Attending the Taormina BNL Film Festival for "Ladies in Lavender", Judi Dench talks about her late career in cinema, her work with Vin Diesel, her close relation with "Lavender"-co-star Maggie Smith, and reveals the real reason why she became a "Bond girl".
... Theater and Cinema
You are regarded as an icon of theatre rather than cinema. Can you talk about your relationship with cinema ? What was your first experience with it ?
Judi Dench: It is true that there are few plays of Shakespeare that I haven't done. When I was young, I was interested in working in cinema, but a director told me back then: "You have everything wrong with your face". I settled with that, since I preferred theatre anyway. I have no control over a film. I don't know what will be left on the cutting floor. In contrast, the control you have in a theatre is very attractive to me.
What finally got me into cinema was "Mrs. Brown". That was done for TV originally, but Harvey Weinstein saw it, and decided that it should be a movie. Today, when I am in the US, I get asked "Have you done anything else than playing "M" in Bond movies?" - there you have 30 years of theatre flowing out of the window.
How do you like working for animation films ?
Judi Dench: I find it rather solitary, since you sit in a booth on your own. When I did "Home on a Range", I didn't realize how long it takes - it took 5 years to do this Disney movie. Actually, they film you all the time. So when journalists ask me "Do you feel like Mrs. Calloway ?", which is a cow, I say "Yes, I suppose". Since they film you all the time, you start identifying with the character. The other thing I noticed is the repetition - I had this line "how, there goes slim" that I said over and over and over again. And then, weeks later, the asked me to do it again. Tom Hanks said "No" 500 times in different ways. But it is a great stretching exercise.
Considering that your film career started relatively late, were you astonished to get the Oscar for "Shakespeare in Love" ?
Judi Dench: People think you know beforehand when you win an Oscar - I can assure you you don't. I said to John Madden: "If there is ever a film that you're doing where somebody walks a dog in the background, I am delighted to do that". He rang me eventually, and gave me this important, but small part. Due to that, I get a lot of film offers. At the beginning of my career, somebody told me: "You will never play anything other than like a soubrette". I looked up what that means - it means playing a support part. And then, I wanted to make sure that this would not be true.
How did you get involved with the Bond movies ?
Judi Dench: I was just asked to be in them. It actually was a complete departure having a woman playing M. I didn't realize at the time that it would be so noticed. My husband was actually very keen that I would become a Bond girl. I will do another one next spring.
Can you give us clues on what has sustained your curiosity and zest for work and life ?
Judi Dench: Well, have you got a couple of weeks ? Seriously, though, I think I never ceased to be grateful of the fact that I am able to do a job that I really love - I never got over that. We're maybe 1 or 2 percent in the world, the people doing what they're really committed to. I started off as a theatre designer, and by some extraordinary circumstance I saw something in Stratford-upon-Avon, and realized that that's the kind of design I want, but also that that's the kind of designer I'll never be.
Also, I couldn't be a one-woman show, since I wouldn't have anybody to bounce off from. Once you're out there, dribbling on, you have nobody to interrupt you. I love being part of a company, and telling a story. There's an author who writes something, then is the director who organizes it, and you give it to the audience- that process I find irresistible. A lot of films are now done in a sequence, which makes it easier. I also love fact that actors never really loose touch - you form incredible friendships. That's the thing of being in a company that I like best
Are there directors or actors that you particularly like to work with ?
Judi Dench: I would like to work with Jack Nicholson, before it's too late. But there are a lot of people that I want to work with. I like to have flexibility in the script. I find it quite tricky to follow rigorously what is in the script. It was exciting to work with Vin Diesel. I have an audience of 13 year old boys from 007 - maybe with the Van Diesel movie, the age is going up to 17 to 20 now, and maybe I will arrive at an audience aged 60-70 someday.
... Vin Diesel
How did Vin Diesel persuade you to work with him ?
Judi Dench: He just asked me to be a galactic ambassador - I thought I'd have a go at that.
I heard he sent you flowers to your dressing room ?
Judi Dench: He did. For some reason, he was prevented to come backstage, so he sent a lot of flowers, and I said yes. This movie took up I don't know how many studio stages. I was there four weeks - it was wonderful, I enjoyed it very much.
Had you heard of Vin Diesel before ?
Judi Dench: I had heard of him, and had seen "Pitch Black". He's just like an actor, he's one of us - he's funny, has a sense of humor and doesn't take himself very seriously. I think you should take your job seriously, but not yourself - that is the best combination. If you take yourself seriously - out the window for me. Vin was so professional and rigorous to work with - he was not like a stand-up comic who had never done this before. A lack of sense of humor I'd be worried about, but not with him.
... "Ladies in Lavender"
I think this is first time for Charles Dance as a director. Why did you accept him as director ?
Judi Dench: I thought he was taking a very exciting chance, and I wanted to take that chance with him.
I haven't seen the film. Can you give us overview of the character you are playing ?
Judi Dench: First, I haven't seen the film either. Somebody told me that during the screening of "Apocalypse Now" here at the festival a couple of years ago, Mount Etna erupted - perhaps that will happen for our movie as well. The movie is about two spinsters who live in a cottage in Cornwall. One day the find the body of a young man washed up on a shore, still alive. The movie is about the effect this has on both sisters.
The young man is played by Daniel Bruehl. How was it to work with him ? Did you see "Good-Bye, Lenin ?"
Judi Dench: I didn't know anything about Daniel. I knew what he had done, but didn't see "Good-bye, Lenin". I think he is an extraordinary young man with a huge future in front of him. He looks incredibly wonderful on film, but also has a lot of credibility. He had to master both the language, and playing the violin. Every single day, he had to learn, while we could play cards. But he never complained, he worked day and night.
I have seen the film, and noticed the closeness between you and Maggie Smith. Can you talk about that ?
Judi Dench: We go back long time to the "Old Vic". In 1958, we shared a dressing room there. We weren't particularly close friends then. The next time we worked together was on "Room with a View" - then we became quite good friends. The next time we worked on "Tea with Mussolini". That was a year after her husband had died, and we had a lot of time together. We walked about in Rome and Florence, and got to know each other very well. At the end of the film, my husband got ill. When we worked together again, I was at the stage that she was at when we did "Tea with Mussolini", and we made a great bond. I am sorry she's not here.
You form a kind of shorthand when you know somebody well. It is much more pleasurable working together. There are many things you don't need to say, since the other person senses what your going to say or do. This is not to say that this can't happen the first time you work with someone. Overall, it is much more pleasurable to know somebody so well.
When directing his movies, is Charles Dance improvising or keeping close to the script ?
Judi Dench: Charles discovered the short story and adapted it. It was slightly changed. It would also change each day with the mood of people - there was a wonderful adaptability working on it.
What did you learn form "Ladies in Lavender" ?
Judi Dench: In "Ladies in Lavender", I noticed that Charles was incredibly precise. He worked like somebody who has been making films for a long time. He was not rigid, and very calm, even though he was under a lot of pressure. There were lot of difficult things we had to achieve in a short time, and in difficult terrain - Cornwall is not easy.
... Her Next Movie
Could you say something about the new Steven Frears movie ?
Judi Dench: It will come out in September. It is called "Mrs. Henderson Presents". It is about the woman who started the Windmill theatre. It was a nude review that carried on through the war. They had a sign saying "we never closed", although some people interpreted that to read "we're never clothed". They got around the laws, since she was a friend of Chamberlain. We had the Chamberlain law that you couldn't do that, but she got away with it due to their friendship.
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