Dame Judi Dench on life, love…and the next James Bond

Dame Judi Dench

Meeting one of your idols in the flesh is a nerve-racking experience. What if they turn out to be rude, or arrogant – or, heaven forbid, dull?

It turned out there was no need for me to worry in the case of Dame Judi Dench, who is one of my all-time favourite actresses. I’ve seen her on stage a number of times and watched most, if not all, of her films – and admire her hugely. She was at the China Exchange as part of its ‘Prudential Series’, in which Sir David Tang, the organisation’s Chairman, interviews high-achieving guests who’ve lived extraordinary lives.

The first thing I should say is that this remarkable octogenarian looks fantastic – glowing with health and vitality. The second is that she came across a woman who is delightfully down-to-earth – and also very funny, quipping that it honestly doesn’t bother her, “only” having won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar and not a Best Actress Oscar: “Why would I mind? All of the statues look exactly the same!”

I was interested to learn that Dame Judi never, in fact, set out to be an actress. Initially training as a scenic designer, it was only through her actor brother’s influence that she decided to swap scenery for the stage. Another fact that many people are likely to be unaware of is that Dame Judi was brought up a Quaker and educated at a Quaker boarding school – and says that her faith remains “vitally important” to her.

Like many actors of her generation, she bemoans the disappearance of the traditional repertory companies which provided such good, on-the-job training for actors starting out in their profession (I remember Maureen Lipman making a similar comment when I saw her being interviewed). That said, Dame Judi believes that drama schools today are excellent and, because they now also teach singing and dance, trained actors are better prepared than ever. She also thinks that, although there is still a paucity of roles for women, there is at least better awareness of the obstacles they face.

On the differences between film and stage, and whether she has a preference: “Films never turn out how you expect. For that reason, I’ve watched very few of mine”. In the theatre, says Dame Judi, you can adapt your performance every night, which is “wonderful”. It took time for her to appreciate the filming process, which she says she treated as a learning curve. That said, the Bond movies “changed my life”. Over a period of 17 years, she made eight Bond films – and Dame Judi admitted, with a twinkle in her eye, that they are by far the most lucrative work she has done (although she was granted no profit percentages, alas). Not only did Bond open many other doors to her in the film world, it also made her late husband, Michael Williams, very happy (“I’ve always wanted to live with a Bond woman”, he told her, while she was debating whether to take the role”). Having worked with two different Bonds, in the form of Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig, she declined to say which actor she preferred and was just as discreet on the subject of who should play Bond next, instead deftly returning that question back to the audience (“Idris Elba” was the resounding response).

On the subject of career regrets, Dame Judi admits to being gutted to have turned down the lead in ‘Shirley Valentine’, after she saw it – but praised Pauline Collins for being “sensational” in the role.

It was particularly interesting hearing Dame Judi talk about the many co-stars and directors with whom she’s worked over the years. She’s been lucky enough to have worked with most of the people she wanted to work with, with the exception of Martin Scorsese (there’s still time, Judi). Leonardo di Caprio was “serious, but charming”, apparently – and she loved working with Clint Eastwood, although his directorial style took some getting used to – rather than use traditional requests, such as “Action” or “Cut”, he prefers to growl, Dirty Harry-style, “In your own time”, or “Would you do it again?”. Pleasingly, he insists on finishing work at 4.30pm every day, so that he can go and play golf.

“Are you an introvert, or an extrovert?” enquired one member of the audience. This gave Dame Judi pause for thought. Eventually, she concluded that, disliking public speaking as she does (“it’s anathema to me”) she leans more towards being an introvert. This might sound surprising, coming from someone who’s spent most of her life treading the boards, but as she pointed out, when you’re on stage you have the benefit of (i) trying to be someone else, and (ii) using someone else’s words.

Dame Judi cites the greatest influences on her acting career as John Gielgud and Dame Peggy Ashcroft, both of whom were exceptionally kind to her when the three of them were performing together in ‘The Cherry Orchard’ and she was feeling out of her depth. It’s important, she states, that as well as preparing in detail for any role, you learn from and are inspired by the people around you – for this reason, Dame Judi says she could never perform in a one-woman show.

What next, then, for Dame Judi? ‘Victoria and Abdul’ comes out in October, she informed us, and – like ‘Mrs Brown’ – is based upon a true story – the difference between the two being that her new film is set four years after John Brown died. She was thrilled to get another opportunity to play Queen Victoria, whose achievements as a monarch she believes are greatly underestimated.

One final question from the audience for Dame Judi: “Have you ever fallen for one of your leading men?”

“Yes!” And upon that bombshell, she declined to elaborate any further…

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