The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel stars reflects on an exceptionally busy year.
It’s been an exceptionally busy 12 months for Judi Dench, with Jane Eyre, My Week With Marilyn, J. Edgar and now The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel all hitting the big screen. But you’d be hard pushed to tell. In spite of an exhaustively busy schedule she remains every bit as lively, personable and downright charming as we’ve has come to expect over the years. Taking a rest, it’s fair to say, appears to be the last thing on her mind.
With work currently underway on Skyfall over at Pinewood Studios, it was always likely that Bond would be a topic of conversation, but it arose much sooner than anticipated when LWLies sat down with the Dame recently; her phone cutting short formalities by blaring out the iconic Bond theme in all its polyphonic glory.
Dench: I’m so sorry.
LWLies: No, no, that’s quite alright. That’s an amazing ringtone. We weren't expecting that.
Yes, I gave you your entrance music. [Laughs] God, I’m amateur.
You and the rest of the cast looked like you were having a great time on set. Was that the case? Was it an enjoyable shoot?
Well, it’s always enjoyable working with John Madden, because he makes it so. That’s the atmosphere that he creates. But it’s hard work as well. What is good is that you don’t see the hard work that’s entailed, and that’s not out business anyway to show it. But if it does portray any kind of enjoyment, then… I only know that from theatre that when the company gets on well, it adds to a performance for an audience. There’s no question about it.
How does that close familiarity and established working relationship with a director aid your performance?
You totally rely on them. You totally rely on their judgement and when they go on and on doing a take, you know that you haven’t got what they want yet. Then you just hope that it’s going to come up and then, hopefully, it does. Sometimes perhaps it doesn’t, but it’s essential to me. I always find it very difficult in the theatre when, I’ve been rehearsing, for the moment when the director walks away. I find that very, very difficult to do because I’m extremely reliant on a director, so your relationship with a director is of paramount importance.
One of the things you’re famed for is your ability to switch in and out of character very quickly. Billy Connelly once said that he was amazed that you could go from telling a joke to suddenly snapping into character.
[Laughs] He’s a fine one to talk!
Is it possible to describe that process of getting in to character?
Not really. You have to just think of what the author intends. What is the author’s intention? And Peter Hall said a lot of things when I came to play Cleopatra. ‘Don’t think you’ve got to play all the character in every scene. You don’t. You just play an aspect of a character in a scene. And don’t think that everyone who talks about you is necessarily telling the truth.’ Those were the most staggering two notes for me to understand. And, of course, just because someone says ‘She’s very self-opinionated,’ and you think ‘Oh, she’s self-opinionated – I must act that.’ Not necessarily. Go and look at why that other character said that and what their objective is and just what their attitude to everything is, you know? You have to somehow be as honest to the author as you can be.
So how was that process with the character of Evelyn? What appealed to you about her?
Well I understood her position: suddenly being left without her husband and then realising, of course, that she hasn’t got any money. And that whole thing of her independence, she’s obviously been a very independent woman, although she never had a job. So she’s relied on her husband a lot and doesn’t want that independence suddenly taken away from her by going and sponging off, as she saw it, her son and his family. And so she wanted to retain a bit of herself still and was up for a bit of an adventure too.
And how did you find going to India?
Absolutely… spectacularly wonderful.
Had you been before?
No. I’d go back though. Nine and a half weeks in Rajasthan. Have you been?
Well you have to go. Really go. Just make up your mind that you’re going to go for a bit, because I wish I’d gone when I was much younger. I loved it. Really loved it.
And aside from India, you’ve had quite an eventful year with this, My Week With Marilyn and of course J. Edgar.
Yes, it was all last year. I think I was only on My Week With Marilyn for three days and that was just prior to going out in February to do two weeks in Los Angeles with Clint Eastwood and then I finished Marigold in 2010, so it was all in those six months concentrated.
How was the experience of working with Clint Eastwood.
Heart stopping. Heart stopping. You know, we’ve all seen his films. I’ve said it before, but he, in a way, goes beyond legend. Sometimes when you meet somebody there’s a huge thing about the way you think that the legend has overdone it a bit from what you hear. But with Clint, legend hasn’t done enough. I think he’s really something special. I think he’s unbelievably special. And he’s very, very quiet on set. Very quiet. In fact, nobody says ‘action’ or ‘rolling’ or ‘be quiet’ or anything. He just says [in a hushed Clint Eastwood impression] ‘in your own time’… ‘Let’s go, amigo’… And he doesn’t say ‘cut’. Nobody shouts. He just says ‘stop’. And you’re lucky if you get more than three takes.
It’s difficult to imagine that sort of atmosphere on a film set.
I’ve never imagined it before and I’ve never imagined it since. He said I’d be out within a fortnight and I was. I was out and home.
There must be an immense sense of respect on set.
Yes, absolutely. And people come out of retirement when he’s doing a film to come and work for him. I had a marvellous make-up woman and she’d retired. But he only has to say he’s doing a film and everyone rushes to be there. He is incredibly highly regarded and when you work with him you see why.
Do you feel that legendary status is something that’s gone from Hollywood now?
Yes, I suppose it’s something like that isn’t it? You’ve still got Al Pacino and people still talk about Brando and Paul Newman. I suppose there are waves of that. Like we talk still about Sir John [Gielgud], Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft and Alec Guinness. But very soon there will be people who won’t talk about them because they won’t know them, which is a great pity.
And you’ve worked with some brilliant contemporary actors yourself. Are there any that you think people are likely to look back in, say, 40 years time and say ‘that was the Brando of that era’?
I don’t know. Because everything is now much more available to everybody, maybe that, in a way, will pass. I mean the rarer and more difficult it was to actually be in touch with people, the greater the awe was. And now, because everything is so accessible, maybe we won’t have heroes like that so much. I hope you do, because you get someone like Daniel Day Lewis. He’s mind-blowingly wonderful, but there are others, like Sophia Loren. She’s a legend. But I don’t know. It’s hard to tell.
Do you feel that that sense of enigma has passed?
Yes, I do feel that, because there was a time when you didn’t know about people and you didn’t know about their private lives, so there was a kind of held thing. It wasn’t done to find out everything about them. But now everybody finds out everything about everybody and so there’s no… mystery’s not the right word because it sounds too effete, but there’s no kind of magic about… You know, you think about someone like [Greta] Garbo, who people didn’t know much about and you think that must have been really like an icon. But familiarity breaks that down I think. I just think it’s a pity to know so much. Just let the performances stand on their own for themselves. You don’t need to know that they go out every evening and that they’re having relationships and affairs. You don’t have to know that. Just let their performance speak for itself.
This is perhaps a bit of a leftfield question, but is it possible to put a finger on the moment where you suddenly knew that you’d ‘made it’ as such?
Oh God, no. No. I think that you realise that people have noticed what you’re doing when you get scripts and some people have liked what you’re doing and then you get scripts. But then you can do something and get absolutely ghastly reviews and the whole thing’s blown apart and you have to start all over again. Sir John said ‘you’re only as good as the last thing you did,’ and that’s very, very true. Very true. And I think to think ‘oh, well I’ve made it now,’ that’s fatal. I think that’s encouraging the fates.
So never get complacent?
No, I think that’s quite dangerous. I think if you think you know it all and if you think you can do it all, I think ‘go on then’. It’s not worth it. If you think you know it all then get out while you can. I think the thing to do is to do something that is the most challenging thing to you if you get the chance and to try to learn something new from it.
And you’ve played such a diverse array of characters over the years yourself. Is it even remotely possible for you to pick a key role in your career thus far?
I loved doing Notes on a Scandal because suddenly there was something to really get a hold of. I’d read the book and it was a thrilling thing to do and I loved working with Richard Eyre and I’m a great admirer of Cate Blanchett and that character was a deeply unpleasant woman. So to try to find what it is that caused that and that obsessive character, it was very exciting and a lovely thing to be able to do. Really good fun to do.
It also challenged a lot of people’s expectations too, certainly because for many people of a certain generation you’ve come to define the role of M. How has it been to be associated with that role and the Bond franchise in general for as long as you have now?
Oh, it’s terrific. Terrific. I love it. And I’m loving filming it. It’s very unexpected. I knew Bernard Lee, he was the first person I did television with, who played M all those years ago now… What a good actor. But it’s thrilling to be in that position. I think everyone thinks I’m like that person.
She’s certainly softened hasn’t she?
Well she’s got older hasn’t she? Poor old thing. [Laughs]. She’s still trying to do a man’s job in a male orientated world.
Do you enjoy throwing yourself back in to that role every couple of years then?
I do enjoy it. And it’s always with a different director. Martin Campbell’s done two that I’ve done and it’s lovely doing Skyfall with Sam Mendes, who I only know as a theatre director. He approaches it very much in a theatre way so you rehearse it and I’m much more comfortable with that than suddenly having a scene and throwing yourself in to it, which is what you do on film really. You don’t get to rehearse it, so that’s very good to be working with him again. Lovely.
Was there ever a point when you’ve been playing that role and you’ve thought ‘I could never have imagined playing this part’?
Oh yes, the day before I was asked to do it in fact. It came completely from left field. My husband got very, very excited: ‘How thrilling living with a Bond woman.’ Of course you can’t call them a Bond girl anymore. But it is, it’s wonderful and it’s lovely being a part of all that.
And how does your chemistry with Daniel Craig compare to working with Pierce Brosnan?
Well, of course, they’re two entirely different actors. Entirely different. But I said this before, it’s the only thing I can really… they both approach things in very different ways, but they’ve both got a great sense of humour and I think you must have that. I think if you take it all too seriously it’d all fly out of the window. But also both of them are, I think, quite self-deprecating and both have a sense of humour so their approach is very Fleming-esque. And I loved doing the four with Pierce and now a third with Daniel.
And are we right in thinking she’s got a slightly meatier role in this one?
How can I possibly tell you that?
Well it was worth a shot, right?
I know, I know.
Is it something that you’re going to stick with for a while do you think?
Is that a clue?
No! Not at all. I don’t know at all!
We shan’t pry any more than that. On another note, do you have any kind of unfulfilled ambitions at this stage in your career? Is there anything you’d like to do that you haven’t done already?
Well, I don’t know the answer to it really. I mean I might have said to do a musical, but then I got to play Sally Bowles and then got to do a lot of other musicals – 'A Little Night Music' and 'Companions' and whole lot of other things like that, so I don’t really know. I expect there are lots of parts that I would quite like to still play, but whenever I’ve been asked by people ‘what would you like to play?’ I’d never know the answer because I’m not good at choosing. I’m really not good at choosing parts for myself. It’s because you don’t see yourself in the terms that you really are.
So you always rely on the opinions of others?
Yes, entirely. But I’ve only ever done that, where someone has come to me and said ‘this is a very good part for you’. They’ll tell me the story and that’s it. But I’m not a good chooser at all. I don’t know is the answer to that. I just want to keep on working.
How does that relationship with an audience and particularly the affinity from the public and an audience’s expectation of you influence your choices?
Well you always want to do something that’s totally different to what you last did, if possible. That’s, in a way, why Notes on a Scandal was so exciting, because the tendency is that you do something that reminds a writer or somebody of something rather similar and you’re sent a script that is similar to the last persona you played. And you don’t really want that. I want something that’s as different as possible. The worst thing you can say to me after a performance is to come round and say ‘you weren’t at all like yourself’. Because you want to say ‘but that’s my business, I’m not trying to be like myself because I’m trying to be like another person entirely and make you forget it’s me’, you know? So that’s what drives me.
Just finally, did winning an Academy Award change anything for you or was it just a welcome symbol of appreciation?
It was an almighty shock. Well, I suppose it’s changed everything in that I get to vote for the Academy and it’s a terrific thing to say: ‘I won an Oscar’. I don’t think it’s changed anything else. I was, what, eight minutes or something on the stage. And it’s just a matter really of how it falls out and that it was voted for. It’s called entirely good luck. But maybe the more things you earn or the more things you get awarded with, the more difficult it makes it for you the next time you set foot in front of a camera, because more is expected of you. People’s expectations are more, but if you think like that then you’ll end up going up a hole in the middle. You can’t think that really.