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