You can’t come more full-circle than this.
In 1997, Judi Dench appeared in her first-ever leading role in a movie — as Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown. That role kicked off the most remarkable sexagenarian-and-beyond career in the history of movies. Seven Oscar nominations (she won for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love) and nearly $2 billion in box office later, Dench finds herself portraying Victoria again, this time in Victoria & Abdul, a touching drama about the Queen’s late-life friendship with a handsome Indian Muslim man named Abdul (Ali Fazal).
“Judi is 82 years old and the biggest female star in England,” says director Stephen Frears (Florence Foster Jenkins). “That’s why she’s so phenomenal at playing a queen, because she’s adored and trusted by everyone, including the current queen.” And, Frears explains, as depicted in this sparkling moment (above) between Dench and Fazal, “she’s brilliantly funny and very, very mischievous.”
The actress cannot deny it. “I’ve got a bad reputation for giggling,” she says. “I think I have, yes. I mean, I can be a serious person, but I see humor in a great many things. I’ve always found quite difficult about keeping it straight. I’m a terrible laugher. If anything goes ever so slightly wrong, my tendency is to laugh a great deal. Somehow not being allowed to go to pieces, such as when I’m acting, makes doing so even more irresistible.”
That quality of lightness was a key to unlocking Victoria. “I just have to believe that she possessed more humor than we give her credit for, especially in this final part of her life with this wonderful young man, who she could talk to and tell jokes to. That shows such great spirit, doesn’t it, and something we don’t attach to that rather solemn view we have of her.”
As with Mrs. Brown, Dench didn’t take the role for vanity purposes. Victoria wore black for her last 40 years, after her husband’s death, and suffered health issues including obesity. “I put a lot of padding on under the corset, didn’t wear any makeup, and just got on with it,” Dench says. However, she was conscious of one thing: showing her hand.
On her 81st birthday, the actress got a tattoo that says “carpe diem” on her right wrist. “Fortunately I wore long cuffs and bracelets the whole film,” she says, letting out a sassy laugh. “And I made quite sure about that.”
However, she wouldn’t not confirm — or deny — a rumor involving her, Harvey Weinstein, and a tattoo that’s been circulating for years. He’s said (watch here) that Dench tattooed his name on her posterior in gratitude for him giving her so many opportunities in movies.
“Well, it is true that Mrs. Brown was made for television,” Dench tells EW. “And then came Harvey. It was he who saw it and said, ‘This is a movie.’ Quite suddenly it kicked off a whole movie career for me. I had done very few films before that.”
But what about the tattoo?
She lets out a fantastic throaty giggle. “Well, well, yes that is a fact that only Harvey and I know,” she says. “You’ll have to trust Harvey about that.”