Dame Judi Dench was at the Zurich Film Festival to receive the Festival’s Golden Icon career tribute, previously awarded to the likes of Glenn Close, Michael Douglas, Richard Gere and Sean Penn.
“I love the title Golden Icon. Nobody’s going to mess with the Golden Icon,” the 83 year-old quips.
The seasoned theatre actress and seven-time Oscar nominee (with one win, for Best Supporting Actress in Shakespeare in Love) was also promoting her latest role in Red Joan. Directed by Trevor Nunn, who has directed her on stage in many a Shakespearean production, the British drama stars Dench and Sophie Cookson (from the Kingsman spy films) as the woman who leaked secret documents relating to the atom bomb to the KGB. The story was inspired by the experiences of KGB spy Melita Norwood. During a press conference, she talked about making the film, being part of the James Bond franchise, Cary Joji Fukunaga helming the next installment, and more.
Was it funny being interrogated by MI5 as Joan?
JUDI DENCH: Being on the other side? Yes it was quite. There was bound to be someone in a window watching. Ha ha! But I didn’t think of it at all. I’ll tell you a funny story about MI6. When I was playing M, I got invited to lunch there. “Come to lunch!” they said. “Yes I’d love to come to lunch. What time should I come?” “No, no not your car, we’ll send our car. You know where we are?” “You’re at that Lego building on the South Bank. “No, no, no. We’ll send our car.” I can only tell you that their car couldn’t find my house. Three quarters of an hour later…it was hardly their fault.
You don’t like to repeat yourself in your roles.
DENCH: It’s the very last thing you want to do. I’m always saying to my agent, “Can’t you get me the part of an Afghan woman who learns to walk the tightropes and turns into a dragon in the last act?
What attracted you to Red Joan?
DENCH: First it was by Trevor Nunn, a very old friend of mine from my early days at the Royal Shakespeare Company. We’ve done many plays together and [producer] David Parfitt is an old friend too. I was also fascinated by this story, which is based on a true story about an amazingly ordinary person who does extraordinary things. I’ve never played anyone like her before.
Is the story relevant today?
DENCH: People have called her a spy but I don’t think she’s a spy at all. I think she was someone who believed it was wrong to arm one country and not arm any of the others because only by that was there a parity and was it possible to not attack another country. She was kind of innocent even if she was quite clever and I admired her for that.
You made seven James Bond movies and for the first time the next film will be directed by an American, Cary Joji Fukunaga. What do you think of that?
DENCH: I did Jane Eyre for Cary and he’s absolutely a sweet person. I want to get a message to him to say how glad I am that he’s doing it. I’m sure he’ll give his own take on it and that will be refreshing. I expect he’ll do it very, very well. And Ralph Fiennes I expect will play M very well–she said through gritted teeth!
Were you sad to give up M?
DENCH: No, no, no. But in fact I did eight of them, because I did one morning on Spectre. I haven’t seen Spectre. M sent a message over the telly. She was on the television for a minute or something like that. So I can say I did eight.
Do you think a woman could play James Bond?
DENCH: If you’re good at being a spy you could maybe be a female James Bond. I have no idea why not.
When did you know you’d made it as an actress?
DENCH: There wasn’t a moment because I trained to be a theater designer. It was only in the 50s when I went to Stratford and saw a production of King Lear with Michael Redgrave and there was the most incredible set and I realized I was never going to be able to do that. I said I simply don’t have that imagination. It was an overnight decision. My older brother only ever wanted to be an actor and I caught it from him like the measles or something like that. So I thought I’d have a go. I went straight from drama school to the Old Vic to play Ophelia and I got shot down by the critics, who were very, very cross. Fortunately I was employed to go on and read in several seasons of the Old Vic and I learned.
What does success mean to you? Has it changed over the course of your career?
DENCH: I don’t know the answer to that. All I know is that if Trevor was here he might recall asking me why I was always crying on The Comedy of Errors the night before the show. I said, “Because I don’t think I’m going to be employed again.” I always had that fear. People keep asking me why aren’t you going to retire? That word is simply not used in our family. People retire usually in order to do the things they really want to do, walk or paint or travel the world. And that is what my job is to me; I just love it. I love working with different people, I love working with actors, I love learning something new each time. My career is genuinely my hobby. I don’t want to retire and don’t know what I would do if I did.
Are there enough roles for older women? Are you happy with roles that are coming your way?
DENCH: Well I’m employed and they’re very different too. You don’t often get to play head of the leprechauns in Artemis Fowl, a film I’m making with Ken Branagh, do you? So I’m lucky.