and her peers – from Mag­gie Smith to He­len Mir­ren – had it eas­ier than young ac­tresses to­day. “We got to make all our mis­takes on stage in the­atres up and down the coun­try where no one knows your name,” she says. “That was our good for­tune. We got to learn from other ac­tors and we came through in the the­atre where it’s less about how you look and more about what you can do.”

She pauses. “As a woman, I was never con­sid­ered beau­ti­ful. I was told very early on by a direc­tor that I would never make it on to screen be­cause all my fea­tures were in the wrong place. I didn’t give a stuff be­cause I had no thought of go­ing on the screen, so I wasn’t dev­as­tated by his nasty re­mark. If he had told me I would never be able to per­form Shake­speare, that would have wrecked me, but to be told I wasn’t beau­ti­ful was in many ways a gift.”

I look per­plexed and she laughs, “Wor­ry­ing about be­ing beau­ti­ful can be ter­ri­bly time-con­sum­ing,” she says. “It was ac­tu­ally quite lib­er­at­ing to think, ‘Well, I don’t need to try to be the pretty one. I’ll just con­cen­trate on be­ing bloody good at what I do.’ And then when I was cast as Cleopa­tra, ev­ery­one looked at me as­ton­ished, say­ing, ‘How on earth can she be Cleopa­tra?’ But I did it be­cause by then I could act the part. And I could con­vince ev­ery­one I was Cleopa­tra, even though I didn’t have a pretty face.”

The fact Judi has con­tin­ued work­ing into her 80s re­mains rooted in that same work ethic. “I’ve never been cho­sen for my looks and I’ve never been vain, so I’ve done as many dif­fer­ent parts as I can,” she says. “Ev­ery time I play one role, I try and get as far away from it in my next role. And I’m al­ways push­ing my­self. Even now, I worry that I won’t get an­other job. Fear drives me to work and fear drives me to make my­self bet­ter and bet­ter. You’d think by now I might have re­laxed a bit, but I haven’t. I still panic if there’s noth­ing in the diary and the phone doesn’t ring.” There is a twin­kle in her eye as she speaks. “Do you think I’ll get any more work this year?” she asks. “Ab­so­lutely not,” I tell her and she roars with laugh­ter. On set, she is known for play­ing jokes and “corps­ing” (laugh­ing) when de­liv­er­ing lines. “I’m try­ing to get bet­ter,” she says. “But some­times it just breaks the ice. Ev­ery­thing can get a bit too se­ri­ous some­times.”

Fa­mous friends

Her favourite friends are ones who make her laugh. Billy Con­nolly is a dear friend ever since Mrs Brown. “We still speak all the time and when we are to­gether we just laugh,” she says. Ed­die Iz­zard, who plays her son, Ed­ward VII, in the new film has also be­come a close friend. “I think I am at­tracted to co­me­di­ans be­cause they don’t take me se­ri­ously. They see the joker in me, they see the fun.”

If I ever need a per­fect mo­ment, it will al­ways be with fam­ily.

She is a woman who clearly adores com­pany and con­stantly adds to her cir­cle of friends, which in­cludes Kevin Spacey (“He is the one who re­ally taught me about act­ing on film when we did The Ship­ping News to­gether [in 2001]. Michael had just died, I wasn’t in a good place. He was so very kind to me and taught me so much about the way film worked”) and Ed Sheeran.

The mu­si­cian is a re­cent ad­di­tion. She pulls out her phone and scrolls through to show me pho­to­graphs of her grand­son, Sam, 20, who is an ab­so­lute dou­ble of the Gram­my­win­ning star. “He went out for din­ner with a mu­tual friend, who told him how much I thought he looked like Sammy,” she says. “And then Sammy got a text say­ing, ‘I hear I look like you.’ To me, that said ev­ery­thing I needed to know about Ed. He is the loveli­est, most hum­ble, gen­er­ous soul – an all-round good egg. And I’m proud to know him.”

Her grand­son is not, how­ever, in any way fazed by his fa­mous grand­mother. Men­tion his name and her face in­stantly lights up. For Judi, fam­ily is the be­gin­ning and end of her world. “If I ever need to re­lax or have a per­fect mo­ment, it will al­ways be with fam­ily,” she says. “I’m so blessed to have a daugh­ter. It’s hard for her to have cho­sen to be an ac­tress be­cause crit­ics can be very un­kind, but she’s damn good. More im­por­tantly, she is a won­der­ful woman.”

She laughs. “And Sammy re­ally is the light of my life. He def­i­nitely doesn’t want to act; he can’t bear be­ing on the stage. The other day, he told me what he’d learnt from me. It was ab­so­lutely noth­ing to do with my job. He said, ‘The two best things you’ve taught me are how to put a bet on in the book­ies and open a bot­tle of cham­pagne.’ With those two skills, he should go far.”

A man's world

At the age of 82, she claims to still worry about her rep­u­ta­tion as an ac­tress. “I al­ways worry with ev­ery job I take. I’m still prov­ing my­self.

Still try­ing to hit a higher mark. I’m al­ways ter­ri­bly ner­vous on a set or on a stage. I think it’s why I joke around, to keep calm those nerves.”

In her life­time, Judi has seen a re­cent change to good roles for older women. “There has been a def­i­nite shift,” she says. “I think there are more women writ­ers and pro­duc­ers, and a hell of a lot of good ac­tresses out there. I’m glad ac­tresses are putting up a fight to get equal pay, but I’m afraid I don’t think there will ever be parity. It still seems to me to be a man’s world.

Eve ate the ap­ple. We women still pay the con­se­quences.”

Much has been writ­ten about how Judi may have to pro­fes­sion­ally pay the con­se­quences of los­ing her eye­sight due to her long bat­tle with mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion.

She shakes her head. Like Vic­to­ria and the cur­rent Bri­tish Queen (“I am a huge fan of the roy­als”), Judi plans to keep go­ing as long as she can. “I have no plans to re­tire. My next ques­tion is al­ways, ‘When is my next job?’ I drive my agent mad.

“I take sup­ple­ments for my eyes, the aches in my joints and to keep my brain go­ing. I have a special light to help me read and af­ter giv­ing up paint­ing for a few years, I’m back at my easel splash­ing away be­cause I still want to ex­press my­self. I even man­aged to sell a paint­ing for £1500 the other day, which made me very proud.”

Are there any parts she’s yet to play? Judi smiles. “Some­one nasty. I want to play some­one truly aw­ful. That would make me very happy.”

I al­ways worry with ev­ery job I take. I’m still prov­ing my­self.

Vic­to­ria & Ab­dul opens across Aus­tralia on Septem­ber 14.

TOP: Judi with her late hus­band, ac­tor Michael Wil­liams, in 1985. The love of her life, he died in 2001. ABOVE: Judi and her cur­rent part­ner, David Mills.

Vic­to­ria & Ab­dul fo­cuses on the monarch’s friend­ship with her In­dian ser­vant, Ab­dul Karim.

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