‘I’VE MISSED OUT ON SCREEN KISSES.…’ says Dame Judi Dench
Perhaps l still have one to come!’
As Dame Judi Dench celebrates 60 years in showbusiness by stepping back into the shoes of Queen Victoria, she talks about finding love again and making the most of every day. Just don’t call her a national treasure...
She reigns over the British acting world, having played Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria to critical acclaim. But there is nothing imperious about Dame Judi Dench when you meet her in person. She has a twinkling glint in her eye, an infectious laugh and frequently breaks into fits of giggles. Now 82 and celebrating a career in acting that spans 60 years, she shows no inclination to slow down. Even failing eyesight – she suffers from macular degeneration – doesn’t stop her taking on more roles. In her latest release, Victoria & Abdul, she steps back into Queen Victoria’s royal shoes two decades after her famous role in Mrs Brown opposite Billy Connolly. The new film focuses on Victoria’s little-known friendship with a young Indian Muslim clerk who she met in her final years. It caused consternation among Victoria’s family at the time.
Away from the cameras, Judi is very close to her daughter, Finty, who is also an actress, and grandson, Sam, who is 20. She had a very happy marriage to fellow actor Michael Williams, who died of lung cancer in 2001 a few weeks before their 30th wedding anniversary. Having said that she didn’t expect to meet anyone else, love has flourished in the past five years with conservationist David Mills. She talks to GH about the importance of laughter in her new relationship, kissing on screen, and what worries her the most...
Congratulations, you’ve just celebrated 60 years as an actress, and are one of our best-loved national treasures.
I wish there was another word for it. It’s horrible. A working, jobbing actor is better.
Is that how you still see yourself?
Yes, because you don’t know where the next job is coming from! The theatre director Trevor Nunn once asked me why I always cried on the first night of a production. I said because I always think it’s going to be the last one. It’s quite good for us to have that real insecurity.
How did it feel to be taking on the role of Queen Victoria again?
I’d never intended to go back and play her. But even though I’d done a lot of homework on Victoria, I didn’t know about this relationship. It was all new to me. It is a continuation and an eye-opener about her. We understood about her marriage with Albert and her relationship with John Brown. I suppose it was just having somebody that she felt she could relax with, and talk to. As in this case I think, a son. She learnt Urdu from him [Abdul] and how to write it. He taught her something new. It was an extraordinary friendship. She felt alive.
What have you learnt about love and relationships over the years?
Having had a marriage that lasted nearly 30 years, pretty lucky! And lovely. I have a jolly nice friend now. I don’t know what the word is because I don’t like the word partner. Partner is something to do with dancing. Partner – horrible word. Friend? No. Boyfriend? No. Chap? Will chap do? There hasn’t been a word invented yet. Somebody who makes you laugh and who you can go to things with and enjoy things with and have a lovely time.
If David proposed, would you say yes?
He’s not going to propose. No, no, no, no, no! Let’s all just pull ourselves together and be our age!
Are you a romantic?
Yes. One hot night during the summer, we swam and then had a glass of Champagne in the garden and I said, this is so fantastic! But perhaps if I was a romantic, I’d have been cool and calm about it. I get a bit overexcited about things. I love having a good laugh. I don’t want any lack of humour because that would be terrible. I remember Mikey and I once driving on the motorway and listening to a programme on the radio and we were laughing so much we had to pull over on to the hard shoulder. We were actually crying with laughter. That’s romantic. It’s little things that make you laugh or that you observe in something and you both laugh about it. I think that’s romantic. A sense of humour is the most attractive thing of all. It’s essential.
Where do you get your energy from?
My mother and my father. They were always at full tilt.
Do you ever relax?
Yes I do sometimes. I paint a bit and I love being with my family. I’ve noticed recently if I’ve had some very hectic days then I suddenly think I’m allowed a day where I do nothing. I’ve never had that feeling before. I think, please God, don’t let this be a sign of being 80-odd. I don’t want to think I have earned a day of sitting with my feet up. I don’t want that. I like using the time. Don’t waste the day!
How do you stay fit and healthy?
I don’t know! I swim in the summer.
When you’re not working, what are your favourite things to do?
There are always people to see and catch up with, so I’m continually catching up and making lists. I make a list every day.
Are you an avid diary keeper?
No, because I can’t see any more. I used to be. I can’t do any of that. I can’t read. I’m going to start listening to audiobooks. Finty has done lots of audio books and got lots of awards for them. It’s daft that I don’t listen to them. I listen to the radio all the time and I love it.
How are you coping with the macular degeneration?
Oh, just dealing with it. Getting on with it. Doing what I can do. I have to be careful if it’s too dark for me to see, I miss steps and things if I’m not told. My friends are wonderful and I don’t want it to become an issue. So I’m not giving it any room!
On your 80th birthday, you famously had Carpe Diem tattoed on your wrist.
It was Finty! We were out for my birthday and she said, would you like a tattoo now. So I did! I love it!
Are you planning more?
They’re addictive! I don’t want any more. Harvey Weinstein [Hollywood film producer] thinks I have his name written on my bum. Only Harvey and I know whether it is or not. So I can’t say whether this is the only one.
Actresses are increasingly speaking about the inequality of pay between men and women.
Salary, parts, you name it. It’s better now than it’s ever been, I think, but it will never be on a parity. Never. No matter how much we speak out. We are put in our place.
A SENSE OF HUMOUR IS THE MOST ATTRACTIVE THING OF ALL. IT’S ESSENTIAL
What else have you been working on?
Murder On The Orient Express with Kenneth Branagh and Johnny Depp. It’s very larky and was wonderful after the responsibility of Queen Victoria to play a dotty, bad-tempered Russian woman who wore a lot of jewellery and had two nice dogs. Heaven! I also have a TV series about trees that we are making at the moment. I’ve always had a real passion about trees. I love all those programmes like Countryfile.
What are your ambitions now?
I still want to play something that is different – something more along the lines of Notes On A Scandal (the psychological thriller in which Judi played a teacher with
DON’T WASTE THE DAY
[continued from previous page] a sinister, obsessional crush on a colleague). A woman who you don’t want to come round to tea.
When are you happiest?
When I am with my family or friends. And I love quizzes! We are going on holiday soon and I have asked everyone who is coming with us to bring a quiz.
What scares you?
Apart from worms? I suppose not being around any more scares me. I don’t like that. The actor Tim Pigott-smith, who is in Victoria & Abdul, was a great mate of mine. And then, quite suddenly, you hear he is not there any more. That not only frightens me, but it also depresses the hell out of me. I think that’s just appalling. It’s no better if it’s preceded by somebody being very ill. All that is too frightening to contemplate.
Who has been your best on-screen kiss?
I’ve not kissed many people on screen. I think I’ve missed out. Maybe I still have one to come!
What have been the biggest life lessons from being a mother?
I wish I’d had lots more children. I had planned to have six. Easily! The rewards you get out of it. Finty and I are so close, and also Sammy.
How would you describe your style?
Unchanging. I just wear trousers and loose tops. I love things that don’t require you to feel that you are dressed up. I’m not very good at wearing things that are down on one side and up on the other.
What is your mantra?
Carpe diem! Seize the day! Make the best of it and get what you can out of it. Just use it!
Judi plays Queen Victoria alongside Ali Fazal as Abdul