EW gathers Oscar Best Actress front-runners Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, and Judi Dench for an exclusive (and raucous) roundtable discussion
Meryl Streep
Credit: Meryl Streep Photograph by Martin Schoeller

”There is nothing like a daaaaame!” croons Meryl Streep after warmly greeting Dame Helen Mirren on this late December morning. And that old song is doubly true on this occasion. Today, in an unassuming office in downtown Manhattan, we’ll be joined by another Dame of the British Empire, Judi Dench. All three actresses are, of course, legends who between them can boast 20 Academy Award nominations and three actual Oscars — though boasting is definitely not their style.

The trio’s most recent performances prove that the decades have only sharpened their talents. This year marks the first time in recent history that it’s the Best Actress race, not the Best Actor race, that’s overflowing with worthy contenders. And despite dazzling turns from the likes of Kate Winslet (Little Children), Penélope Cruz (Volver), and Naomi Watts (The Painted Veil), it’s these three who’ve got voters buzzing, the ones who were already established stars when Ms. Winslet was still in kindergarten. She may be unfashionably punctual today, but Streep, 57, coolly inhabited the soul (and designer clothes) of style-magazine editor Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Dench, 72, was villainous, yet never cartoonishly so, as a lonely London schoolteacher who develops an unhealthy crush on Cate Blanchett’s fellow pedagogue in Notes on a Scandal. Finally, Mirren was convincing both emotionally and — to an almost eerie extent — physically as Elizabeth II in the sleeper hit The Queen. Indeed, the smart money is on the 61-year-old Prime Suspect star becoming the first to win an Oscar for playing a British monarch since a certain J. Dench took home a gold man in 1999 for portraying Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love.

It is Shakespeare’s fault, by the way, that Dame Judi cannot be with us in person today. The actress is awaiting our call in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, where she’s between a matinee and an evening performance of a musical version of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Naturally, there is concern that the woman James Bond calls ”M” may be a little tired from her onstage exertions. ”Let her snooze!” suggests Streep. ”We can make up her part!” As it turns out, however, Dench is as feisty and funny as her Stateside peers as the trio ruminate on outraging audiences and ganging up on directors — not to mention impertinent EW journalists.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Dame Judi, could you please describe for our benefit exactly where you are?
JUDI DENCH: In my dressing room at the Royal Shakespeare Company. You can just about get four people in it.
MERYL STREEP: I saw you, Judi, yesterday. On the satellite television, they were playing [1968’s] A Midsummer Night’s Dream and there you were, practically naked. Beautiful!
HELEN MIRREN: I was in it as well! I played Hermia — that little fat girl.
STREEP: You’re kidding me! I didn’t even know. That’s so divine.
DENCH: I have to say I’m rather frightened it’s being shown.
MIRREN: I know. There are certain ones you really want to disappear forever, don’t you? And that’s one of them.

Remarkably, it’s the only film on which any of you have worked together.
MIRREN: We’re always working with men! That was the great pleasure of Calendar Girls. For once, you’re working with women. But Judi, you’ve just done it, fantastically, in Notes on a Scandal. It’s so great to have a role opposite another woman.
DENCH: It is lovely. It’s the same old story, isn’t it? Not enough parts to go around!

Is it fun to go to all these awards ceremonies?
STREEP: It’s fun for people who like…that. That’s my answer!
MIRREN: It seems so full-on now: the clothes, the fashion thing.
STREEP: You feel very honored and everything. [But also] burdened…
MIRREN: And humiliated.
STREEP: It never doesn’t feel like work. There was a moment I remember, early on, when the Golden Globes or something used to be not televised. And there was a luncheon…
MIRREN: And you could get drunk.
STREEP: It was fun. Or you read about how photographs were taken at the Oscars, but that was it. Then it really seemed like something that was an honor from the industry. And it still is. But you do feel like a very tiny cog in a big machine.