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Philomena - Dame Judi Dench interview


Interview by Rob Carnevale

DAME Judi Dench talks about the responsibility of playing Philomena Lee in Stephen Frears’ Philomena and the pleasure of working with Steve Coogan.

She also discusses her own meetings with Philomena and why she wouldn’t personally have been as forgiving. She was speaking at a press conference held during the London Film Festival.

Q. What was the irresistible draw of this huge story?
Dame Judi Dench: Well, I heard that Steve [Coogan] wanted to come down to read it to me and that’s the first thing I heard, through my agent. So, he came and he read it to me and immediately I wanted to do it before there was any tweaking to the script. I immediately wanted to do it because, well, you only have to hear the story and hear about Philomena Lee and that’s irresistible.

Q. Did you feel a sense of responsibility portraying Philomena on the big screen?
Dame Judi Dench: It’s a very good question. That’s really the only thing that concerns me if I’m playing somebody who is alive. I mean I played Iris Murdoch, who had not long died, and I felt the responsibility very heavy on my shoulders. Ad I feel with this film that as long as we tell Philomena’s story and as long as we’re true to her, which Jeff and Steve have already done by writing the story… we must not sell her short;. She’s a most remarkable woman and all my concern was that we must be absolutely true to her story. I know her, because I met her before we started filming, but I haven’t seen her since she’s seen the film, so I can’t wait unto later today to hear what she feels.

Q. You bring such emotional depth to Philomena, to what extent did being a mother yourself inform your performance?
Dame Judi Dench: Well, everything, every part that you approach has to be somehow rooted in yourself. You have to somehow root everything so that it’s not just words coming out of you. So, every experience that you experience yourself you use, because that’s our craft. So, having a daughter and a grandson, I certainly could relate to the fact that this child, who you simply dote on, being taken away from you at an early age, and every single kind of emotion you would have to go through. I once said the same thing to someone when I was playing Lady Macbeth and they said: “That’s tricky, emotionally, what do you do about murdering your husband’s cousin?” And there are, of course, things that aren’t in your personal repertoire that you have to somehow understand by reading or watching other things and listening to other people talk about them. So, everything is related I suppose. But that said, it’s still not my story and I still have to relate it back through Philomena. So, it’s quite a tangled piece of string that touches all sorts of parts. In the end, you hope you come back to something that is as near to the truth of that person as you can possibly manage.

Q. The characters go on a journey together and get to know each other slowly. Was it similar for you and Steve after that first meeting and, if so, what did you learn about each other?
Dame Judi Dench: I tell you what I learned about Steve, now he does stand-up and comedy and I do serious acting [laughs]. I think he should stick to that because he seemed to seamlessly pass over into serious acting, when I could no more get up and tell a joke to a lot of people in a room than I could actually fly on my own to the moon. So, that’s what I learned 0 that some people can do it all! He’s in the Billy Connolly league.

Q. Philomena has been through a lot and yet her faith is rooted in forgiveness. How do you approach something like that?
Dame Judi Dench: Well, I would like to think that in those circumstances I would have behaved like that but I know that I wouldn’t. And I think that is what the film is about – the power of forgiveness. After all the things that have happened… we know about the issue of children being sold and adopted and taken away but what is so extraordinary is how these two people come through something like – how both of them do, in actual fact. I think that she’s one of the most considerable people I’ve ever met, Philomena. That all that can happen to you… but through making that journey with Martin, she may have lost her son but gains something else. She gains, in a way, another son. But her faith is as strong as it was before and that’s no slouch. I wish I could say that’s how I would have behaved but I know it isn’t.

Q. Did you find the film traumatic to make?
Dame Judi Dench: Well, as I said before, it’s the responsibility you feel to somebody. I felt quite a responsibility when I played Elizabeth I but nobody here remembers her! And then I felt a responsibility when I played Queen Victoria but not many people remember her. And I felt a huge responsibility when I played Iris because a lot of people remember her. So, now I have Philomena who was just here [points to shoulder]. What was quite traumatic for me… look, when you get a job, it’s work. So, you have to get on. I met her before we started filming so that I had a kind of essence of what she was like. And she made me laugh a lot. She made me laugh a huge amount. She’s very, very funny. But then you have to get on with the piece yourself. But you have your script and you have your director and you have your fellow actors and you’re all together, so then you have to get on with telling the story that is there while remembering the notion of that person. But you tell it as positively and as truthfully, and without outside influences, as you can. You just have to concentrate.

So, probably the most traumatic thing was when we had the wrap party, and we were all sat around and I was talking to Philomena and suddenly they had a part of the film to show everyone… I remember that when the little boy came on, I heard her say [in Philomena accent]: “Ah God love him, look at him!” And I was terribly aware of her hand on my shoulder because this is a very personal story for her. You don’t want to over-dramatise it and you don’t want to underplay it, you just want to be true to it. And so that’s the responsibility I felt.

Q. Your Irish accent is flawless. Was it easy?
Dame Judi Dench: The secret of my success is my mother, who was from Dublin. All my relations are in Dublin or in the west, or as I found out, we went to Rostrevor in Northern Ireland to film and I got out, while they changed cars around, and this man said to me: “You know you have cousins in this town? And they’re coming down to see you…” And so they did. I’m sorry we didn’t go to a lot more places, so that I could find a lot more cousins [laughs]. So, that was good. It’s entirely because my father was also brought up in Dublin. So, that’s my link. It’s very nice of you to say so. I also have a dresser, who I’ve had for 40 years, from Ireland, called Annie, and she also was a tremendous link to everything. She said this breathtaking thing once to me. I was in Nova Scotia making The Shipping News and she was minding my house for me and I rang her and said: “Is everything alright?” She replied: “Ah, it’s grand here!” But she said: “What time is it there?” And I replied that it was 5.20pm. So, she said: “What time will that make it here?” So, between my mum, who is also very funny, and Annie and Philomena, it’s a very mixed bag.

Q. What did you get from your one on one time with Philomena that isn’t perhaps in the original book?
Dame Judi Dench: Her passion for the boy. Every time I’ve been with her she’s spoken about how much she loved Anthony.

Read our review of Philomena