Judi Dench takes every job ‘because I fear it will be my last’
The actress talks about career insecurities, the only thing she watches on telly, and her thoughts on the next James Bond
Losing your sight can’t have many silver linings, but Dame Judi Dench has managed to find one.
“Because I can only really see who someone is when I’m six inches away now,” explains the 84-year-old Oscar-winner, who was diagnosed with macular degeneration in 2012. “I have to get very close to people, and I mean extremely close. Which is handy with the fellas,” she says through a throaty chuckle. “Wonderful, really. And you have to find a silver lining, don’t you?”
Two “gorgeous” fellas Dench says she has appreciated at close quarters recently are world heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua and Luther star Idris Elba, neither of whom she’d met before. And while she’s describing the encounters, awe elevating that gin-soaked voice to an almost girlish pitch, I’m struck by her lack of grandeur. I would have expected – and forgiven – anything between grandeur and outright pomposity from the stage and screen legend who has allowed us to glimpse the human side of queens, duchesses, scheming teachers, MI6 heads and – in the forthcoming Trevor Nunn wartime spy drama, Red Joan – even a communist “granny spy” accused of treason.
So infinitesimally nuanced is the acting of this star alum of the Royal Shakespeare Company that it only took an eight-minute turn as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love (1998) to win her an Oscar. And many of us feel she deserved more than nominations for her roles in the 2013 drama Philomena, Notes on a Scandal (2006), Mrs Henderson Presents (2005), Iris (2001), Chocolat (2000) and Mrs Brown (1997). But today Dench doesn’t want to talk awards and accolades, she wants to talk about Anthony Joshua, whom she met when they shared a sofa on The Graham Norton Show.
“I mean he was heavenly. Heavenly!” Surely not more so than Elba, who is regularly mentioned as a possible successor to Daniel Craig when the latter leaves the role of James Bond? “Oh I think he would be a brilliant Bond,” says Dench. The actress will not actually be there to order Elba around as M (her character died in 2012’s Skyfall) but she will star alongside him in a film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, playing Old Deuteronomy to Elba’s Macavity.
“When we filmed Cats he kept saying to me: ‘Will you send me to the Heaviside Layer?’ And at one point I turned to him and said: ‘No, I’ll send you to MI6’.”
Ask her what she thinks of the other prime Bond contender, Richard Madden, and Dench is bemused: “I don’t know Richard Madden.” He was in Bodyguard. “Oh.” Still nothing. (She doesn’t watch much television, she says, apart from University Challenge, which she “dotes” on – so much so, in fact, that if she misses it she’s “put in a terrible bate for the rest of the week”.
Does she think any 007 will now be able to make the character’s trademark misogynistic quips? “I don’t expect Bond will do that any more,” she says. “But then it won’t be Ian Fleming if he’s not going to do that, will it? And it would all get very serious. But it’s a decision they’ll have to make, isn’t it?”
When Dench discovered that she was to die in 007’s arms in Skyfall – having played M in seven Bond films – she burst into tears. Audiences felt similarly bereft. But in Red Joan Dench proves she’s just as good a spy as spymaster. Based on a novel by Jennie Rooney and inspired by the true story of a KGB source called Melita Norwood (Joan Stanley) – who helped speed up Stalin’s atom bomb programme by passing British nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union – Red Joan is about the coming of age of a young woman in the 1940s, the ethics and moralities of patriotism and treason, and the dangers of underestimating women.
Underestimated first as a Cambridge atomic physics undergraduate and then as a softly spoken pensioner charged with treason 40 years on, Joan “either comes out of it as a heroine or not, depending on what you believe yourself”, says Dench. “I certainly don’t think [Joan] thought of herself as a heroine. She said she believed in everyone having the same nuclear information, so that it would be less likely that people would attack one another and go to war. But some people will feel she’s a bad person.”
I tell Dench that an LA agent recently told me no straightforwardly “bad” women were allowed to be portrayed on screen any more, not in a post-MeToo era. They can have flaws, but ultimately have to be redeemed. “It’s not like life though, is it?” she smiles. “Not like life at all.” No.
Does she feel everything is more agenda-driven today in her industry? “I do think it’s very difficult for young actors of a certain age to get cast now,” she says slowly. “I absolutely admire the ‘all women of colour’ idea,” she goes on, referencing productions like the Richard II currently showing at Shakespeare’s Globe, which has women of colour in every role, “but if it’s all going to swing one way then it’s leaving a whole lot of other people out as well. Attitudes have changed so much in the last 10 years that you don’t quite know where you are any more.”
Is it mostly for the better, though? “In some cases, but not all,” she sighs. “More parts for women, yes, that’s terrific, but other young actors who might want to do Shakespeare are being done out of parts because they’re being played by women. So it’s a kind of dichotomy.”
As it happens, Dench’s next projects aren’t Queen Lear and Hamlette but a film version of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit and a documentary in the same vein as her BBC feature My Passion for Trees, which explored the “extended family” of trees in her six-acre Surrey garden – many planted in memory of loved ones she has lost. These included her husband, Michael Williams, the father of her daughter Finty, who died from lung cancer in 2001. The subject of the documentary will be conservation in Borneo.
Dench’s “chap”, David Mills, is a conservationist she met nine years ago when he invited her to open a squirrel enclosure at the wildlife centre he runs near her home. She tells me about the work they’re doing in Borneo “to keep wildlife in one piece”. I comment on how nice it must be to be able to work on projects she believes in most, and turn down those she might once have felt obliged to do for other reasons. This prompts the most extraordinary reaction: “No, I can’t turn things down,” she says vehemently. “If I’m offered a job I always do it, because I think it’s the last job I’m going to be asked to do.”
Dench worries she’ll never get another job? “Well of course.” She’s amazed that I’m amazed. “Why ever would I not think that?” Because of the Oscar, and the accolades and the legendary status that had her described as “the best thing about Britain alongside fish and chips”.
”Well, I like the billing,” she murmurs. “And fish and chips should certainly be up there. But what you say doesn’t follow at all. Because you can go off the radar, you see ... ” Not her, I scoff. “You can!” she replies.
And because Dench is now as grand, strident and intimidating as every queen, duchess and MI6 head rolled into one, I let her have the last word: “And I do not want to go off the radar.”
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)