Judi Dench: "I have many more insecurities than I ever had before"
The theatrical Dame chats to Tara Brady about her new movie Philomena, still being nervous and admiring Clint Eastwood’s eyes
It’s only November, but Oscar pundits are already salivating at the prospect of next spring’s Best Actress race. The outcome, as yet, is uncertain. But a gladiatorial standoff between Cate Blanchett (for Blue Jasmine), Sandra Bullock (for Gravity), Emma Thompson (for Saving Mr Banks) and Judi Dench (for Philomena) looks awfully likely.
And they say there are no good roles for women over 40.
“Oh, but we are the lucky ones who got those parts,” exclaims Judi Dench. “There aren’t that many still. There are many people of our age – especially my age – who just don’t get that break.”
Today, aged 78, Britain’s most highly decorated thespian sports the same enduring pixie do as she did during the 1960s. She’s currently undergoing physiotherapy following a knee replacement and has ongoing issues with macular degeneration, but she gamely turns up at Claridge’s to foist biscuits on me and to chat about her titular role in the tear-jerking, unexpectedly funny Philomena.
“Is it, really? I do hope so,” she says. “You don’t really know. Sometime later you can assess it. But you are too close to it at this stage. I saw it in August and I saw it last night. But I’d like to leave it for a while before seeing it again.”
The true-life story of an Irishwoman’s 50-year struggle to find her son who was sold by nuns for adoption in the United States, Philomena yokes Dench’s everywoman to Steve Coogan’s stand-offish political journalist as the pair embark on an unlikely and frequently uncomfortable transatlantic odyssey.
“I knew about the Magdalene Sisters before, of course,” says Judi. “But the film is more about what remains unchanged in Philomena after all that. I could understand it. But I don’t think I would have the grace to behave as she did. We like to think we’d behave that way. But I am not sure we would. She was very shaken. She stopped going to mass. And then she started going back. I find that quite life-affirming.”
So she did spend time with the real Philomena Lee, then?
“Yes. And it assured me once I had met her. She’s very funny indeed. Kept making me laugh. Your responsibility to playing anybody – doesn’t matter if it’s Iris Murdoch or Queen Elizabeth – is very great. And with Philomena, well, she is round and about now. So we felt that responsibility. We wanted to tell her story as truthfully as possible. With as little embellishment as possible. So it was very important to meet her.”
Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay, made for decent company, says Dench. She has worked with comedians before – notably opposite Billy Connolly on Mrs Brown – and enjoys the banter they bring between takes.
“Comedians can act very well,” she says. “And you have to work hard to keep up. But you also get great breaks where they’re not acting and you get to laugh. Steve made me laugh every day of filming. He is such a great mimic. I would mention somebody and he’d be off. There’s a wonderful uncertainty about Steve. A hesitant quality. He’s not very sure of himself. But that makes him nice to work with.”
She understands hesitancy. I’ve read that she remained in the wings during her audition for the much-lauded 1968 production of Cabaret: “That’s right. I couldn’t be on stage. I sang from the wings. I couldn’t go on stage. Once you were dressed up and being another person, it’s different. But when auditioning they were looking at me.”