Words by Alison James Pic © REX
Dame Judi Dench may be acting aristocracy but there’s nothing stuffy about her. Quite the opposite, in fact. According to the director of her latest film Esio Trot, she’s ‘naughty, with so much joie de vivre and such a sense of fun’.
This is very much in evidence at the launch of the film, which co-stars Dustin Hoffman. There’s a real elfin-like quality to her – and we’re not just referring to her signature hairstyle.
“There’s a line in Esio Trot where my character, Mrs Silver, says ‘If you can’t break the rules when you’re older, when can you?’ But I’ve always been like that,” explains Judi. “I think it’s good to go your own way and not conform. If you don’t want to toe the line and would rather do things differently and break the rules, go ahead! It’s fun. I don’t think age comes into it. Why should it?”
The age thing doesn’t sit well with Judi. She is 80 on December 9 but it’s not something she chooses to dwell on.
“That dreaded word: O-L-D-E-R’,” she goes on, her blue eyes flashing. “I think age is just a number that’s imposed on you. The only time I really got upset about age was when I was 40, for some reason. But after that, it's just as everybody says, ‘You’re as old as you feel’.
“The only thing that drives me absolutely spare is when people say, ‘Are you going to retire?’ Or, ‘Don’t you think it’s time to put your feet up?’ Or they tell me my age – some people like to tell me how old I am. I don’t want to be told that I’m too old to do anything. Let me have a go – let us all have a go. People are different and our personal energy and outlook is different, regardless of age. It’s your own individual engine and as long as you can keep that going for a bit, you won’t fall over.”
Mrs Silver, like Judi, is certainly firing on all cylinders. She’s a flamboyant, flirty, glamorous, glass-half-full kind of woman who, unlikely as it seems, falls in love with her tiny pet tortoise called Alfie.
Meanwhile, her lonely neighbour Mr Hoppy (played by Dustin Hoffman) has fallen for Mrs Silver but he’s so shy and retiring he thinks the only way he can attract her attention is by talking tortoise. Mrs Silver doesn’t know that tortoises don’t increase in size and she’s perturbed by Alfie’s lack of growth. Mr Hoppy has the idea of buying as many sizes of tortoise as he can afford and secretly replacing her pet with increasingly larger tortoises! He tells Mrs Silver that if she recites an ancient poem called ‘Esio Trot’ to Alfie every night, he’ll grow as a result. Unbeknown to Mrs Silver, Mr Hoppy penned the poem himself and the title ‘Esio Trot’ is ‘tortoise’ spelt backwards!
“I’ve read Esio Trot to various children many times over the years and loved the story, so when I was approached about the role of Mrs Silver, I wanted to play her unconditionally,” Judi explains. “To be honest, I would have been in Five On Treasure Island or whatever, if it meant working with Dustin Hoffman. I really enjoyed boasting about being in a production with him. But back to Mrs Silver. . . With her red hair and the brightly-coloured dresses she wears, she looks nothing like me and I love that. It’s heaven. It’s not really much fun playing someone who looks like you.”
How did she feel about having to get up close to a tortoise? There are rumours that she was known on set as The Tortoise Whisperer!
“Well I do get on very, very well with animals,” she replies. “We have a lot of pets and my family said, ‘You’re bound to come home with a tortoise’, but I knew I wouldn’t. I mean, a tortoise isn’t going to greet you at the door with a smiley, fuzzy face like my cats and dog.
However, I did grow quite fond of the little tortoise called Alfie. It went into a kind of stupor when I recited the Esio Trot poem over and over, and then it yawned – a tortoise yawning is all-encompassing!”
As is Judy’s work schedule! Behind the Scenes, a collection of Judi’s most cherished photographs with accompanying text written by herself, was published on November 20. She’s currently filming The Hollow Crown – The Wars of the Roses, BBC2’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s best-loved history plays, which goes out in 2016.
Early next year will see Judi begin the publicity trail for the film The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (sequel to the hugely successful ‘First’) which is released in the UK in February and in the US a month later, and another film, Tulip Fever, is also due for release next year. “You’ve got to take it while it’s offered,” she smiles. We’re sure she’ll be offered ‘it’ for many more years to come.
- Esio Trot is on January 1 on BBC1 at 6.30pm.
Psst… Dame Judi shares a secret
She was once told she would never make a film – let alone become an Oscar-winning actress. “I’m not going to say who told me that, but I’ve never forgotten it. I was in an office in Piccadilly. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘But you will never make a film because your face is the wrong kind of arrangement’. Thirty-two years later in 1997 there I was in New York, doing the press for my first film, Mrs Brown."
There's more star chat in every issue of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday.