Judi Dench, at 80, still looks ahead, like her character in Marigold Hotel films
Judi Dench returns to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, reprising her role with gusto
Judi Dench takes an awkward pause. Her interviewer's name is familiar, even if the actor he shares it with has never played one of Dench's versions of James Bond.
"Well, I don't know whether to have a nice little chat … or give you an assignment … Double O Seven." The Oscar-winning queen of the British stage and screen cackles, and she does not laugh alone. The actress laughs easily and often - at her luck, her career, at the fact that she never chooses a film role solely based "on the exotic location" the story is set in. "You know, like Michael Caine."
Dench is back on screen with The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, happy for the reunion that comes with this sequel to the surprise hit of 2011-12. (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel had its premiere at the 2011 Sorrento Incontro Internazionale del Cinema, and went on commercial release in 2012.) It's not like she met her fellow cast members on the Indian sets of a comedy about British old-age pensioners moving into a "home" in a land where old age is revered and pension stretches a lot further than in Britain. These players have trod the boards together for decades.
"I was at The National [Theatre of Great Britain] with Bill Nighy, and I was with Ronnie Pickup in Amy's View [also at the National Theatre], Celia [Imrie] and I did [TV show] Cranford, Penelope [Wilton] and I have worked together. And Mags and I have worked together since, oh, 1958."
She calls Maggie Smith "Mags". That must be one of those one-dame-to-another privileges.
Dench, who turned 80 in December, welcomed the chance to return to India and go back to work for her favourite director: John Madden (Mrs Brown, Shakespeare in Love). Because Dench, like her Exotic Marigold Hotel character Evelyn Greenslade, isn't interested in retiring. In the sequel, Evelyn's sharp eye for Indian fabrics could mean a new career, one that could stand in the way of her slow-moving romance with Douglas (Nighy).
"I heard a lady, a doctor, on the BBC the other day, saying: 'I cannot wait to retire!' She was something like 58. And I thought, 'What is she going to retire to do?' I am very, very anti-retirement," she says.
"What do you do with your time? What do you do with somebody elderly in your family? What do you do if you are that elderly person? You don't want to be a burden to your children.
"Best to get on with something, so my sympathies are very much with what Evelyn does and feels. [She] gets on with life and faces something new, taking on something she's not conversant with … She looks forward, which we all have to remember to keep doing," Dench says.
Evelyn is a bit softer than the typical Dench character. She's famous for her "queens and other frosty matriarchs", as The Times of London puts it - fierce characters, Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, M in the Bond movies. But she hates being pigeon-holed.
"I wish someone would ask me to play a weak and feeble woman who just goes to pieces at the smallest little thing," she says, laughing. "You don't have a focus if you don't challenge yourself, try something new with every opportunity that you're given."
But Evelyn was some of the easiest acting she's ever done, and that has nothing to do with the comforts of working with actors and a director she's known forever.
"My character had to be bewitched by the place, Jaipur, and that required little acting on my part. That happened to me very quickly. The colour, the sounds, the smells … Everything about it is so exotic, especially to an English person. And then there's the depressing gap between the rich and the very, very poor. The inequality there is unbelievably shocking, and yet the people are so warm and friendly."
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which went on general release in Britain on February 26, has been earning reviews that are more indulgent than enthusiastic, with Variety's Peter Debruge echoing many critics when he wrote that "whatever spark exists off-camera (for the veteran cast) can't help but reveal itself during those irreverent, potentially insensitive moments that made the original so much fun".
Dench's quick laugh and easy-going charm seem more connected to her Quaker background than the driving ambition one must possess to manage an acting career of some 60 years. She keeps working even as she suffers from age-related macular degeneration, making it impossible for her to read scripts. (She has them read to her.)
As often as she works and as "ridiculously competitive" as those roles for women her age are, she must be on the phone with her agent in between films. (An idea for a Saturday Night Live sketch - Dame Judi, on the phone, haranguing that agent for the next job.) "Oh, heavens no," she says, laughing.
She lives in the country in a village "well away from the bustle and business of London". She keeps lots of pets, hangs out with chums and starts each day "with a little checklist, everything I want to do that day. And if I don't finish it, I just carry it over to the next. It's a way to keep looking forward," she says.
One thing that she is eagerly awaiting to check off on her list is her next project, a Tim Burton film. "I don't think it's been announced yet," she says, guardedly, with a hint of conspiracy about her.
"You do remember, Double O Seven, that I know how to keep a secret?"
Tribune News Service
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel opens on Thursday