There’s something quite remarkable about Dame Judi Dench. Whether it’s her award-winning career, her passion for Shakespeare, or her fondness for playing rebellious and empowering women, it is clear that she is an unequivocally talented actress. In Victoria and Abdul, her fifth and most recent collaboration with director Stephen Frears, her talents are put on display like never before.
In the movie, she returns to the role of Queen Victoria, a role she previously took on in John Madden’s film Mrs. Brown. In recognition of this unique accomplishment, The Egyptian Theatre showed a double feature on Tuesday, November 28th, 2017 at the Egyptian Theatre - both movies, with Judi Dench in attendance between films. It would be an understatement to note that the theatre was packed in anticipation. Members of the audience brought her flowers, the room crackled with energy, and Ms. Dench received a standing ovation upon entering the room.
In conversation, Dench reflected on her relationship with the history of Queen Victoria. After playing her in the 1997 film, Dench reflected that she’d originally assumed that Queen Victoria had just “dwindled into a rather sad life” following the events of Mrs. Brown. It wasn’t until the script for Victoria and Abdul was handed to her that she learned about the queen’s relationship with her servant Munshi Abdul. Interestingly, the story of their relationship was not publicly known until 2010, when Abdul Karim and Queen Victoria’s letters (written in Urdu) were discovered. Dench credits Queen Victoria’s long life to her friendship with Abdul. She hypothesized that their relationship came as a “relief” for the queen: “I think she was probably amused quite a lot of the time and got to have a happier life.”
Her history with director Stephen Frears made for a good if unusual environment on set. “He is very monosyllabic. He directs by stealth, which is a high compliment.” She was less fond, however, of the costumes she had to wear in the film. “Sorry to be so coarse, but what was unbelievably difficult was going to the loo. I had to not drink water.”
As the Q & A progressed, audience members quickly drew parallels between Dench’s performance and her prior work. Conversation began about her ability to portray compassion in a character who can come off, as Dench described, as an “unmovable and boring woman.” Ms. Dench has a tendency for bringing warmth to otherwise cold characters, such as in her Academy Award-nominated performance for Philomena, another Stephen Frears film. Despite her varied filmography, she confessed “I only ever really wanted to play Shakespeare!”
Despite her long career, Dench has never felt completely at ease in her chosen profession. “The more you do, the more frightened you are,” she said. “I would be alarmed if I wasn’t quite so unnerved and frightened by plays and film. You have to use that unnerving feeling and put it to a good use. Like petrol, it creates energy. You can use that in a performance.”
Dench concluded the night in reference to her relationship with the film industry. She began by relating to many women in the audience, describing how she constantly feels that there is always a line of at least 35 women waiting behind her, waiting to take over. “I just like working. You have to have a lot of energy to be an actress. What I don’t like is people asking, ‘when are you going to retire?’” she said. “That’s a filthy thing to say. I’m unbelievably lucky to be employed, and I’m lucky to do this with such great people.” Although she believes that the casting of female roles in Hollywood has improved, she is afraid that there will always be too few. “All over the world,” she said, “it needs to be encouraged: employ more women.”
To conclude the night, she told the audience “I’m an eternal optimist, I hope it gets better. Just keep going.”
Stephen Michaels is a playwright and screenwriter from Los Angeles. He is a current student at Chapman University where he studies screenwriting at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts.
Additional reporting by Andrea Macias-Jimenez.