Judi Dench

Judi Dench: Game Dame!

I’m trying to rouse Dame Judi Dench to something approaching anger. It’s not easy. She’s a model of equanimity and phlegm.

Her film Philomena, I say, made me angry—at the true story it tells of Philomena Lee, an Irishwoman who’d become pregnant as a teenager in 1952. She was sent, in shame, to work in the laundry of a convent and  when her son was three, the nuns took him from her to sell to an American family for adoption. Philomena spent the next 50 years trying in vain to establish his whereabouts, until she eventually got some answers with the help of the journalist Martin Sixsmith—played in the film by Steve Coogan.

 I was just arrested by her incredible compassion

Philomena’s tale made me angry and it made Martin Sixsmith angry. Yet Judi, in her wisdom, takes another moral from the story. “It made me very angry,” she says in that throaty, fragile voice, “but what struck me much more was Philomena’s level of forgiveness and her belief and faith. Even now, that’s completely unshaken. I was just arrested by her incredible compassion.


Meeting Philomena

“I met Philomena beforehand and then two or three times during filming. I have no doubt at all we’ll be in touch again. They showed us a tiny bit of the film at the wrap party. We were talking and she had her hand on my shoulder. I hardly looked at the film because I was so aware of her sitting behind me. Suddenly there was her little boy on the screen and the only remark I heard her say was, ‘Ah, God love him.’ I hope she feels we told her story properly.”

Many actors think that meeting the person you’re playing can muddy the waters. But, says Judi, “I just wanted the impression of her so that you have something in the front of your mind. If you met her, I suppose you’d think, Very nice, smart Irish lady, but then you suddenly realise what an absolutely remarkable person she is.”

Though she’d never hear of it, you might say something similar about Judi Dench. We know she’s a remarkable person—a 50-year career on stage and screen, winning just about every award there is, tells you that. Yet there are other similarities with Philomena Lee

“She is older than me but not much, so I can identify with her past and I can identify with Ireland: my Ma and her family were from Dublin.”


Having a laugh

Judi was particularly impressed by Philomena’s sense of humour—and I’m impressed by Judi’s. There’s no reason I should have assumed she’d be humourless: some of her greatest triumphs have been in comedies, from Trevor Nunn’s 1976 production of The Comedy of Errors to the sitcoms A Fine Romance and As Time Goes By. Yet because she has those stern eyes, and because she’s manifestly an acting great, somehow her wry wit comes as a surprise. She describes the set of Philomena, a profoundly moving film, as a giggle a minute.

“Steve Coogan? He’s hysterical. He made me laugh every day and, of course, when you’re playing something that requires quite a lot of tension, it’s glorious to be able to just have a laugh suddenly. He’s a terribly clever man; I don’t need to tell you that. I asked him to take off Bruce Forsyth, he did; and he does Sean Connery young and old. He never stopped. He just made me howl. How wonderful that is.”

She also says there was a lot of mickey-taking, and it sounds as if Judi gave as good as she got: “I never stopped telling him he had Botox in his top lip. I don’t think he denied it!”

Eventually, I admit that I’d never thought of her as a comedienne. She takes mild offence, suggesting in response that a little levity is one of her preconditions for a successful production.

“I defy anybody to do a really smashing piece of work without people having a sense of humour. If they take themselves too seriously, you’re up the creek.”


Zig-zagging the workload

She says her only other criterion in choosing work is to follow a zig with a zag. “You don’t want to do something remotely like something you did before, that’s all. I want something that’s fascinating to do and where you learn something new—and is as different from the last thing as possible.”

Her recent work includes the comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the Bond epic Skyfall, and now the tender, intimate Philomena. She also starred with Ben Whishaw in a West End run of Peter and Alice—playing the elderly Alice Liddell, who as a girl had inspired Lewis Carroll. It reminds you that, at 78, not only does Judi Dench refuse to be pigeonholed, but she’s not slowing down either.

I defy anybody to do a really smashing piece of work without people having a sense of humour. If they take themselves too seriously, you’re up the creek.

“I like to be busy; I love the work. I’m in the two per cent of the population doing the job they want to. I think that’s incredibly lucky. But I took eight weeks off when I finished the play, because that was 12 weeks in London and it was quite exhausting. It was the journey each day up there and back again [from her home in Surrey] every day, twice on Saturday, and after that I thought, You know, I really want a rest. And so I spent four weeks in Cornwall in the sun, swimming and lying on the beach, which was glorious.”

You hear very little about the off-screen life of Dame Judi Dench—for the most part, she says, because she doesn’t have much of one: “I go from one thing straight to another very, very often.”

But, she adds, when she does get time off, her priority is her family: “My daughter [the actress Finty Williams] and grandson [Sam, 16]—I just love it when we’re together. We had supper in the garden last night. It was really lovely. Those are the good bits.”

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