Here are a few things Judi Dench has accomplished after age 60: getting nominated for seven Oscars and winning one (Best Supporting Actress for Shakespeare in Love). Bossing around James Bond. Turning a low-budget retiree romance, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, into a $135 million sleeper hit with a just-released sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. “I don’t think I’m slowing down,” Dench, 80, says briskly, perched in a plush room at Claridge’s hotel in London. The York native, who gained renown on the British stage before becoming a force in films, has declining vision due to macular degeneration, but “I’m not prepared to stop doing things,” she says. “If I can’t do one thing, then I’ll have a go at another.” Read on for more of a legend’s sparky wisdom.
Be honest about aging.
There’s nothing good about being my age. Someone said to me, “You have such a wealth of knowledge.” I just said, “I’d rather be young and know nothing, actually.” Bugger the wealth of knowledge! I suppose there are good things, but you have to find them. Celebrate the things you can do and also try to do new things. I believe in that tremendously.
Work with your friends.
Maggie Smith and I were at the Old Vic together in 1958! We’ve done plays together, films together. The same with Bill Nighy and Celia Imrie [also Marigold costars]. You have a shorthand with someone you know very, very well. I love being part of a company. I’d never consider doing something on my own, like a monologue. [Would she guest-star on Downton Abbey with Smith?] I don’t know, who knows? I love watching it. I’d miss watching it [if I were in it]!
Be prepared to change direction.
I trained as a theater designer. That’s what I was going to be. In the ’50s I went to Stratford to see King Lear with this incredible set. I can remember thinking, “I’m not ever going to have imagination to make a set like that.” If I did, maybe I would have gone on to be a designer. When I watch [performances], I watch with a designer’s eye as well as an actor’s eye.
Forget “coping – think adapting.
My eyes only affect me if I’m somewhere dark and there are steps and I don’t see very well. I couldn’t go on the Underground now without somebody. I have all my scripts blown up. If six of us were coming in to read a sonnet, they’d all have one piece of paper and I’d have two or three. Or I have people read things to me – but then I’ve always been like that. I’ve never been very good at reading a play; I’ve only ever been good at being told a story.
I paint a lot, and I find it very difficult because if I look at something and then I look back at [the canvas], my eyes don’t adjust quickly enough to transfer that. Then I thought, “That’s what painting is about. Don’t translate it literally, translate it the only way you can.” If you think “learning to cope,” then it somehow makes it worse. No! You’re trying to do it in a different way.
Let your kids find their own path.
Finty [her daughter with her late husband, Michael Williams] wanted to be a nurse when she was little. We said, “Go for it!” Then it became inevitable that she wanted to be an actress. My grandson [Sam, 17] doesn’t want to be an actor at all, and I’m glad. It’s so ephemeral.
It’s fun playing royals, but you wouldn’t want to be one.
I find [the royal family] utterly charming, doing an unenviable job—the pressure! We can all think, “I’ve got to work very hard for the next four days,” but theirs is interminable. It’s forever being in the public eye, forever being criticized. I think they do a brilliant job. [The Queen named Dench a dame in 1988.] I’m exactly the same person and behave the same. No curtsying, no bowing!