While she seems such a grand and welcome presence on our cinema screens these days, it is hard to believe that it wasn’t until 1997, after decades as the doyenne of British stage and TV, that Dame Judi Dench broke out to cinema audiences worldwide with her starring role in a movie playing Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown, for which she received her first Golden Globe nomination and subsequently won. Since then, we have seen so many sides of Judi Dench, from her turn as the steely M in six James Bond films, to her many extraordinary Golden Globe-nominated roles both comedic and dramatic, including the brief but screen-stealing performance as Elizabeth I in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, her touching portrait as British author Iris Murdoch in 2001’s Iris, as eccentric theatre entrepreneur Mrs. Laura Henderson in 2005’s Mrs. Henderson Presents, to the psycho-sexual thriller Notes on a Scandal opposite Cate Blanchett, to last year’s Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy nomination for her role in the wildly successful The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Dench is nominated for her eleventh Golden Globe this year as Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama for her role in Philomena (also nominated for Best Screenplay and Best Picture- Drama). It is based on the remarkable true story of now 80-year old Philomena Lee who gave birth to a son out of wedlock in a conservative Irish Catholic community in the early 1950’s, and was later forced to give him up for adoption to a wealthy American family. Some fifty years later, with the help of jaded British journalist Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan), the two embark on a journey that will finally resolve the mystery of her long lost son.
The HFPA met up with the real Philomena Lee, Steve Coogan and Judi Dench in London last October. Dench explained how she constructed her seamless performance.
“I needed to meet Philomena before I started filming. You just have to come face to face with this person, and listen to them and watch them and get the essence of them,” Dench said. “We met at lunch and she made me laugh so much. She has a wonderful sense of humor, an ironic kind of sense of humor, and every time I've spoken to her she says how much she loved that boy. I think there are very few people who would be of that magnitude and of that strength to be able to turn and say at the end of that journey that she can still forgive and not be angry.”
For Steve Coogan (who co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope based on Sixsmith’s 2009 book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee”), nabbing Dench was a dream come true. “She was always our top choice,” said Coogan. “Her face is so expressive and she communicates so much that we wanted to be aware of that. I would often say when we were writing, ‘let's not – we've got Judi Dench here, let's not waste her. Let's make sure we get value for money,’ and she delivered in spades.
“Steve and I hit it off very, very quickly,” recalled Dench. “We immediately had a very kind of natural banter between us.”
“I was daunted at first,” admitted Coogan. “But the key for me was to just listen, because when Judi was in character, I didn’t think it was the great Judi Dench, she was just Philomena. When you are working opposite someone like her, all you have to do is react. She does most of the work for you.”
And while Dench recently turned 79, she joked with the HFPA that she is likely to be around for many more awards seasons. “People keep saying that terrible word retire,” she laughed. “That's such a filthy word in my case. I won't have that word at all. I do love working and I love most of all the thought of doing something that is so totally different from Philomena next and then after that hopefully, who knows, doing something different again. I always love a challenge.”