Hot Dame Judi Dench still gets smitten

Dame Judi Dench.
Dame Judi Dench.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Judi Dench, who plays Queen Victoria again, in the film Victoria & Abdul, says she understands the headiness of falling in love

NEW YORK • I watch as Dame Judi Dench eats her chilled corn soup with saffron and sips champagne.

At 82, she is just as elegant as you would imagine, with silver hair, ice-blue eyes and crisp diction. She is 1.55m, but her reputation is towering.

Dench is one of the greatest British actresses - a star alumnus of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Sally Bowles in the London production of Cabaret and an Oscar winner for her eight-minute turn as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare In Love. She died in James Bond's arms as the murdered spymaster M. And she has portrayed so many queens on stage and screen that when she plays a duchess, it seems like a demotion.

So what to talk about with this regal creature?

Well, what else? Lingerie, tattoos, younger men and sex.

This dame, as it turns out, is full of mischief.

She got an Oscar nomination 20 years ago for playing Victoria in Mrs Brown (1997), the saga of how the queen grew close to a younger man, a servant who doted on her after her beloved Albert died, outraging her household.

As a person, I'm very, very susceptible. For 60 years, I've fallen in love with people.

DAME JUDI DENCH, who plays Queen Victoria in Victoria & Abdul, the saga of how the queen grew close to a much younger man

Now she is back in Oscar contention for Victoria & Abdul, the saga of how the queen grew close to another younger man, also a servant who doted on her after the other one died, again outraging her household.

The first of the forbidden relationships was with John Brown, a tall, rugged Scotsman nicknamed "the Queen's stallion", seven years her junior.

As Julia Baird wrote in Victoria The Queen, Queen Victoria was so ensorcelled by the handsome Brown that she asked to be buried with a lock of his hair and a leather case full of his photos in her hand. His handkerchief was also placed on top of her body, alongside Prince Albert's.

The second entanglement, with the added complications of race relations in the colonial age, was with Abdul Karim, a 24-year-old Indian Muslim servant who became the 68-year-old monarch's "munshi", or teacher, instructing her on Urdu, the Quran and mangoes.

Dench is far more padded as the older Victoria. "She was 46 inches around her waist and she wasn't tall," the actress tells me. "It was difficult to go to the loo. Impossible, actually."

Both movies begin with the small, round queen - widowed after having nine children with Prince Albert - dyspeptic and stony-faced, miserable and in mourning with her black veil, only to show her brightening and melting under the sometimes impertinent ministrations of her attractive younger servants.

Even though her name became a synonym for priggishness, I observe, Victoria was a sexy little thing, wasn't she?

"We are not amused," Dench says with faux hauteur, offering the line associated with Victoria.

Comparing the queen to the interior of a tree (Dench loves trees), she says: "She had a huge passion and need inside her. She had a happy life with Albert and then those years with John Brown, and then I'm sure she'd certainly given up by then and was just caught up in the drudgery of everything. And, suddenly, that wonderful kind of flowering, where she thought, 'This is really something worth living for.'"

She says she understands that "heady state" well, discovering someone you can laugh with and learn from.

"As a person," she added, "I'm very, very susceptible. For 60 years, I've fallen in love with people."

Is there any advantage in women getting involved with subordinates?

She says they could get smitten with "the dustman, the postman, the butcher or the prime minister. It happens to be about the people".

I ask Dench about her younger man.

"This is where I get up and throw the table down and sweep out," she says with a puckish smile, pounding the table.

Actually, she is quite open about her new beau and he is with her in New York.

Dench's husband of nearly 30 years, the actor Michael Williams, who sent her a red rose every Friday, died of lung cancer in 2001. She met David Mills, a conservationist, in 2010 when he invited her to help open a new red-squirrel enclosure at the wildlife centre he runs near her home in Surrey, England. He is 74 and she prefers to call him a jolly nice chap rather than a partner.

Despite losing some eyesight to macular degeneration, she still seems elfin, determined to focus on "the pluses".

I tell her I read a recent interview in RadioTimes with Ginny Dougary that she pointed the reporter in the direction of "a lovely naughty knicker shop" in Covent Garden, but told her not to buy everything there because she was going too.

"I like it," Dench concedes to me about lingerie, "but I don't think about it." She also told Dougary that older people should never give up on sex, noting that "of course, you still feel desire".

I ask about her tattoos. She had Swarovski crystal body art spelling out "007" on her shoulder for a Bond gala and premieres and had "Carpe Diem" engraved on the inside of her wrist in St Martin's for her 81st birthday, at the urging of her daughter, Finty.

Most memorably, she etched a message on her "bum" that said, "JD loves HW", with a heart with an arrow through it, in gratitude to US film producer Harvey Weinstein for making her a movie star in Mrs Brown, Chocolat (2000), Iris (2001), Shakespeare In Love (1998) and other films, after she had been starring in a sitcom with her husband in England.

As a young actress, she says, someone told her she would never make it in movies because "you have everything wrong with your face".

"I'd like to know where that idiot is working now," Weinstein tells me.

Is the Weinstein tattoo real or simply drawn on by her make-up artist when she needs it, given that she once threatened to switch it to actor Kevin Spacey when he was the head of the Old Vic?

In her typically saucy fashion, Dench purrs: "How can I possibly tell you? Ask Harvey."

Weinstein is not sure, but he does know this: "She is one of the world's great actresses, but also great personalities. She speaks in the Queen's English so elegantly and then she's flirting and speaking like British sailors on shore leave. Johnny Depp and I will go to our graves thinking she's the hottest of them all."

I ask her if there is a trick, when you are the daughter of a doctor and a wardrobe mistress, to playing a monarch as well as she does.

"It is more difficult finding out why you're saying the lines," she says. "It doesn't matter whether you're playing a monarch or you're playing a slut down the street. Same process."

NYTIMES

•Victoria & Abdul opens in Singapore on Nov 9.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2017, with the headline 'Hot Dame who still gets smitten'. Print Edition | Subscribe