Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith walk into a room carrying more than 100 years of combined acting experience, yet neither has ever heard of the Meisner Technique. "What's the Meisner Technique?" Smith asks in that clipped, patrician tone that has tackled everything from Shakespeare to Harry Potter. When a clumsy explanation of the basics is given, she waits a beat before crisply delivering a retort. "That's called acting," she remarks. "That's just walking into a room."
Dench and Smith have a personal and working relationship that goes back several decades, when the two were doing plays in repertory at the Old Vic Theatre in England. It's a major understatement to note that, apart, they have had exceptional careers. One of the most revered actors in history, Smith has won two Academy Awards, five BAFTAs, a Tony, and an Emmy. An expert at drama and comedy, she has played everything from Desdemona opposite Laurence Olivier to a Mother Superior opposite Whoopi Goldberg. Dench is relatively new to movie stardom, having concentrated primarily on theatre before scoring her first Oscar nomination with 1998's Mrs. Brown. Since then, she has become a beloved onscreen presence with Oscar-nominated roles in Chocolat, Iris, and Shakespeare in Love—for which she won Best Supporting Actress with only eight minutes of screen time. Together, Smith and Dench have appeared onscreen in 1985's A Room With a View and 1999's Tea With Mussolini, but their latest project has them working closer than ever. Based on a short story by William J. Locke, Ladies in Lavender marks the directorial debut of actor Charles Dance, who co-starred with Smith in Gosford Park. The sweet, simple film tells the story of two sisters living a quiet existence in an English coastal town in 1936. When a mysterious stranger washes up on the shore, the two take him in and find their meticulously planned lives disrupted. As spinster sisters, Dench and Smith are lovely and heartbreaking, and their relationship rings with authenticity. In person, they continue to play off each other, trading quips and frequently admonishing each other with great affection.
Back Stage West: This is not the first time you two have worked together; do you remember your first meeting?
Judi Dench: It was 1958 at the Old Vic. The same dressing room. We shared it with Moyra Fraser. It was just several steps up from the stage.
Maggie Smith: I can't remember the number, but it was opposite [No.] 8, where Gerald James was.
Dench: We were doing Double Dealer, As You Like It, and Merry Wives of Windsor. Maggie was playing Celia in As You Like It; I was playing Phoebe. What were our names in The Double Dealer?
Smith: Mrs… Mistress… I can't even remember the name.
Dench: We were just a couple of actresses lucky enough to get acting jobs, sharing a dressing room. It was very early in our careers.
BSW: Have you two been actively looking for projects to do together?
Dench: No, they turn up. We didn't work together for a long time, not from the Vic right up to Room With a View.
Smith: There was a long gap.
Dench: From that, we've been lucky enough to be cast together in things.
BSW: Have you ever competed for the same role?
Smith: No, I don't think so. We have played the same role in different productions, though.
BSW: You each have long histories in film and theatre. Do you have a preference between the two mediums?
Dench: I prefer the theatre.
Smith: Yes, me too.
Dench: Ideally, the thing we used to do so much is the repertory system, where you can be in three or four plays at once and do a different matinee and a different evening. That way, you stay very fresh and frightened, and people get a chance to see a lot of plays.
Smith: That was wonderful. When I was doing rep at the National we would do a long, long Othello in the afternoon, and then Hay Fever in the evening felt like a holiday.
Dench: They don't do that anymore because of expense. They haven't got the money to do those huge changes between two shows. It's a shame; it's everybody's loss, really.
BSW: Can you tell us about the difference in preparation between stage and screen?
Dench: It's exactly the same process, exactly the same.
Smith: Just sort of a miniature version, when you have a camera right in your face.
Dench: With film, picture a wedge where the filming bit is the least you have to do. There's so much more after that. With television, you have to do a bit more, and with stage, the acting is even more.
BSW: When you say there's more to moviemaking, do you mean the promotion aspect?
Dench: Well, that's all I've ever known about filming, really, since Harvey Weinstein turned Mrs. Brown into a film. The publicity aspect kind of went with it.
Smith: But it is a recent kind of thing, it seems.
Dench: I don't mind it, because it means coming out and being [in] places like New York. It's just that it's a big rush.
Smith: It's a lot to do in a short space of time.
Dench: It's not enough time to see friends and do a bit of shopping and see the theatre.
BSW: You've both enjoyed long, prosperous careers as actors. Is there a secret to maintaining such longevity in this business?
Smith: It's fortune. Just good luck. I mean, I tend to do things that come up. I've never had any sort of structure to anything, and I don't think Jude has, either. You go where there's work. But I've never planned anything; it's just sort of luck.
Dench: And don't you find, Mags, that people say, "You're so busy, shouldn't you take a rest?" Why should I take a rest? I'm in this amazing minority where I'm doing something I absolutely love. I think we're very lucky to be employed, and the moment you start to take it all for granted, that's the moment it all feels like work.
BSW: And, although you're widely respected as classical actors, you're not above doing fun, lighthearted projects, such as the Bond films [Dench plays M] or Harry Potter [where Smith plays Professor McGonagall]. Did you make a conscious choice to seek out more commercial fare?
Smith: It's not a choice; it just comes up. Suddenly, out of the blue, somebody will ask you to do something extraordinary. And part of what's so terrific about it is that you don't know what's around any corner. You worry it will be a dead end at some point. At times I've thought, "Oh, there's nothing turning up." And something wonderful does.
Dench: And, although Harry Potter and Bond look like fun, it's exactly the same process you have to work through. And it's tough. I think people think you just kind of phone it in, but it's not like that. There are long, long days when you're trying to get something right. In my case, it's talking about things—spy terms and espionage—where I have no idea what I'm talking about.
BSW: Have you ever found yourself working on a project where you realized you didn't want to be there? And how did you get through it?
Dench: Oh, yes.
Smith: Yes, and you just tough it out. And it can turn out to be a huge success. You don't know, at least with films. You can also be in something in the theatre that you think won't work and it does, but that doesn't happen often. It's a dodgy line, isn't it?
Dench: It's a dodgy line to not read the play and come to the first reading and realize you've made a mistake.
Smith: Have you done that?
Smith: Oh, Jude!
Dench: The Royal Family, I did. And you told me, you warned me not to do it.
Smith: I did tell you.
Dench: I'm better now at reading and making choices.
Smith: Oh, are you reading things now?
BSW: Wait, are you saying you frequently don't read scripts you commit to?
Dench: Often I don't read it.
Smith: But she gets someone to tell her about it. And didn't anyone ever tell you what that was about?
Dench: No. Only you. We were swimming, and I remember you told me, and I knew it would be a bummer.
BSW: But you stuck it out?
Dench: Oh, I did stick it out. And, mind you, I think we enjoyed it much more than the audience. We had a very, very nice time. And I was working with Mag's son, Toby [Stephens], so we had a very nice time, indeed.
Smith: You've worked with him as much as you've worked with me; he was in Bond.
BSW: If you're not reading the scripts, what draws you to a part?
Dench: The people.
Smith: The director gets down on his knees and says, "I beg you, Judi." Then he acts it out, and she says, "Well, I'm not going to do it like that, but I'll do it."
Dench: Or on the other hand, I'll say, "Oh, I'll do it exactly like that." We worked with Charles because it was his first film as a director. Maggie's worked with him as an actor. It's very nice to catch somebody's enthusiasm on their first film.
Smith: And it's a terrific first film.
Dench: You know, if you were to act a director who was playing a director for the first time in a film, you wouldn't have done anything remotely that Charlie did. He was entirely assured, knew what he wanted, and stuck it out with a lot of pressure behind him to get it done.
Smith: And not enough money. It was a typical English film.
BSW: Do you still find yourselves learning things about acting at this point in your careers?
Smith: Oh, yes.
Dench: Yes. When I saw Ladies in Lavender, I saw Maggie and thought, "Well, there's somebody who completely and utterly has cracked it." She might be embarrassed by me telling this.…
Smith: I just have no idea what you mean by that.
Dench: It's good that you don't know.
Smith: When I see Judi, I just feel like giving up. I will never be that good.
Dench: But we carry on.
BSW: Do you find that younger generations of actors aren't as well-trained as in the past? Or can you tell?
Dench: Sometimes, in Shakespeare. But, on the contrary, I think it's good to come in fresh, and if you work on Shakespeare a great deal and know the verse, it's something you can pass on. I think young actors do ask around and we discuss a lot, we go a lot into how it should be spoken. Also, I don't think acting can be taught at all. I think you can be taught to breathe and to project your voice, and the rest is up to you to learn from other people. You can't tell when you're on a set with someone what kind of training they've had.
BSW: Having conquered great roles in comedy and drama, on stage and screen, is there anything left you're dying to do?
Smith: No, we were talking about this [subject] this morning. There's nothing I want to do particularly.
Dench: I do like being asked to do something different from what I last did. I have directed before, but I won't do it again. It's a bit lonely, and they gang up against you.
Smith: I do think it would be lovely to just be able to walk away from it.
Dench: But you never can.
Smith: Well, you don't have to do the matinee.
Dench: It's hard, though. [A play,] it gets up and walks away from you and doesn't want anything to do with you. I remember saying to an actress, "Why don't you do that business anymore with you sitting there and eating the apple?" And she said, "My mother came to see me and she didn't like it." That's why directors get upset when a preview goes up and your friends come and [the actors] say, "Don't you think I should do this instead?" because their friends told them to.
BSW: What do you think makes a good director?
Dench: It's somebody who understands the business.
Smith: I don't know how anyone directs a film, really. Cameras are frightening, and there are so many bits to join to make art.
Dench: One thing about making a film, directing or acting, is that you can't get bored. [It's been] said we're the only profession in the world who has to do something at exactly the same time, exactly every single night, and pretend we're doing it for the first time. That's a funny thing to do, isn't it? It can be hard to keep the freshness. Once, during Comedy of Errors at Stratford, we were all feeling a bit flat during the matinee. And I said, "There's a lady in a blue coat in the second or third row who's very keen, leaning forward. We'll do it for her." And she left at the intermission. I realized she was leaning forward because she'd fallen asleep. BSW