'I don't want to accept what I look like'
...says Academy Award winner Judi Dench, who plays Queen Victoria in Victoria & Abdul
Victoria & Abdul is the true story of an unexpected friendship between Queen Victoria and a young clerk, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who travels from India to participate in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. The two forge an unlikely and devoted alliance with a loyalty to one another that her household and inner circle all attempt to destroy. With the film set for release in India on October 13, here are excerpts of an interview with Dame Judi Dench.
Set the scene for us and tell us about the friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim...
She had lost her husband, Albert, and had formed a great friendship with John Brown. And then John Brown died and I think she must have missed someone she could relax with, someone she could speak to freely without all the formality of the court.
How would you describe her relationship with Abdul?
I suppose it was admiration, and at the same time she liked his gentleness. I think there was a spiritual side to it as well, in that she was anxious to learn about the Koran and wanted to learn Urdu. And if you look at Ali you wouldn’t mind having him around (laughs).
How surprised were you when you read about the story we see in Victoria & Abdul?
Very surprised indeed, and kind of pleased for her. It’s amazing that she found someone that she could talk to on a kind of even basis. She wasn’t like that with any of the children, so it must have been a very complex relationship of feeling great love for Abdul and also feeling like a mother towards him.
It seems from the film that before they meet she is lonely and tired, and he kind of brings her back to life. Did their friendship extend her life do you think?
I’m sure it did! I’m certain it extended her life. When you’re excited, interested, or have an appetite for something, it’s reconstituting. It gives you energy.
How do you feel about Ali Fazal?
He's like an understudy, I think, to Johnny Depp – younger (laughs). He’s a beautiful boy – very gentle and very intelligent. He’s got a great sense of humour too.
What was it like filming in Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s home on the Isle of Wight?
It was lovely being able to work there. It was extraordinary to be able to be at Queen Victoria’s desk. I could look out of the window at the trees she saw--only a hundred years taller.
You played Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown. And Stephen Frears said that when he came to you with Victoria & Abdul, he was worried that you might turn it down because you had played her before. What was your initial reaction?
Perhaps I wouldn’t have taken her on if I hadn’t known about this further relationship she had with Abdul. But I think it’s a fascinating insight into her and the type of person she was and her needs.
How do you choose your roles now?
It’s about who I’m going to work with, and how different it is from the last thing I did.
Are there any characters throughout your career who have been difficult to play?
Oh many! Many, many, more difficult than easy. Also I haven't seen a lot of films I’ve done--I will one day maybe.
Is that by choice?
Yes, by choice, because it’s not like the theatre, where if something doesn't work on one night, you can change it the next night. With a film, by the time you see it, it’s too late.
Is it painful to watch yourself on the screen?
Yes, very painful. It’s terribly painful. Well, also, I don’t want to accept what I look like. I imagine I’m a very, very tall, willowy girl in her 40s (laughs).
You talk about a frustration with not being able to change your performance. What about doing eight Bonds? Were you able to develop your character over the different films?
Yes, the character developed, I hope, and in the writing of it, too. I didn’t know anything about M, really. I just thought that the script I was sent, for Goldeneye, was really witty and very funny. And my husband was mad keen that I should do it, so that he could say he lived with a Bond woman (laughs).