'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Judi Dench ('Victoria and Abdul')

Judi Dench attends The Olivier Awards - Getty-h 2017
Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

"Some people work, earn some money and then want to retire and do the things they want to do," says the legendary British actress Judi Dench, who landed all seven of her Oscar nominations, including one for 1998's Shakespeare in Love that turned into a win, after turning 63 almost 20 years ago. Returning to contention this year for her work in the recently released Victoria and Abdul, she says, as we sit down at the DGA Theatre in Los Angeles to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast, "I want to go on working because that's what I like to do best."

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Dench was born and raised in York, England, and grew up aspiring to become a set and costume designer for the theater. Eventually, a couple of theatergoing experiences convinced her that she could not be a great designer, and that she instead desperately wanted to become an actress. Following studies at the Central School, Dench made her professional debut, 60 years ago this month, as Ophelia in Hamlet at the Old Vic. Critics weren't initially kind to her, but it was just the beginning for her of decades of Shakespearean productions at the Vic and Stratford.

Screen acting only came along much later. At an early audition for a movie, Dench recalls, a director told her, "You have everything wrong with your face for filming," so she abandoned any further pursuit of a film career. "It was fine," she says. "I very happily went back to doing Shakespeare and the theater, which is all I ever wanted to do." In 1971, Dench married the actor Michael Williams, and a year later gave birth to their daughter, Finty Williams. After that, she did pursue work in television, which allowed her to spend evenings at home. One show in the 1980s, A Fine Romance, in which she starred opposite her husband (who died in 2001), brought her to her largest audience yet, but Dench's heart was and remains in the theater. "You get more chances to have a go at it, to get it better, sometimes to get it worse," she explains. "Every night you learn something new."

By 1988, when Dench first became a Dame, the actress had waded into films with small supporting parts, but still remained unknown to most people outside of the U.K. That changed in 1995 when she appeared as M in Golden Eye, the first of eight Bond films in which she portrayed the MI6 chief over the next 20 years. ("Michael [Dench's husband] said, 'You've got to do it because I would like to live with a Bond woman,'" she recalls with a laugh.) But her reputation as a great film actress only dates back to 1997, when she played Queen Victoria in a low-budget movie that was made in just 30 days and intended for TV, John Madden's Mrs. Brown (1997).

Distributor Harvey Weinstein saw Mrs. Brown and decided to acquire it and release it in theaters. For Dench, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship with the mogul (that she says she may or may not have commemorated with a tattoo on her "bum"): In early 1998, she wound up with her first Oscar nomination, at age 63, and five of the six films for which she's subsequently received Oscar noms were also distributed by Weinstein — 1998’s Shakespeare in Love (for which she reunited with Madden and won the best supporting actress Oscar for an eight-minute performance), 2000’s Chocolat, 2001's Iris, 2005’s Mrs. Henderson Presents and 2013’s Philomena. The other mention was for 2006’s Notes on a Scandal ("the most glorious part to play").

Dench's latest project, Victoria and Abdul, for which she returns to best actress contention, marks her fifth collaboration with director Stephen Frears, as well as a return to the part of Queen Victoria that she last played in Mrs. Brown. The dramedy recounts the little-known story of the monarch's unlikely relationship with a young Indian man named Abdul Karim — something that the world only learned about in 2010, when old letters were discovered, and that Dench herself only learned about more recently. "I had only known the history of Victoria through her marriage to Albert and subsequently her relationship with John Brown," the actress acknowledges. "[The film] tells another strand of her life."