London Film Festival: Maggie Smith Says Female Role Debate Is for "Middle-Aged" Women

Courtesy of Sony Pictures
'The Lady in the Van'

The actress also said she found her role in 'The Lady in the Van' easier than that of her iconic Dowager Countess character in 'Downton Abbey.'

At the BFI London Film Festival press conference for The Lady in the Van, which bowed in Toronto, there was the inevitable question for its lead Maggie Smith about her secret to maintaining a successful and vibrant career at the age of 80.

The two-time Oscar-winning actress acknowledged that there was an ongoing debate about there not being “many parts for women over a certain age,” but suggested that those involved were “talking about middle-age.”

She joked that she’d probably “reached the limit,” for parts at her age, but then said she was sure there would be “many” more to come.

Smith, known internationally in recent years for her role as the sharp-tongued Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey, admitted she preferred her role in Lady in the Van as Miss Shepherd, who lived in an old van on writer Alan Bennett’s drive in London for 15 years.

“Curiously, I feel easier with the lady in the van than the lady with the hat on,” she said. “It was much easier to be Miss Shepherd because she didn’t mind how she looked. Lady Violet was forever in these corsets, so for comfort alone it was nicer to be Miss Shepherd.”

Director Nicolas Hytner, who directed the original stage play of The Lady in the Van starring Smith, revealed to the assembled press that one Monday morning the crew returned to the production — shot outside Bennett’s original home in Camden Town — to find a “couple of people who had been having a good time with each other” inside the titular van.

“When I arrived a while later, they were evacuating the van of all its filthy contents, which were obviously just made by the art department, to have them deep cleaned because they had no idea what these two youngsters had been doing through the weekend, and then make it filthy again,” he said.

“And I had to keep from Maggie why we were suddenly swapping the schedule for the whole day.”

Smith replied: “I was told much later.”