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The Actress: Judi Dench, Nothing Like a Dame

Now 78, the actress dazzles in her latest film, ”Philomena,” and proves that some things truly do get better with age

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One expects a bit of elegant remove, a layer of upper-crust reserve, from 78-year-old Oscar winner Judi Dench. Rare is the story about her without the dusty phrase “England’s national treasure” attached to her name. But as she makes delightfully clear minutes after introductions, it turns out the Dame is more of a broad. Just wait until you hear the story about the time she got a tattoo on her bum.

It happened after her heartbreakingly restrained portrayal of Queen Victoria in the 1997 film Mrs. Brown, which earned Dench her first Academy Award nomination. The following year she took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her searing eight minutes on screen as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. Both films were muscled into public consciousness by indie mogul Harvey Weinstein, whom Dench credits for launching her movie career after decades in London theater. Before meeting Weinstein for lunch at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York one afternoon, she asked her makeup artist to paint a fake tattoo of “Thanks to Harvey” on her backside on a lark. “I showed it to him across the table,” she says with a delighted chuckle, “and I’ve never seen somebody more embarrassed.”

Now Dench is the affecting anchor of another Weinstein release, Philomena (rated R), which tells the moving true story of a guileless but resolute Irishwoman named Philomena Lee who searches for the son she was coerced into putting up for adoption 50 years before. Director Stephen Frears’ film, which premiered in August at the Venice Film Festival, has generated buzz that Dench might earn her seventh Oscar nod for her performance. “Maybe it’s time I just had ‘HW’ tattooed on my backside for real,” she says. “You never know.”

Dench was in her 60s when her film career took off. She got her start on the British stage, delivering powerhouse performances as classic leading ladies such as Ophelia and Lady Macbeth, as well as Sally Bowles in the original London production of Cabaret. By the mid-’90s, though, Hollywood had put her to fine work in everything from indie darlings (she racked up four more Oscar nods post-Shakespeare) to seven blockbuster James Bond films as 007’s imperious boss, M.

Just as Dench was becoming an A-list name, she endured her life’s great loss. Her husband of 30 enviably harmonious years, actor Michael Williams, died of lung cancer in 2001. Today Dench shares her home in Surrey, England, with her daughter, Tara Cressida (nicknamed “Finty”), her 16-year-old grandson, three cats, two guinea pigs, a dog, some ducks, a humongous goldfish, and a very small goldfish. Three years ago British gossip rags speculated that Dench had found love again with a dashing wildlife conservationist, David Mills, now 70. “The answer to that is yes,” she says with a laugh.

Dench is less amused by the hysterical headlines that followed her revelation last year that she was suffering from macular degeneration, a common age-related eye disease. “That was ridiculous!” she scoffs. “I’m not going blind! Hundreds of thousands of people have got the same thing, and you just get on with it.” But news of her diagnosis broke a few months before her character was killed off in the most recent Bond film, Skyfall, which heightened speculation that we might be seeing less of Dench on the big screen.

So Steve Coogan, who co-wrote Philomena and stars as the cynical British journalist who helps the heroine on her search, was unsure if he could coax his dream actress to star in the film. “It was a big ask,” he admits. “Judi would have to be there at 6:30 a.m. every day [and work] for a long time. But I knew she was feisty.” They sat down in Dench’s garden, and because of her poor eyesight Coogan read her the entire first draft of the screenplay. “By the end of it,” says Dench, “there was no question in my mind that I wanted to do it.”

Coogan wasn’t the only one relieved she had signed on. The real-life Philomena Lee, now an 80-year-old retired nurse, was a longtime fan of Dench’s from her work in film and TV. “When I realized she was going to take on the role I was just so over the moon,” says Lee. “None of my friends could believe it. I think half of them thought I was a little soft on top, if you know what I mean.”

On set Coogan, a comedian best known in the U.K. for playing the un-PC media personality Alan Partridge, amused Dench with bawdy impressions of celebs. “He would just make me cry laughing,” she says. Coogan was happy to deflate the heaviness of the material they were filming. “She was appalled at my bad taste, so sometimes she would rebuke me and tell me off,” says Coogan. “But I think she liked the fact that I was cheeky. She’s used to people treating her with this deference because she’s a Dame, and I think she finds that boring.”

Another subject she finds boring is talk of the indignities that come with age. After years of terrific discomfort, Dench underwent a knee-replacement operation in September. “The night before I had it done, I said to my surgeon, ‘I’ve got to walk up a red carpet on the 16th of October,'” she says. “It was great incentive in my recovery because otherwise I would’ve been on crutches. And I’d have gotten very, very tired of saying to people, ‘Yes, I’ve got a new knee.’ How tiresome.” On the night of the Philomena premiere, she swanned down the red carpet in an elegant gown, vital and unencumbered.

Despite the occasional physical nuisance, Dench remains professionally invigorated. In January she returns to India to shoot a sequel to 2012’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. (“The Second Best Exotic Hotel?” she jokingly suggests for the as-yet-untitled film.) Then in April she’ll shoot a BBC adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot with Dustin Hoffman. In between she may have to squeeze in a trip to the Oscars. “My daughter and I have gone together before, and we’re those people who screamed every time a Beatle showed up,” she says of the ceremony. “Jack Nicholson walked by me once, and I became very, very wobbly.” Did he give her a wink, perhaps? “I can’t remember,” she says. “I expect I say he did.”

So whatever you do, save all those questions about when Dench might call it a day. “Thank you so much for not asking me when I plan on retiring,” she says. “It’s like somebody saying, ‘I don’t think you should have that drink. I think you should go home now.’ How dare they when I’m just enjoying the party?!”

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