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Judi Dench on Beating Failing Eyesight, Bad Knees and Retirement

THR caught up with the 79-year-old "Philomena" Oscar nominee, who has been largely absent from the awards campaign trail, to discuss the impact of her macular degeneration, her "best friend" and why she still works 12-hour days.

Issue 8 FEA Judi Dench - H 2014
Photos by Colston Julian
Judi Dench

As the legendary Judi Dench nears her 80th birthday, she is enjoying as great a third act as any actor ever has. In January, for her performance as a mother searching for her long-lost child in Stephen Frears' Philomena (which is based on the true story of Philomena Lee), she landed her seventh Oscar nomination; all of them, including her best supporting actress win for just eight minutes of work in Shakespeare in Love, have come in the past 16 years, since she turned 63. And, despite macular degeneration, which has robbed her of most of her eyesight, and recent knee surgery, which has hobbled her movement, the Dame has no plans of slowing down her schedule anytime soon.

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In fact, when Dench spoke with THR earlier this month, she was hard at work, far from home, in Jaipur, India, shooting The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2, a sequel to the 2011 surprise hit original — and loving it. "My character in the first film says [of India], 'It's an assault on your senses,' and that's exactly what it is," Dench remarks. "I mean, the color and sound and noise and smell and taste — you become unbelievably bewitched by it." Moreover, she's getting to spend time with the great British cast she worked alongside on the first film — including fellow Dame Maggie Smith, whom she first met and shared a dressing room with in 1958, and with whom she has since starred in numerous plays and films — plus new additions Richard Gere and Tamsin Greig, of whom she speaks very highly.

Dench has been acting since the age of 5, when she played a snail in a school play. "I remember I had a brown romper suit on and brown tights and my father made me an enormous shell," she recalls with a laugh. "All I had to do was crawl across the stage under this shell. When my parents came to it, I can remember standing up — and I can also remember somebody at the side of the stage saying, 'Get down! Get down!' My first critic." But her dream, as an adolescent, was to be a theater designer, and she trained to be one for years until one particular trip to the theater changed her life. "I went to see a production of King Lear, with Michael Redgrave, at Stratford and I was so bowled over that, in my memory, it was an overnight thing. I can remember saying, 'I'm not sure that I want to be a designer.'"

She landed her first acting job at the Old Vic, where she worked from 1957 until 1961, and then joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and acted with it in Stratford and London for the next 20 years, during which she became one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation "doing the whole canon of Shakespeare, really." The work of the Bard has always held great appeal to her: "That was the best I could possibly imagine it could be," she said. "I would like to be doing a play of Shakespeare every night."

While in her 30s, Dench fell in love with a fellow classical actor, Michael Williams. "Mutual friends of ours introduced us in a pub in Covent Garden," she says. "He had this marvelous sense of humor, which, for me, is paramount. We knew each other as friends for a long, long time." In 1971, when Dench was 36, they tied the knot. "If we hadn't married, he'd still have been my best friend, which I think is kind of the secret to being happy, myself." A year after their wedding, Dench gave birth to their only child, Tara (whom she has always called "Finty"), and adapted her work schedule accordingly. "When my daughter was little, being in the theater was good because at the time she was going to bed I was going off. And then, when she got a bit bigger and went to school, I did television when she was at school so that I had a bit of an evening. We juggled it that way."

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Film, for the most part, had been off her radar since the 1950s. At a film audition "very early on," she recalls, "I was told that I didn't have a face to be a screen actress. Well, that was it. That was a time when you had to be quite a looker." But, against all odds, Dench began one of the great film careers nearly a half-century later, in 1997, at the age of 63, after Harvey Weinstein, long an admirer of hers, saw her in John Madden's Mrs. Brown. "Mrs. Brown was made for television, he saw it and he said, 'No, this is a movie,'" she remembers. He acquired its rights for a pittance, released it in theaters, where it grossed $13 million, and brought Dench back to America for the first time in 38 years to attend the Oscars. "It is thanks to him that I've got a film career."

Via Miramax and later the The Weinstein Co., Weinstein has now distributed six of the seven films for which Dench has received Oscar noms — Mrs. Brown, Shakespeare in Love, Chocolat, Iris, Mrs. Henderson Presents and now Philomena (she was also nominated for Notes on a Scandal) — and the two have developed an odd-couple fondness for each other. "I once said to him, 'I have your name tattooed on my bum,'" Dench recalls. "He laughed and was well, quite embarrassed, actually. It's quite difficult to embarrass Harvey, but I did! And then we went out to lunch, to The Four Seasons. Charlie Rose was there and I think my agent was there. Beforehand, I got my makeup lady to actually write Harvey's name [on my bum]. Then at lunch I said, 'You know, I do have it on my bum' — and then I actually got up and showed him! I've never seen a man more embarrassed and I've never let him forget it!"

Weinstein tells THR, "Judi Dench is the consummate actress of her day. When you think of great acting there are two names at the top of the list: Meryl Streep and Judi Dench. It's been a privilege for me to have made seven movies with Judi. I have gone out of my way to make sure there were parts written for her. And she has gone out of her way to say yes. It is one of the most unique professional and personal friendships of my life." He continues, "Of those seven movies we have made together, Judi has been nominated for or won an Academy Award, Golden Globe, or BAFTA each time. But as great of an actress as she is, she tops that with her humanity and great heart."

(Moviegoers who shun art houses, where most of Dench's collaborations with Weinstein have screened, still know her thanks to her work as M, the head of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, in seven James Bond films between 1995 and 2012.)

Dench has never stopped working, even in the immediate aftermath of her beloved husband's death from lung cancer in 2001. She forced herself to go on. "With the help of my daughter and my grandson, who was then very little, and my friends, I got through it," she reflects. "And I had a film, The Shipping News with Kevin Spacey, so I did a few weeks of that, and then I came back and did the whole of Iris, and then I flew back to Nova Scotia and finished off The Shipping News, and then I came back and did Pride and Prejudice."

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Today, when she's not trotting the globe for work, she leads a rather simple life. "I live in a village on the border of Kent and Sussex and Surrey, in an old house," she shares. "My daughter and grandson are there quite a lot. Otherwise it's me and a dog and two cats — it might be three, I don't know, one of my cats is very sick at the moment — and a very lively goldfish, which I've given the breath of life to twice." Pardon? "He's now about 8 inches long — almost a full shark — and yes, twice, I breathed into his mouth. He's now called Lazarus," she says, after the man whom Jesus, according to John 11:1-45, rose from the dead.

Dench also has a "best friend," by the name of David Mills, "who doesn't live very far away" in Surrey, and whom she has been rumored to be dating. "He owns the British Wildlife Center and he asked me in 2003 to open a new kind of den for the badgers, but I couldn't do it then," she explains. "But then he asked me in 2010 to open the red squirrel enclosure, and I did and we became very good friends."

Even when she's not preparing for or playing a part, Dench likes to keep herself occupied. "I make a list every day of my life, and there are always things on that list that I have to do." And, not wanting to "to be left behind," she tries her best to stay current with technology, a quest with which she receives assistance from her 5-year-old grandson. She owns a cell phone and an iPad and volunteers, "I don't do much on the iPad, but I'm learning to do a bit more. I can play Solitaire on it. And now I can play some music on it. But yesterday I didn't know how to stop it!" She continues, "I don't do email. I don't do Twitter. I don't do Facebook. But I do do Facetime, which I like very much indeed. I like seeing the person who's at home."

But seeing anything these days is not easy for Dench because of her macular degeneration, an affliction from which her mother suffered, as well. "I never want to make much of it, but it is difficult — very, very difficult," she confesses. "I can't read anymore. I can't paint like I used to. I try to watch movies, but it's quite difficult. But these are all of the negatives. I don't want to really think about all that. What I can do, I do. And I somehow get by." (Interestingly, even before her eyesight began to decline, she preferred to have others read scripts to her, as Steve Coogan did for Philomena. "I suppose it's the child in me. I think somebody coming around and telling you a story is irresistible.") As for her recent surgery, she says, "It's a new knee and it's getting better every day."

Nevertheless, Dench's health troubles, along with her shooting schedule in India, have kept her almost entirely off of the campaign trail this awards season and caused some to wonder if she might be winding down her illustrious career. Will she ever retire? "It's the rudest word in my dictionary, 'retire,'" she says forcefully. "And 'old' is another one. I don't allow that in my house. And being called 'vintage.' I don't want any of those old words. I like 'enthusiastic' and I like the word 'cut' because that means you've finished the shot." She adds, "I heard a woman being interviewed on the radio the other day who was 105, and I expected this very frail voice, but this wonderful voice came out and she said to this reporter who was interviewing her, 'I'll tell you one thing,' she said, 'Don't stop anything. I never stop anything I'm doing because otherwise I'll never get started again.' And I thought, 'That'll do.'"

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg