As her new film Philomena hits screens here, the actress talks to Time Out about her love of theatre, getting the push from Bond and why she still gets stage fright.
It’s not yet midday, and Dame Judi Dench reckons she’ll be crawling the walls soon after her third hit of caffeine. ‘It’s two inches of unbelievably strong coffee,’ says the actress, nodding to the cup of sludge in her hands. ‘It’s heavenly.’
The 78-year-old star of stage and screen – we recently saw her for the last time as M in Skyfall – is sitting in an armchair at London’s Claridge’s hotel and doesn’t stand when we enter the room. Which has nothing to do with airs and graces; she’s had an operation on her knee.
We talk about her new film Philomena. It’s a true story: she plays an Irish woman, Philomena Lee, who as a teenager was forced by nuns to give up her baby for adoption. Dame Judi’s unlikely co-star is Steve Coogan, playing an ex-BBC journalist reporting on her quest to find her son.
You found fame in film late, in your sixties. You once listed your first love as theatre, then TV, then movies. What would you say now?
I’d say theatre... But I don’t think there’s much between TV and movies. It’s the same process.
Do you meet people who don’t have a clue about your life before the movies?
Yes. They have no idea about all that Shakespeare and Chekhov and David Hare and Ibsen. I went to America with Mrs Brown in 1997 and they said: “What have you done, apart from Mrs Brown and M?”
Do you get annoyed about that?
No, no, it’s a different audience, isn’t it? Just as M is for an audience of my grandson and his friends.
How did you feel when they told you Skyfall was your last Bond?
Fury. You know, I had a wonderful time doing it. But you have to be realistic about it. Would MI6 really not have given me the push by now? I’ve given Bond a good go. I had four films with Pierce, three with Daniel. So I’ve been pretty spoilt, I reckon.
The boss of the National Theatre in London, Nick Hytner, has said that you’re joining them in November for their 50th anniversary celebrations for a night of greatest hits.
Oh did he? Then I’m going to have to do it now aren’t I? Actually I’m going to do a bit of Cleopatra. And I’m singing ‘Send in the Clowns’ [from Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music].
Do you still get nervous?
Yeah, very. I get nervous about everything. You can use that energy. Fear. And nerves. Nothing that the audience needs to know about. And nothing that the rest of your company needs to know about either. There are people for whom nerves take over, and it kind of spreads.
So you don’t share your nerves with colleagues?
That would be appalling. I think you could be sacked for that.
You and Steve Coogan are in most scenes together in Philomena. Did you get on well?
Yes, it was lovely. He made me howl. The more serious the piece is, the more levity you’ve got to get rid of before you shoot something. He just made me laugh and laugh and laugh.
Do you ever find younger actors are in awe of you?
No, I don’t think so. Steve [Coogan] said something like that yesterday, and I could have given him a thump. It doesn’t affect things. Steve just fell into this job completely naturally. When we were watching Philomena in Venice, I gave him an enormous pinch in the middle of it and said, “Don’t you dare be so good! How dare you! You’re a stand-up comic, go back to that!” Steve is a brilliant comic. He made me cry with laughter. He’s very non-PC.
You’ve had such success in film later in life. Are there enough roles for actresses as they get older?
There aren’t, considering the amount of people who are my age. But then there have never been enough parts for women. Look at Shakespeare: there aren’t enough women parts in Shakespeare. You feel very, very lucky if you get to play any. You feel very lucky indeed.
Philomena is out in cinemas across Dubai from Thursday December 26.