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Judi Dench once mooned Harvey Weinstein at the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York to show him that she had “tattooed” his name on her bum. The legendary actress of the stage and screen howled with laughter as she recounted the story to me over the phone from her home in London a few days ago: “I’ve never seen a man more embarrassed!”
It would be an understatement to describe Dench and Weinstein as a Hollywood “odd couple.” Dench, 79, is the elegant British actress who has performed Shakespeare onstage, conquered TV and, since turning 63, scored six Oscar noms. Weinstein, 61, is the scrappy cineaste-turned-exec from Flushing who has muscled his way to the top of the Hollywood food chain. But Dench, who stars in the critically-acclaimed Weinstein Co. film Philomena — which has received a Golden Globe nom for best picture and garnered Dench best actress Critics’ Choice, Globe and SAG award noms — told me, “It is thanks to Harvey that I’ve got a film career.”
It all goes back to 1997, when Weinstein, who had long admired Dench from afar, saw an early cut of Mrs. Brown, a film in which she stars that was intended to air on TV. Convinced that it had big screen potential, he acquired its rights for a pittance, released it in theaters, where it grossed $13 million, and ultimately brought her back to America — for the first time in 38 years — to attend the Oscars, at which she was a best actress nominee. The next year, she won the best supporting actress Oscar for her eight-minute performance in Weinstein’s Shakespeare in Love and went on to score additional noms for Chocolat, Iris, Mrs. Henderson Presents and Notes on a Scandal, all but the last of which were also Weinstein films.
The duo’s latest collaboration, the Stephen Frears-directed drama Philomena, might be their most moving yet. Dench plays Philomena Lee, an elderly Irish woman who decided to try to track down her son 50 years after he was taken from her as a baby and sold to an American couple by the nuns at the abbey at which she lived. Lee is a real person whom Dench befriended shortly before filming began, which left her feeling a considerable sense of responsibility to portray her story well. Most believe she has — and that, with the benefit of Weinstein’s awards-campaigning savvy, she will wind up back at the Oscars on March 2 as the fourth-oldest best actress Oscar nominee in history. She chuckled, “It’s always Harvey, isn’t it? You see? I should have a whole book tattooed there!”
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Did you go to the movies as a kid? And, if so, were any particularly important or memorable for you?
Oh, yes, I did go. It was an enormous treat for us to go. And I remember seeing Bambi, and I’ve actually never let my daughter see it, and also Dumbo I saw, and I’ve never let me daughter see Dumbo, either, because I remember it upsetting me very much. [laughs] And then, I went through a stage in my early teens, when I got a ghastly thing, a kind of claustrophobia in the cinema because of being in the dark, and so I didn’t go to the cinema, actually, for a very long time, and the consequence is that it’s left me with a huge amount of films that I’ve never seen. But now, with DVDs and things like that, you can actually see it on a screen and not be in a long black tunnel and I’m better about it. So I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
Do you remember the first time that you tried acting yourself, even if it was just for fun?
Oh, I do. Oh, yes, I do. I was, I think, five, and I played a snail in Four-and-twenty Tailors Went to Kill a Snail. You know? “The best man among them durst not touch her tail.” Anyway, I remember I had a brown romper suit on and brown tights and my father made me an enormous shell. I can remember this very clearly. I remember all I had to do was crawl across the stage under this shell. When our 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!” Being very cross — my first critic, you know? — being very, very cross with me. That’s not a very good memory, is it, to want to put you on acting for the rest of your life?
Was there a moment or an event after which you knew that acting was what you had to do?
I didn’t want to act at all. I only ever wanted to be a theater designer. I trained for it. I went to York Art School for three years and that’s the course I took. My brother, Jeffrey, who’s older than me and only ever wanted to be an actor, had been to the Central School, and 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 was there with my parents, not my brothers — “I’m not sure that I want to be a designer.” It seems like that — whether it was like that I don’t know. But it was very quickly after that that I had thought that I would try and go to the Central School and be an actor.
And were your parents supportive of that?
Oh, very. Our parents took us to the theater as young children. I remember seeing a production of A Cuckoo in the Nest — Ben Travers‘ — and I laughed so much that it made me sick. A man came out of a trunk at the end of the bed in some kind of long combination; I laughed so hard that my mother took me home and then took me back the next night to see what happened in the rest of the play. [laughs] Also, at the school my brother was at and the school I was at, they were very keen on acting. I saw my brothers in Julius Caesar, The Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth when I was about nine. And then, when I went to school, we did Richard II and — I suddenly can’t remember what else we did, but a lot of other things at the school — Tobias and the Angel. And I suppose that’s where it happened. I thought, “I’ll have a go at that!”
At the outset of your career, did you imagine that your career would involve acting beyond the stage? Was it always your hope to become a screen actress as well?
No, no, no, never, never. Very early on, 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 [laughs] — in the ’50s. And then I went to the Vic — that was my first job, at the Old Vic — and that was my passion, just doing Shakespeare and being there. That was the best I could possibly imagine it could be. And so I was jolly lucky.
Eventually, how did television enter the picture for you?
I did quite a lot of television. 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 her next school, I did television when she was at school so that I had a bit of an evening. We juggled it that way. I did a lot of television. And then, thanks to Harvey Weinstein and Mrs. Brown, everything changed and I started being sent film scripts.
Why do you think it took so long for people in film to give you a chance? You were obviously terrific and very acclaimed for your work on the stage …
Well, I just didn’t do films — not turning them down, just not asked to do them. And I was doing the whole canon of Shakespeare, really, at Stratford and at the Vic. And that was the ideal for me. And so it never really happened. I did a few films — but very few — before Mrs. Brown.
How did Mrs. Brown come about? And can you talk about your relationship with Harvey Weinstein. You two seem to really enjoy each other …
Yes, I do. I owe a great deal to him. I mean, Mrs. Brown was made for television, [but] he saw it and he said, “No, this is a movie.” And so it was shown and then I went back to America after 38 years of being away — I hadn’t been there with the Old Vic. I went back for the first time and now I think it’s, oh, seven to eight films I’ve done with Harvey. It is thanks to him that I’ve got a film career.
It might be a legend, in which case I’m embarrassed to ask you about it, but I have to: Was there something involving a tattoo once?
[laughs] I’m so glad that that’s universal news, I’m really glad. I once said to him, “I have your named tattooed on my bum.” 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. [laughs] Then I brought it up at lunch and 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. [laughs] Perhaps I should have it done and really shock him!
Each of your six Oscar nominations have come since you turned 60, which is unprecedented, and all but one of them was for a Harvey-distributed movie.
It’s always Harvey, isn’t it? You see? I should have a whole book tattooed there!
I would imagine that, of those six, one that is probably as memorable as any for you, even though your part was so short, is Shakespeare in Love. Did your Oscar for that film change things for you or were they already on course to be what they’ve become?
No, I think it did change things. It was extremely unexpected and I think things did change, in that I got sent film scripts and I worked with John Madden, who I’m just about to work with again. Yes, I think it all probably changed from that time, as far as my film career is concerned.
You’ve played a lot of people who really lived, but when you play somebody who is a real person and is still alive, as in the case of Philomena Lee in Philomena, do you prepare differently? Do you feel a greater sense of pressure?
There is a great pressure because that person is there to criticize, and stand, and look and think, “That’s not how it happened!” or “That’s not true!” And so our responsibility to her was considerable. I met her before we started shooting. We had the most wonderful lunch. She’s got a great, great sense of humor. She made me laugh. And also the Irish sense of humor — because my ma was Irish, and my father was brought up there and we have a lot of relations there — I understood that very well, I could recognize that sense of humor. So that was a very important meeting for me because I just wanted to look at her, and think, and just listen to her, and hear what she had to say, and watch her and everything, you know? But then, the next time, she walked in on the set when I was actually in my wig and dressed like her and that must’ve been a bit of a facer for her. I think to come face to face with the person who is meant to be representing you must be a rather shattering feeling, I imagine. I wouldn’t like that. She was very well-mannered about it.
The subject matter of her story is, in some ways, very dark, and yet she remains such a positive person. Is that fun to play?
I know. I mean, her faith and her fortitude after the things that she’d gone through — And now she says, “I just feel that the book and the film might help somebody else who is in the same situation to cope with their future or their past.”
Over the years, has there been a part or a couple of parts that you’ve found the most enjoyable to play? Obviously you’ve played M seven times over 17 years in Bond films, so I have to assume that’s one of them.
Oh, there are a lot, Scott. I mean, in the theater there’s a play called Absolute Hell, by Rodney Ackland, that I did on television and then did at the National. It probably isn’t the one I would want to do every night; I would like to be doing a play of Shakespeare’s every night. But, you know, it’s easier for me to count on my fingers the ones I didn’t enjoy so much — but there were very, very, very few.
I’ve read that you’ve been facing something that a number of people in my own life have had to deal with, macular degeneration.
I know it’s always difficult, but does it impact your ability or your desire to act?
No, no, no. It just prevents me from seeing when other actors are laughing or something, which is something I hate — to miss a good joke. [laughs] But apart from that it’s OK. I get by.
What keeps you acting when you really, it seems to me, have nothing left to prove to anyone else? Is there something that you want to prove to yourself?
You know, I heard a woman the other day who was 105, and I expected this very frail voice — she was being interviewed on the radio — and 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. That’ll do me. [laughs] It’s a really, really great thing to say.
And you feel the same way? You still love it?
I do, yes. Yes.
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Portia de Rossi