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."
Can one still get nervous after five decades in the business?
“Oh yes. I have many more insecurities than I ever had before. I am terrible. But our business works on nerves. You are energetic if you are nervous. And you can turn that to your advantage. I was born into the bracket of actors who don’t really want to get up there. I have a fear of making a speech in public for example. That sits uneasily with being an actor. It’s not to do with me. That is perhaps why I am an actor.”
One thinks of Judi Dench as quintessentially English; a Dame whose vowels were forged at the RSC; the onscreen lady boss of MI6 in the Bond films; a fixture of London theatrical life since her 1957 debut with the Old Vic Company. Yet Philomena marked a sort of homecoming for Judi Dench, whose mother, Eleanora, was Irish. Indeed, her parents met while studying at Trinity College Dublin.
“I have an honorary degree from Trinity that I’m terribly proud of,” she smiles.
I should think so, too. She is, after all, a child of Trinity.
“Oh, I like that,” she says. “A child of Trinity. I’ll take that.”
Philomena offered, among other things, a fantastic opportunity to revisit her roots: "We went to Rosstrevor to film and I found two more cousins there – Kavanaghs," says Dench. "I wish we'd gone to other places. I might have met a great deal more family."
So the accent was no problem.
"Oh. I'll have a go at any accent. I did Juno here with Trevor Nunn and the whole Irish cast. I spoke very quietly. Trevor said: 'Are you going to speak any louder on the night?' I was so wary. But we had Penny Dyer on set to keep us alert."
Are there any characteristics she has inherited from her mum that she sees as being inherently Irish?
“Oh yes. I have some definite Irish traits. There was a great sense of humour in our house. People with a very strong sense of humour. There were all these odd quirky things we used to laugh at. I have an Irish friend who was a dresser for many years and I can see a lot of myself in her.”
Judith Olivia Dench was born in York and educated at a local Quaker school. Her parents – a physician father and wardrobe mistress mother – were always passionate about theatre.
“My parents were very keen on taking us,” recalls Dench. “My father was a doctor. But theatre was always around us. The D’Oyly Carte used to tour and that was terrific. When I came out of drama school, there were still repertory theatres in every town. And you went there and if you were lucky you got to make your mistakes there. That was invaluable. Where do they go now? I do wonder.”
She entered the Central School of Speech and Drama at the same time as Vanessa Redgrave: "I was going to be a theatre designer. I realised early on that I didn't have the imagination for that. My brother Geoffrey, who only ever wanted to be an actor, went to Central. So I thought I'd try and get in there. And halfway through my first year, I realised this is what I want to do. And they cast me as Ophelia at the Old Vic in 1957, straight out of drama school. That was my pinnacle."
The culture around theatre, she notes, has also shifted in a direction some might decry as down-market: "When I started we were Miss Dench, Miss Leigh-Cooke and so on. I remember Donald Sinden wearing a suit to rehearsals every day, except on weekends when he would wear a jumper. There was a manner there -- which was wonderful. You were instructed. Move downstage. Move upstage. Now it's more organic. When we did Anthony and Cleopatra at the National with Anthony Hopkins, Peter Hall said: "Do you want to set this beforehand?" And we said no. That was quite liberating."
Rather touchingly, she still refers to Michael Williams – her husband from 1971 until his death in 2001 – as "Mikey". The couple became a mainstream TV fixture as the stars of the sitcom A Fine Romance during the 1980s. Even then, she recalls being mostly recognised on the street for theatrical work.
“Mostly it was for Shakespeare,” she nods. “I had done so much Shakespeare at the National and the RSC. I made about five films and was told that I wouldn’t make any more by somebody.”
"By a film director. I won't say who. He told me 'you have every single thing wrong with your face'. Films came about by accident for me. We made Mrs Brown for television and then Harvey Weinstein saw it. He said: "That's not television. That's a big movie." So I went back to America after 38 years and suddenly I was in films again."
She has subsequently cemented her film career with an Oscar-winning turn in Shakespeare in Love and by bossing James Bond around. But she'll always return to her first love.
“Shakespeare,” she trills. “With Shakespeare, it’s always the language. That will always be my favourite thing to do. You get to say those lines that people have said for 400 years. They are so magical. It is entirely our heritage. That’s what I love to do most. But I have warmed to films. You are permanently learning. The ones where you think “Oh I know how to do this” are the ones you are going to have problems with.”
Unsurprisingly, she doesn't believe in retirement. She's already planning to jet back to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for a sequel and has a couple of new collaborators lined up: "People were rather condescending about Marigold Hotel," she notes. "But it appealed to many people. It was tremendously good fun to make. And it was a phenomenal success. So we are going to do the sequel. I am also going to work with Dustin Hoffman, who I know a bit, but haven't ever worked with. And I am finally going to work with Clint Eastwood. Who is amazing. And who is easily nine feet tall whereas I am about three feet tall. And those eyes. Goodness."
yyy Philomena opens today on general release and is reviewed on page 11