The dame formerly known as M discusses the art of playing a real-life heroine on screen
Dame Judi Dench made her mark in film relatively late in life, following a highly regarded 30-year career on the British stage. In 1995, she began a 17-year run as head of MI6 – and long-suffering boss to Agent 007 – in the James Bond franchise. But Dench has excelled just as much away from the spy genre, winning an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love and five more nominations, including for playing Iris Murdoch in 2001’s Iris.
Her latest film, Philomena, reteams the 78-year-old with her Mrs Henderson Presents director Stephen Frears, and is widely tipped for further awards attention in the new year. It’s the enraging, heartbreaking and yet very funny true story of Philomena Lee, an elderly Irishwoman who teamed up with journalist Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan) to track down the child she gave up to adoption via a nunnery in the 1950s.
Dame Judi, how was it playing a woman like Philomena Lee, who’d suffered so much under the Catholic Church?
Well, it was easier when I got to know her. She told me a great deal. I didn’t ask her very much. I just wanted to get the essence of her. My concern is that we do her story justice, that we don’t blow it up into something for filmic terms, but that we don’t undersell it, either. I haven’t seen her since we finished, but I will.
Were you aware of these brutal institutions beforehand?
Yes, but I think this film, in a way, is as much about how she dealt with it, how she was ultimately able to say to somebody, ‘I completely forgive them for it,’ and carry on with her life. That takes a rare person, and I don’t know anybody else like that. There’s an extraordinary sophistication about her, and a naivety, too.
What was it like working with Steve Coogan?
He was wonderful; he made me laugh every day. I compare it to Billy Connolly: a stand-up comic, who walks in and plays John Brown, and wipes the floor with everybody. I can’t get into their world. But they can get into ours.
Why do you not like watching yourself on screen?
A lot of actors are like that. We’re self-conscious, I suppose. I’ve never seen A Room with a View. When I played Iris Murdoch, I found that very difficult indeed, because people still knew her, a lot of people. Whereas if you play Elizabeth I, no one remembers what she was like. Or Queen Victoria, actually. Although the day we started shooting, someone mentioned [Victoria] was left-handed.
Was it emotional for you to say goodbye to Bond, after so long?
You bet. I’ve had 17 years of it. [But] MI6 would have given me the push by now, wouldn’t they? I shall breathe heavily to [new M] Ralph Fiennes over the phone when they start filming again [laughs].
What makes you most happy these days?
Playing cards. Betting. Oh, don’t put that in [laughs]. Well, I don’t like being my own, I don’t like it all, so I like the company of friends. We’ve just had eight weeks holiday in Cornwall, where it was blisteringly hot, and we swam in the sea every day. It was icy, icy cold. But great fun!
Philomena screens from Thu Dec 26.