Judi Dench at 76 Plays Dame of Choice for Bond, Clint, Leonardo

Judi Dench
Judi Dench is one of five winners of the Praemium Imperiale. Source: The Sankei Shimbun/The Japan Art Association/Bolton Quinn via Bloomberg

Judi Dench, who played Queen Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love,” is mixing with royalty off screen.

The actress is one of five winners of this year’s Praemium Imperiale, an international arts prize patronized by Japan’s ruling dynasty. She and fellow winner Anish Kapoor were honored on July 11 in a media event at Claridge’s, sharing the stage with Prince Hitachi, the brother of Emperor Akihito.

Tanned and wearing a loose silk trouser suit, Dench -- who looks far younger than her 76 years -- then discussed her latest roles: in Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” about FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and as the spymistress M in the next James Bond movie, which Sam Mendes will direct.

I began by asking her whether the outlook for actresses over 40 could still be qualified as prehistoric.

Dench: I don’t think we’re quite in a prehistoric situation, but it will always be that there aren’t enough parts, and it’s not necessarily the people who are great in the part that play them. I mean, you’re lucky if you get parts over a certain age, especially in Hollywood. You’re very lucky if you get cast in anything, actually.

(Stage director) Trevor Nunn always says to me, “You’re always in tears on a first night, why?” I say, “Because I think I’m never going to be employed again!”

Job Fear

I do have a terrible fear. There are actresses standing here and going back ad infinitum to do the part. So you’ve just got to be in the right place at the right time, and be the person that they ask to do it.

Nayeri: Is the James Bond part an easy one, or as much of a challenge as everything else?

Dench: It’s as much of a challenge as everything else, because she has to be a real person who you can believe has a home life -- which you can’t much see. Though I think you caught a glimpse of her bathroom in the last one.

She’s always talking about things I know nothing about, but I have to bone up on a lot of that, and try to understand, and make people believe I know what I’m talking about.

Nayeri: What about playing Mrs. J. Edgar Hoover?

Dench: That was thrilling. Two weeks with Mr. Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio! It was wonderful.

Nayeri: What is it like to be an actor in front of Clint Eastwood’s camera?

Dench: What it’s like is, you have to be very good at it, because he only gives you two chances! Well, you’re lucky if you get a second go at it! That’s his great charm. And he’s so quiet. He’s blessedly quiet.

You say “Could I do that again?” He says, “Why?” You think, “Why? Well, I could maybe do it another way!’

On one occasion, he said, “OK, do it. But don’t think.”

Nayeri: Has being a dame changed anything for you? Do you get restaurant tables easier?

Dench: No, no, no, you don’t get anything easier! You get called ‘Dame Dench’ a lot, which is very funny. And in America, of course, they say, “What is a dame?”

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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