Dame Judi Dench certainly wouldn’t jet off to India if her husband died
- Credit: PA
Who isn’t looking forward to the new Judi Dench film, the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which opened in Suffolk cinemas at the weekend?
To celebrate its release, Keeley Bolger spoke to Dame Judi about reprising her role as Evelyn in the most eagerly awaited sequel of the year!
Dame Judi Dench has a problem with growing older.
“I don’t like ‘age’ much. Is getting older better? No. There’s nothing good about it,” remarks the 80-year-old.
Perhaps inevitably, the acclaimed actress often finds herself fielding questions about retirement and advancing years, and she doesn’t care for it - and today, as pleasantly and politely as she addresses it, she isn’t about to be drawn into an involved discussion over whether ageing is something she relishes or not.
As the York-born star has shown us time and time again, though, age is no barrier to performance.
There’s her fantastic turn as M in the Bond films, her Oscar-nominated portrayal of a true-life mother searching for the son she was forced to give up for adoption in Philomena, and of course, her role as sweet-natured widow Evelyn in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
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Its sequel is released this month and, like the first movie, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, about a motley older community making new lives for themselves in India, also starring the likes of Dame Maggie Smith, Celia Imrie and Richard Gere, elegantly bridges humour and drama.
“Evelyn has much more courage than I would have. I wouldn’t go off to India if my husband had just died. I wouldn’t have had that courage to go to a foreign country, where I didn’t know anything about it. I might, perhaps, go as far as Scotland or Cornwall...” says Dench, who has a 42-year-old daughter called Finty.
“I understand that thing of saying to your children, ‘I don’t want to be a burden, I don’t want to hang around and for you to have to look after me’. But that wouldn’t be me, I’m not brave like that.”
In this latest instalment, Evelyn is now considering a new career in fashion, which was a joy for Dench, who has a healthy disregard for wearing the opposite of “what people think you should wear”.
“What you find is that the thing which is most comfortable, is the thing that probably suits you most and you’ll move best in. Whereas you could be in something that’s frightfully fashionable and probably looks alright, but you can be in agony in it. And all you’ll remember is the agony. Not worth it,” she notes, looking as chic as ever today, with her trademark crop highlighting that enviable bone structure.
Evelyn also finds herself in emotional turmoil this time round, as she grapples with her feelings for the affable Douglas, played by Bill Nighy.
While she never “judges” the characters she plays, preferring instead to “try and understand them - with all their failings, strengths and misgivings”, she did enjoy continuing the will-they-won’t-they love story.
“I think having somebody around to go and do things and have a laugh with is very important indeed,” says the star, whose husband Michael Williams died in 2001 (she’s now in a “lovely” relationship with a conservationist David Mills).
Laughing is something Dench, recently seen in BBC One’s big-hearted Esio Trot with Dustin Hoffman, does a lot, whether she’s gossiping with Graham Norton on his chat show, posing in a baseball cap with ‘Dench’ (now a colloquial term for ‘cool’) emblazoned on it, or mischief-making on set.
“I have a reputation for behaving quite badly,” she admits, confessing that she’s been known for playing tricks on her co-stars.
“I don’t do it so much now, but I used to. I have played jokes on people, you know, very, very subtly so the audience can’t see. I find it irresistible.”
During a miserably wet day while filming period drama Cranford a few years back, she started a game where all the cast had to make a boat out of a piece of paper - but her co-star Dame Eileen Atkins didn’t quite follow the rules.
“Eileen made a car out of it,” the actress recalls, laughing. “I said, ‘You’re absolutely disqualified from the game!’”
Doubtless, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel director John Madden can attest to that sense of youthful fun.
He’s full of praise for her “warmth and humanity” and “skill set to die for”, but also says: “She’s funny as hell!”
“I mean she’s totally disrespectful of whatever she’s doing, of everybody around her... [But] she’s loyal and she gives everything to what she’s doing. She’s a force of nature, extraordinary. Everything about her is special.”
Dench happily admits she and Maggie Smith were reduced to “giggling girls” during their eight-week shoot in India, passing their spare time playing word game Bananagrams (incidentally, a game Dench taught Smith, who in turn introduced it to her Downton Abbey colleagues).
“I was swimming in the hotel one day and Maggs was in her room. She said, ‘Oh Judi, go and get Bananagrams’,” Dench explains, recalling how their hotel boasted a pool right outside their rooms.
“So I swam back, went in, got the Bananagrams, tied it round my head and swam back - and she took a photograph!”
Dench is such a fan of word game Bananagrams, she credits playing the game, as well as doing crosswords and taking up new activities, for keeping her mind active.
“I think you’ve got to find wit and humour in things. You’ve got to want to learn something all the time. I like being shown. I’m just learning how to carve soapstone, which I’ve never done before. It’s just a new thing to be excited about.”
While she’s clearly passionate about her hobbies, thankfully there’s no sign she’ll be giving up her day job any time soon. After all, “it’s earning a living and enjoying yourself while you do it”.
“I wouldn’t do it if I really didn’t think I was going to have a lovely time, meet new people, make new friends, and play a few games and a few tricks,” she says.
“That’s the vital thing, isn’t it?”