Dench plays the title character in the new Stephen Frears musical comedy Mrs. Henderson Presents, about a rich widow who decides to use her money to buy a theatre. After hiring the cranky Mr. Van Damm, played by Bob Hoskins, as her theatre manager, she quickly discovers that the theatre business isn’t all fun and prestige. Undaunted, she turns the Windmill Theatre into the first continuous musical revue with live nude girls on stage, and it becomes a London hotspot, especially when the city is hit by the German blitz in WWII.
ComingSoon.net spoke to the one actress who could probably read the phone book and keep you riveted.
CS: Supposedly, you and Bob (Hoskins) chose Stephen Frears to direct this film. How did that come about?
Dame Judi Dench: Bob is the producer, so he and Norma Heyman and I met over lunch, and I said yes to the idea after he told me the story. Then, Norma and Bob had a conversation and said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Stephen did it?” and he said ‘Yes’ the next day. It was great. Then I wanted to start the day after.
CS: And this is all before you even had a script?
Dench: Yes, that was before the script came. It was just wonderful. It was everything I expected and more, really, because I knew a little bit about her–I asked around when it arrived–and Martin Sherman is very skilled. He doesn’t leave you to do much. If you can learn that script, he’s told the story for you. You don’t have to embroider it in any way.
Dench: We did “King Lear” on radio with Jon Gielgud years before, and I’d known him a bit. We had an ongoing, very funny kind of relationship, because Billy Connolly told me that his first choice for Queen Victoria was Bob Hoskins. (laughs) They sent me this most wonderful photograph the two of them had taken. Bob looked staggeringly like Queen Victoria. So we’ve had that kind of ongoing thing. You know people say, “Did you work at the relationship?” No, we didn’t work on the relationship. The relationship between us happened anyway, the kind of wanting to bounce off somebody. It’s also wonderful to get somebody who’s in kind of the same world frame as you.
CS: What steps did you take to get into the character and make her your own?
Dench: The script, of course, is the first thing you have to go by, and then I talked to lots of people, found relations of hers. I also talked to some of the women–the nudes–who are still alive, and they’re in their nineties. Fantastic! One of them, Miss [Doris] Barry, is 91, and she takes a ballet class every morning. It’s so glamorous, and they said that she was actually like a mother to them. It was the kind of family that she’d lost after her husband and son, and she created another family for herself, and they said she used to behave unbelievably badly. But also, at the same time, she used to come in and paid for weddings and for dresses, and paid for all sorts of parties for them, and generally looked after them. And all this thing about her getting dressed up and [sneaking into the theatre] absolutely a fact. She’d got the best makeup man in London and used to slip in–having been banned from the theater–just to check on how they were.
CS: It seems like you had a lot of fun with this character.
Dench: Yes, well she was a lot of fun! She was outrageous. Stephen liked her because she was so silly; I liked her because she was so mischievous and blatantly rude. I loved it.
CS: How delicate a balance was it between making her a flesh and blood character and letting it slip into caricature?
Dench: I don’t know about that. I would just have to believe in Stephen, and he would tell me. But she was so much larger than life than anything we might know, and so outrageously daring and actually very brave.
CS: Did you find any similarities between her and the character you play in “Pride & Prejudice”?
Dench: Two monsters? [laughs]. Maybe. I don’t think of them as the same though. I think Lady Catherine de Bourg probably was a monster. [Mrs. Henderson] is kind of outrageously open, a fantastically rude woman, you think, but there are lots of those.
CS: Did Stephen Frears have you do a lot of different versions of the lines in more subtle and heightened tones that he could choose from in editing?
Dench: Usually higher a bit with more joy out of it. You read Martin’s script, and for instance when she walks in and sees Lord Chamberlain, you kind of know the moment that she walks in, that he doesn’t stand a chance–she’s going to get him to say something. Which of course was a considerable thing and why the whole thing happened, because of her relationship with him. Because until then, everything we did was censored. You couldn’t appear on stage naked, you couldn’t have lines crossed.
CS: How was it playing opposite Christopher Guest as that Lord Chamberlain?
Dench: Heavenly. It was just heavenly. What a funny man. Very, very funny man.
Dench: I think she wasn’t told that he was married, and I think it pissed her off actually, not to put too fine a point on it. And I think she’d gotten deeply involved in him by then, in her own self. I just think they got on frightfully well the first time they met, and they were infuriated–he was deeply infuriated by her, and why ever not? But that’s the stuff of love, isn’t it.
CS: And were you actually wearing that bear costume yourself?
Dench: Yes! People say to me, “Were you wearing it?” and why would you think I wasn’t? Of course I went up with the Tiger Moth [an airplane of the time], and I kept thinking I wanted to shout out, “I am up there in the air!”
CS: So Stephen just came up to you and asked “Dame Judi, can you put on a bear costume?
Dench: Nobody called me “Dame Judi,” that’s the first thing, and I was in the bear costume long before I was asked to be in it. You know, the irresistible thing to say is “Would you do a little dance?”
CS: You’ve been able to find a fine balance between strong and vulnerable in a lot of the characters you play. Can you talk about how you find that balance?
Dench: Well it’s how it’s written, and all you have to do is somehow understand the life she’s had. She’s been in India with her husband, she’s had a very happy marriage with him, and loses her son in the first World War. You know, that would make you pretty vulnerable. In fact, I would have thought too vulnerable to embark on the project she did. Then, you suddenly think, “Christ, she must have been tough,” and indeed, she was that, too. She didn’t sit back, but spent her money on a project she actually knew nothing about: buying a theater. As her friend said, “I didn’t mean you should buy a theater; you can buy lots of jewelry and things.” And she said, “Well I bought a theater and now I have no idea what to do with it!” “You should get someone to run it!” And then she’s totally absorbed in it. She was really a very remarkable woman in her day.
CS: Earlier this year, you were in “Ladies in Lavender” with Maggie Smith, but that didn’t get much attention. Was that another labor of love for you?
Dench: Yes, it was a labor of love. Charlie [Dance, the director] hadn’t made a film before, but we were both in David Hare’s play “The Breath of Life,” and he said, “I found this short story and I’m going to adapt it and make it into a film.” So we said, “yes” and we had a glorious time. It was a wonderful summer, September, in fact. We had a heavenly time doing it.
CS: Besides the Bond movies, you’ve veered more towards period pieces or movies set in the past. Would you ever consider doing something more modern?
Dench: I’ve just done something very modern indeed–I’ve just done “Notes on a Scandal”, which will be out next year. It’s Zoe Heller’s book adapted by Patrick Marber and directed by Richard Eyre and with Cate Blanchett.
CS: But you do enjoy period pieces though, right?
Dench: I do, but that’s my background, really, being at Stratford. I enjoy all that Shakespeare, but it’s really whatever comes along.
Dench: That’s impossible really to say, for me. I just like to be involved in the thing at the time. It’s very rarely I’ve not been involved or not enjoyed the actual period it’s in.
CS: How do you feel about all of the Oscar talk that’s been surrounding your performance in this movie?
Dench: Getting the gist of it, you can say. I think you’ve got to have your feet planted firmly on the ground, especially in this business, and you must not believe things that are said or written about you, because everything gets out of proportion one way or the other. You’ve got to somehow stay in a very even keel. If that were to happen [for “Mrs. Henderson”] that would be a very good thing. If it weren’t to happen, it’s not going to be any less of a good thing, it’s just a fact. I just want people to see this and understand the story about this extraordinary woman. I feel very passionate about her.
CS: There was a time where you thought you wouldn’t make it in film, but now you’re on top of the heap and still going strong. Did you ever think this might be the case at this point in your life?
Dench: No, I never thought it would end this way. It’s entirely thanks to Harvey Weinstein, because “Mrs. Brown” was made for television, and Harvey saw it and presented it as a film. Then, I came over here after a 38-year absence and people asked, “Apart from M, and Mrs. Brown, what have you done?” and I thought, “That’s 48 years straight past me!” [laughs]. The theater is the thing I love doing most.
CS: So Martin Campbell is back directing Bond, and he’s brought you back on as M, even though this is supposed to be a restart. Any idea how that’s going to work?
Dench: I don’t know anything, except that I’m going to be in Prague and the Bahamas. That’s all I know. I haven’t seen the script.
Mrs. Henderson Presents opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, December 9–Dame Judi’s 71st birthday–with a wider release on Christmas Day.