Interview: Dame Judi Dench

James Mottram 28 February 2022

The great actor opens up about stage fright, working with Kenneth Branagh and her viral TikTok videos 

“I might cough a bit…don’t get alarmed!” says Dame Judi Dench. In these pandemic-riddled times, any tickle in the throat is a concern—especially if you’re 87 years old, as she is—but it’s nothing serious, she assures me.

With a floral scarf wrapped around her neck, her white hair neatly cropped, the acclaimed star of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Philomena, looks in fine fettle when we connect over Zoom.

These past months, the biggest issue Dench has experienced, like so many of us, is psychological. “The thing about COVID is that it mucked up the rhythm inside me, I feel,” she says. “I don’t know what the outcome of that will be. But it’s a curious, odd, and unsettling feeling.”

She pauses for a second. “Hopefully, we’ll get back to some kind of, well, normality…or something approximating normality.” For an actress who has been performing professionally since 1957, rarely stopping, it’s no surprise to find her destabilised by the past two years.

Theatre, television and, more recently, film, have been her lifeblood. So how did she cope with the enforced lockdown? Baking banana bread? “I planned to learn all the sonnets, the Shakespeare sonnets. I didn’t do that. I just didn’t do it,” she sighs. Inertia got the better of her. “You get nothing done.”

Fortunately, her 24-year-old grandson Sam Williams paid a visit and taught her all about social media site TikTok. “He’s a TikTok fiend,” she chuckles. Suddenly, Dench was dancing in micro-videos with Williams. “We would do it. And I’d say, ‘Can we [film] that now?’.

He said, ‘No, no, no—more rehearsal! You need more rehearsal’. That went on for weeks!”. The clip, which sees Dench moving in perfect harmony with Sam and his mother—her daughter Finty Williams—has already been viewed 1.2 million times. 

" For an actress who has been performing professionally since 1957, rarely stopping, it’s no surprise to find her destabilised by the past two years"

Judi Dench as Viola in Twelfth Night by Shakespeare for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970

Quite apart from staying limber and becoming a viral sensation, Dench is desperate to get back to work. While her eyesight has long been affected by macular degeneration, making it difficult to read scripts, there has never been any thought about retiring.

“I’ve always thought, One is very lucky to be employed!” she says, modestly. “I just think that and I always get frightened at the end of the job, because I think I’m not going to be employed again, and then feel very relieved at the beginning of the next one.”  

Winning an Oscar (for her imperious Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love), a Tony, seven Olivier awards and a staggering ten BAFTAs for television and film, it’s bewildering to believe that Dench still gets the jitters.

Even when she scores a job, she feels anxious. “I’ll say! I get more anxious now!” she cries. “Oh, yes, much more anxious. Well, there’s more things to consider and more things to find out and more things to learn about. And you think, Oh God, have I got the energy to do this?”.

While her early years were spent working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, she became a household name in the 1980s, starring in four series of sitcom A Fine Romance with her late husband Michael Williams.

Yet it was in the following decade, winning a first Oscar nod for her sensitive take on Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown, that she became a film star. Then in her mid-sixties, this late bloom left her hungry for more.

In Belfast (centre)

“I just, really, always hope that I will be asked to do something different,” she says. “And perhaps not expected. Or something that has no reference to anything I’ve done before.” That is exactly the case with her new film, Belfast, directed by her old friend, Kenneth Branagh.

They’ve worked together multiple times—12, she counts—but this semi-autobiographical account of Branagh’s childhood in the Northern Irish capital in 1969, just as the Troubles began, is unlike anything Dench has ever done. With the story seen through the eyes of the young Buddy (Jude Hill), Dench plays his Granny, almost unrecognisable thanks to a pudding bowl grey wig and a treacle-thick Irish accent. 

She first met Branagh 25 years ago, on a television production of Ibsen’s play Ghosts, with both in mischievous mood. “We both got sent out of the studio for laughing,” she recalls.

“We have very much the same sense of humour.” Their birthdays—his on December 10, hers on December 9—are also (almost) shared. “I just love working with him. I just love it. It’s very varied, all the things I’ve done with Ken. And I’ve directed him and been directed by him and been in things with him.It’s always different.” 

Shot in inky black-and-white, Belfast won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival last year and it’s a hot favourite in this awards season, with Dench a likely candidate in the Best Supporting Actress category.

But away from the gongs and the glamour, it’s a highly personal look at childhood and the difficulties of growing up in a politically turbulent era. “I thought it was from the heart, I must say,” says Dench. “I thought it was very much from the heart and I understood why he had written it.” 

In Shakespeare With Love, with Joseph Fiennes

Dench has strong connections to Ireland. Her mother was from Dublin and her father, a doctor who hailed from Dorset, also grew up in southern Ireland. By the time Dench was born, her family were living in York but when the Catholic-Protestant conflict escalated in Ireland in the Sixties, she remembers just how much it affected her relatives. “We had family in Northern Ireland, and I think we were concerned all the time about it. Everybody I remember was.”

Dench grew up as a Quaker, though her beloved husband—who died in 2001, 30 years into their marriage—was Catholic. She recalls being advised to convert before they married.

“And then a great, great friend of ours, Tom Corbishley, who was the master of Campion Hall [at Oxford University], said, ‘No, no, no—you mustn’t convert. On the page you may not meet, but off the page, you do.’ And that was a wonderfully quiet, sensitive, loving thing to say.” She speaks fondly of Williams, especially when we move onto her time playing James Bond’s MI6 superior M, a tenure that began with 1995’s GoldenEye.

“Mikey, my husband, longed to live with a Bond woman! He longed for it!” she chuckles, softly. She recently went to the premiere of No Time To Die at the Royal Albert Hall, to witness Daniel Craig’s final outing as Bond.

“It was a very emotional moment!” says Dench, who featured in the previous eight 007 movies. This time, she pops up as a portrait on the wall—a good trivia question in years to come. “I was frightfully pleased.”

In Goldeneye as M

Of course, acting runs in the family—with daughter Finty, 49, also a regular on stage and screen. “I think both Michael and I knew with Finty that she would probably want to do this,” she says.

Dench recalls her time working with Daniel Day-Lewis on a 1989 production of Hamlet at the National, when she played Gertrude. Finty visited her dressing room. “When I came up after a scene, she was dressed entirely in my clothes from the closet scene, so I kind of thought, Oh, hello, this is the way the wind blows!”.

"Don’t be so susceptible to falling in love with people!"

Her grandson Sam, on the other hand, isn’t interested. “He’s no desire whatsoever to act,” says Dench, who recollects watching him in a school play. “All the other little children came on and were all standing there and waving, trying to attract their parents. Not Sammy. Sammy just stood sideways to present the smallest amount of himself!”.

Nevertheless, last year, he joined Dench and his mother for “A Dench and 2 Williams,” an on-stage “evening with” event. “The person who was the least nervous was Sammy. Sammy was so calm. Finty and I were nervous wrecks!” 

With her grandson Sam Williams at a screening of Belfast

While he may not join the family business, Dench’s curiosity and creativity remains undimmed. She’s already onto her next movie role—in Allelujah—which reunites her with Richard Eyre, who previously directed her to Oscar nominations in two sublime films, Iris and Notes on a Scandal. This adaptation of an Alan Bennett play will see her play Mary, an elderly patient residing in a Yorkshire hospital on a geriatric ward threatened with closure. 

Our time is almost up, but I want to finish by asking a hypothetical. After all the success she’s enjoyed, is there anything she’d tell her younger self if she could? “I don’t know,” she murmurs.

“Don’t be so susceptible.” To what? “To falling in love with people!” Was that what she was like when she was younger? “Oh, certainly!” she coos. “It’s such a glorious stage, isn’t it? You can’t kind of resist to give it up. And then you do it all over again.” She giggles. “Just hopeless!”

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