Judi Dench: My Irish roots helped me in my latest role
Benji Wilson talks to the actress about her new movie 'Philomena' – the true story of one woman's search for her son
As one of Britain's acting greats, Judi Dench is probably best known for playing Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown or 'M', head of M16, in the Bond films.
But the classically trained actress had no problem switching on an earthy Dublin accent for her latest movie, Philomena, the true story of Philomena Lee who was banished to a convent, for the 'sin' of having a child out of wedlock in 1952.
Then again, Judi has been studying the lilt from a young age. "[Philomena] is older than me but not much, so I can identify with her past and I can identify with Ireland.
"My Ma and her family were from Dublin."
Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, the film, out on Friday, tells the story of Philomena's 50-year search for her son, Anthony, who was bundled into the back of a car aged three-and-a-half and never came back.
With the help of journalist Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan in the film), she finally discovered her child, renamed Michael, had been adopted by a middle-class Catholic couple from St Louis, Missouri.
Tragically, it was too late for a reunion: Michael, a successful lawyer and rising star of the Republican Party, died in 1995.
"It made me very angry," admits Judi, "but what struck me much more was Philomena's level of forgiveness and her belief and faith.
"Even now that's completely unshaken. I was just arrested by her incredible compassion."
While many actors think meeting the person you're playing can muddy the waters, for Judi, who's already tipped for an Oscar for the role, it was a must.
"I met Philomena beforehand and then two or three times during filming," she says. "I just wanted the impression of her so that you have something in front of your mind.
"If you met her, I suppose you'd think, very nice, smart Irish lady, but then you suddenly realise what an absolutely remarkable person she is.
"I have no doubt at all we'll be in touch again."
For her part, Philomena (80) is just as full of praise for the woman playing her on the big screen: "She got me to a T – I felt I had known her all my life."
"They showed us a tiny bit of the film at the wrap party," adds Judi, who made her first appearance at the Old Vic in 1957.
"Suddenly there was [Philomena's] little boy on the screen and the only remark I heard her say was, 'Ah, God love him.' I hope she feels we told her story properly."
Despite the heart-breaking subject matter, mum-of-one Judi reveals there were plenty of laughs on set too.
"Steve Coogan (is) hysterical," she says. "He made me laugh every day and, of course, when you're playing something that requires quite a lot of tension, it's glorious to be able to just have a laugh suddenly."
Although some of her greatest triumphs have been in comedies, from Trevor Nunn's 1976 production of The Comedy of Errors to sitcom As Time Goes By, with that throaty voice and stern eyes, it's hard to imagine Judi acting the maggot.
But she says: "I defy anybody to do a really smashing piece of work without people having a sense of humour."
It's a balance she brings to choosing roles too: "You don't want to do something remotely like something you did before, that's all. I want something that's fascinating to do and where you learn something new."
Her recent work includes the comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the Bond epic Skyfall, and now the tender, intimate Philomena. It's proof that at 78, not only does Judi Dench refuse to be pigeonholed, she's not slowing down either.
In her rare down time, the actress likes to paint.
"I paint a lot but they're not for public consumption, just for myself," she laughs.
As for the day job, even after five decades in the business, and with 11 Baftas, an Oscar and a Tony under her belt, she reckons it's not getting any easier.
"The more you do, the more is expected of you," says Judi, who only shot to global fame in the mid-1990s with GoldenEye and Mrs Brown.
"You also know more about the job . . . less is more – I understand that now.
"I'm far more nervous now than I was," she adds. "But that's something you just have to deal with. It's something you don't broadcast too much because nerves create adrenalin. You can use all that – it's petrol – but it's not your business to let other people sense it."
Just like Philomena though, family comes first, Judi says: "My daughter [actress Finty Williams] and grandson [Sam, 16] – I just love it when we're together.
"We had supper in the garden last night. It was really lovely. Those are the good bits."
Additional reporting by Deirdre Reynolds
Read the full interview in the November issue of Reader's Digest, out now