Dame Judi Dench takes an awkward pause. Her interviewer’s name is familiar, even if the actor he shares it with never played one of Dench’s versions of James Bond.
“Well, I don’t know whether to have a nice little chat or give you an assignment, Double-O-seven!”
The Oscar-winning queen of the British stage and screen cackles. She laughs easily and often, at her luck, her career, at the fact that she never chooses a film role solely based “on the exotic location” the story is set in. “You know, like Michael Caine!”
Dench is back on screen with The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which opens Friday, and she’s happy for the reunion that comes with this sequel to the surprise hit of 2011. She didn’t meet her castmates on the Indian sets of that comedy about British old age pensioners moving into a “home” in a land where one’s pension stretches a lot further than in the U.K. These players have tread the British boards together for decades.
“I was at The National with Bill Nighy, and I was with Ronnie Pickup in Amy’s View, Celia [Imrie] and I did Cranford, Penelope [Wilton] and I have worked together. And Mags and I have worked together since, oh, ’58.”
She calls Dame Maggie Smith “Mags.” That must be a one-Dame-to-another privilege.
Dench, who turned 80 in December, welcomed the chance to return to India and go back to work for her favorite director, John Madden (Mrs. Brown, Shakespeare in Love). Because Dench, like her character Evelyn, isn’t interested in retiring. In the sequel, Evelyn’s sharp eye for Indian fabrics could mean a new career, one that could stand in the way of her slow-moving romance with Douglas (Nighy).
“I heard a lady, a doctor, on the BBC the other day, saying ‘I cannot wait to retire!’ She was something like 58. And I thought, ‘What is she going to retire to do?’ I am very, very anti-retirement. What do you with your time? What do you do with somebody elderly in your family? What do you do if you are that elderly person? You don’t want to be a burden to your children. Best to get on with something, so my sympathies are very much with what Evelyn does. ... She looks forward, which we all have to remember to keep doing.”
Evelyn is a bit softer than the typical Dench character. She’s famous for her “queens and other frosty matriarchs,” as the London Times once put it — Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, M in the Bond movies. But she hates the thought of being pigeon-holed.
“I wish someone would ask me to play a weak and feeble woman who just goes to pieces at the smallest little thing,” she laughs. “You don’t have a focus if you don’t challenge yourself, try something new with every opportunity you’re given.”
But Evelyn in Exotic Marigold was some of the easiest acting she’s ever done, she says.
“My character had to be bewitched by the place, Jaipur, and that required little acting on my part. That happened to me very quickly. The color, the sounds, the smells, everything about it is so exotic. Especially to an English person. And then there’s the depressing gap between the rich and the very, very poor. The inequality there is unbelievably shocking, and yet the people are so warm and friendly.”
Dench’s easygoing charm seems more connected to her Quaker background than the driving ambition one must possess to manage an acting career of some 60 years. She keeps working even as she suffers from age-related macular degeneration, making it impossible for her to read scripts (she has them read to her).
She lives in the country in a village “well away from the bustle and business of London.” She keeps lots of pets, hangs out with chums and starts each day “with a little checklist, everything I want to do that day. And if I don’t finish it, I just carry it over to the next. It’s a way to keep looking forward.”
Tribune Media Services