Dame Judi Dench is one of the UK’s premier theatre performers, working for the National Theatre Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company. She has won six Oliver awards and a Tony. She has also thrived in cinema, earning her first Oscar nomination for her performance as Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown (1997). She then won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, playing Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love (1998). Dame Judi has also received Oscar nominations for her roles in Chocolat (2000), Iris (2001), Mrs Henderson Presents (2005), Notes on a Scandal (2006), and Philomena (2013). She has starred as M in seven James Bond films, from GoldenEye (1995) to Skyfall (2012). And she now reprises the well-loved role of Evelyn, returning with an all-star cast in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015)…
Do you ever worry that these great roles will stop coming?
Yes, but I have always been afraid that the next role is not going to come. Trevor Nunn once said to me when he came to wish me luck on the first night, ‘Why are you always in tears on the first night?’ And I said, ‘Because I think I am never going to be employed again.’ In a way, it is quite a jokey, light-hearted thing to say, but at the depths of me I do have that fear.
Even after all your success?
I still have that fear and perhaps it is very healthy to be like that. Perhaps I don’t want it to change. It is like nerves. You need the nerves because that supplies you with an energy you can use as petrol. And perhaps this fear is something that I need. What I don’t like very much is the fact that you play something and then after that you get sent scripts just like the last role you played, which is the last thing you want to do. You don’t want to play someone like the last person you played. You want to play somebody as different from that as possible.
Did you have any reservations about this film, especially after the first one did so well?
We had no expectation of there being a second one. None at all. The first film was a one-off where I don’t think anyone thought it would be the success it was. Probably, it was quite refreshing to have people who were all of our age and all struggling and trying not to fit into a slot and not being taken for granted, and doing something daring. They are defying what is happening to them.
What is it like working with such a tight group of friends on these films?
It is lovely because you have got a shorthand. You don’t have to worry about making a fool of yourself in front of them because they have seen you make a fool of yourself for years! You know them very well and you know the pace they work at. I never realized until I directed that such a lot of directing is not interpreting the play so much as finding out the speeds and the manner in which an actor works. Afterwards, when I was asked about directing, I said it is like getting 11 horses over the line at the same time. Some of them just want to go off and eat a bit of grass and some of them charge ahead and for the director it is about trying to get them over a line at the same time at the end. It is that. But if they are friends — and we are all good friends, all of us, which is lucky — there is a kind of shorthand because we all know each other so well that you don’t have that embarrassment. Sometimes, it can be like taking all your clothes off in front of somebody. You have to make a fool of yourself to get anywhere.
Has working on these films in India changed you as a person?
The whole experience of India changed me. The one thing I didn’t have to act about Evelyn was her passion for the country and for the people. I just was bewitched by it. I have played in France, Belgium, Japan, America, Australia, Canada and Bangkok and West Africa, so many places, but I found a kind of ease of settling into India quicker than any other country I have ever been in, including America. There are a lot of things to come to terms with that I thought I wouldn’t be very brave about. But the people enchanted me, really. About 70 per cent of the crew on the first film came back to work on the second one. So we knew everybody’s names. It was lovely.
There’s a story out there that you might get a tattoo?
It is a long old joke between Harvey Weinstein and me.
So it is not true?
Well, I haven’t said that! (laughs). He saw Mrs. Brown and it was made for television and he then made it into a movie. Then, after that, I had a movie career. I have done, I think, eight films for Harvey so far; touch wood. Are you listening, Harvey? So I said to him, ‘One day I am going to have your name tattooed,’ and he laughed. Then when we went out to lunch at the Four Seasons and I got my make up person to write Harvey Weinstein on my skin!
Do you help younger actors when you work with them on set?
If they want it and they need it, and if I can, I would. A long time ago in my career, I was in The Cherry Orchard with Sir John Gielgud and Dame Peggy Ashcroft and they taught me an incredible amount of things, an incredible amount. It was directed by Michel Saint-Denis, and I had a hard time with him. They’d all been at Stratford for quite a long time, and I had come straight up from the Old Vic and I had quite a hard time. But Sir John and Peggy were absolutely wonderful to me. They taught me to have a bit of backbone.
Do you have any regrets — any roles you’ve turned down or which you wish you’d been offered?
I don’t, really. Maybe a couple of things. I never liked the play The Merchant of Venice. It is the only Shakespeare play I don’t like and Michael [Williams] and I did it the year we were married. That turned a play that I didn’t like very much into something that I was glad to have done. I don’t really [have regrets]. I think it is a bit negative to have regrets. I do have some regrets about some things I have done, some plays I have done, and I wish I was offered something, which I turned down that went on to be an enormous success. I don’t want to say what it is because the person who played it was absolutely wonderful and doesn’t know that I was offered it in the first place. So you’ll never know!
How did you get involved in the Best Exotic Marigold films in the first place?
John [Madden, the director] approached me. He came down and he read it to me, I think. I can’t read easily. I have to have the print blown up. So he came down, which is actually something I have always liked very much indeed. I have always thought it was terribly important. As children we were told stories. And if they were told in a wonderful way they captured your imagination. Well, if a director comes to you and tells you this story and that story catches you, then you get to tell the audience. I love that.
Have many ordinary people in the street come up and spoken to you about your role as Evelyn?
I don’t think anybody has asked me about it very much, but the joy was that we came to do another one. And I don’t think any of us hesitated for a second about being asked to do a second one. In fact, I don’t think it was even asked of me whether do I want to do this or not. I think I was just told! (laughs). Sometimes, when you are a child you love a place and you go back to it and it is not the same. This was the same and better.
Now you are no longer in the James Bond films, how do you feel?
How could I possibly feel? I’d have been chucked out by MI6 by now anyway (laughs). ‘Don’t let her come in. Get her out.’ They seem to change quite regularly the heads at MI6. She would be living in a big house somewhere with a pension. I don’t like seeing pictures of the Bond cast in the Swiss Alps, or wherever doing great big fun things.
Which is your favourite of the seven James Bond films in which you’ve appeared?
I don’t know. I just remember complaining that I was never taken away anywhere. So in one of the films we were at Stowe Public School and they put me in a trailer with ‘Innsbruck’ written along the side. They said, ‘Now you can never complain about not going anywhere.’ (laughs) Then I did go to Nassau and Panama, so that was all right. I am a huge fan of James Bond and a huge fan of Bernard Lee who used to play M. The first television I ever did, I worked with him. He was a really good actor.
How do you choose your roles these days?
How wonderful to be asked! I do think, ‘God, how wonderful to be asked!’ Especially when there are lots of people who could be asked. That’s not modesty. There are lots and lots and lots of people who are standing around waiting for jobs so I think, you know, how wonderful, how wonderful.
In this film did you enjoy the fact that Evelyn is the one who’s worried about commitment?
It is both of them a bit, isn’t it? The surprise in this one is that they haven’t got together. That quite surprised me. I thought, ‘Gracious me, they haven’t moved on much!’ They are both in the slow lane.
Maybe when you are older love is slower; when you are young it is all very impetuous?
Or maybe when you are older it has to be faster because you haven’t got much time left!
What are the good things about getting older?
Nothing is good about getting older. Nothing. Being young is better!
When you turned 80 what changed in your mind?
I hate it when you said 80. It changes in your mind but it’s a number that people say.
Is it just a number?
Well, it is not even that for me. I don’t use it. I also don’t use the word ‘retire’. It is supposed that when you reach a certain age you pack it up.
But you look great. How do keep looking so fantastic?
Drinking lots of water. And learning something new every single day. I learnt yesterday that a man who makes arrows is called a fletcher. Then yesterday I was quoting the last two lines of Love’s Labours Lost and I couldn’t remember what they were, so I have been and looked them up. And I now know them: ‘The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo,’ which is quite a good quote for this film, actually. And I learned that a man who makes barrels is called a cooper!
Do people approach you much on the street?
Not really, not like in America. I walk everywhere in America and what is so lovely is that people come towards you and high-five you. I love it. You’d never get anybody doing that here, would you? Never. They would stare at you. Maybe they’re too polite. Now I’ve said that, maybe everyone will be high-fiving me all the time!
How much did you enjoy the dance scene at the end of this film?
Heaven. It was great. They gave us a class but I kept missing one bit [of the routine] out. I couldn’t remember it. I could only remember it by thinking, ‘Wash the dog and clap when it is over,’ [she mimes the dance move]. ‘Wash the dog and clap when it is over.’ It was lovely standing there because the boys who danced at the beginning dance so wonderfully. And Dev [Patel] and Tina [Desai] together, they were just enchanting. And we had the joy of standing there watching while it was filmed and it was glorious to do.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is out on Digital HD 22nd June and on Blu-ray and DVD from 29th June