”It’s tropical in here,” she says. ”Tropical!” Dame Maggie Smith is peering out from a corner table in the Conservatory, a restaurant in London’s Lanesborough hotel. It looks like a place where you’d expect to find a plumed colonial viceroy sipping quinine and gin. The walls are pink and green. The roof is glass. The decor is a riot of potted palms and Chinese figurines. And for some reason, the room feels as if it’s being pumped full of steam.
”Ridiculous, isn’t it?” she says, exhaling through her famous pursed lips. ”Mad dogs and Englishmen. One feels as if one’s in Rangoon.”
She pronounces the word ”Rangoon” with about seven descending o’s.
You can ask Maggie Smith questions — about her roots in English theater, about her six Oscar nominations and her two wins, about the snooty grande dame she plays in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, about her participation in the global juggernaut of Harry Potter (as the young wizard’s professor Minerva McGonagall). She’ll answer you, too, sort of, even though she considers interviews to be ”nerve-racking and daft.”
Frankly, though, it’s more fun just to listen to her talk. About anything. About the proximity of a tape recorder to her face: ”Oh, do not hold it out to me, please. Can’t you write anything down? I don’t want it just staring at me.” About the frenzy she encountered at the Golden Globes: ”That was luuudicrous! Miles and miles and miles of red carpet!”
About the thespian advice she has given to her sons, actors Toby Stephens, 32, and Chris Larkin, 34, both the products of Smith’s temptestuous first marriage, to actor Robert Stephens: ”None,” she says. ”They’ve been with me long enough to know that it’s hell.” (That hasn’t stopped them, though. Toby is shooting the new James Bond movie, and Chris has signed on for a film with Russell Crowe.)
About her age, which is only 67, although everyone assumes she’s older: ”Anthony Powell was doing the costumes on Hook, and Steven Spielberg said to him, ‘How old is Maggie Smith?’ And Anthony, without pausing, said, ‘Ninety-two.’ I think I’ve been 92 ever since. The rot set in.”
About how this very building, now this very posh hotel, used to house London’s St. George’s Hospital: ”This is creepy. It will always be a hospital to me. I’d hate to stay here. Can you imagine thinking: Am I in the operating theater…? Horrible.” She laughs — a laugh that goes from raspy to flutey to conspiratorial. Listening, you get caught up in the sheer pungency of her phraseology — in her loving fondness for words like dreadful and hideous and horrid and ghastly and grim — and then, out of the blue, she’ll say something that stops you cold. ”But,” she says, ”I do know a few people who died here.”
It’s just this kind of commentary — swanning and cutting and sporadically sad — that Smith dishes out in the languid parlors of Gosford Park. Almost four decades ago Richard Burton, her costar in The V.I.P.’s, accused her of ”grand larceny,” and she’s still at it. As Gosford’s Lady Constance of Trentham, she nearly embezzles a whole movie; her twitches, quips, and dismissals repeatedly bring down the house. To direct her, ”you just turn the camera on and sit back and enjoy yourself,” says Altman. ”I don’t think you’d ever catch Maggie Smith phoning anything in.” (Meanwhile, here in the Conservatory, a piano player is scampering through warhorses like ”As Time Goes By.” If you’ve seen the way she treats Jeremy Northam in the movie, you can’t help but fear for this guy.)