Empathy, even to the darkest character

Times Staff Writer

SHE is probably the most popular British actress in a generation, a standing earned less by her storied appearances here on the Shakespearean stage, possibly, than by her years as reigning queen of the sitcoms on BBC. It has been estimated that an election for queen would send Elizabeth II packing and put Dame Judi Dench in Buckingham Palace.

Is it modesty, then, that leaves the 72-year-old actress, recipient of nearly every acting award that Hollywood, New York and London have to offer, perpetually afraid of being out of work? Reluctant to take a break, shy to ask for parts, working till her knees go out because she's afraid she'll get stuck waiting for the phone to ring?

"It's just wanting to be employed in my case," she says simply. "Trevor Nunn once said to me: 'You're always in tears on the first night.' And I said, 'I'm so frightened that nobody's going to ask me to do the next thing.' I get so fearful about that kind of thing. You know, when you get in your 70s, there's lots of other people waiting there, just here --" and she flutters a hand to a place behind her shoulder, just out of view, to an apparently familiar presence. "And they're all waiting, waiting for just ... that ... little ... push...."

Needing to be needed, sudden loss and loneliness -- Michael Williams, her husband of 30 years and habitual costar, died in 2001 -- these are emotions the unremittingly sociable actress brought to "Notes on a Scandal," the story of a spinster's monstrous loneliness and the calculated damage she inflicts in her search for connections -- a story that might have been Dench's first cinematic turn as a grand villain. Except that Dench injects the admittedly nasty role with her own improbable vulnerability.

Adapted from Zoe Heller's Mann Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, "Notes on a Scandal," opening Wednesday, also stars Cate Blanchett as the bohemian young art teacher who serves as both catalyst and victim to the elder Dench's predatory friendship.

Anyone who has followed the Mary Kay LeTourneau saga on the West Coast will recognize the gritty, delirious affair Blanchett's Sheba plunges into with a 15-year-old student, the dark secret that serves as the vehicle by which the aging, battle-ax history teacher played by Dench catches her newfound friend in a web of obligation and unspoken threat.

Clash of expectations

SET in a decaying London secondary school, the plot, under the direction of Richard Eyre (who also directed Dench in "Iris"), swoops toward disaster almost from the first halting, touching encounters between the two women, each needy in their own way, each propelled by conflicting passions that spin them like pinwheels into inevitable and disastrous conflict with each other.

The elderly Barbara Covett's life of serial solitude in the throb of busy London, in which going to the laundromat can constitute a weekend's events and the casual brush of a bus driver's hand sends spasms through her groin, comes up against the warm chaos of Sheba's domain, a large, fashionable flat shared with her much older husband, petulant teenager daughter and son with Down's syndrome.

Even before Barbara's discovery of Sheba's affair begins to render them, as she hopefully reflects, "bound by the secrets we share," her arrival at Sheba's apartment for an introductory Sunday lunch in a stiff, newly bought dress and carefully coiffed hair puts her painfully out of place amid the casual jeans and sweat shirts of her hosts -- a small point, but one Dench plays with painful precision.

"We took a long time over the look of her," Dench said last week in an interview at the old Royal Shakespeare Company theater here, where she is playing in "Merry Wives -- The Musical."

Dench herself manages to be elegant at 5 feet, 3 inches, wearing a soft-draped cream cashmere jacket over a brown wool sweater and trousers. (She still makes many "sexiest actress" lists, not only because of her blazing film role as Lady Macbeth some 27 years ago, but also in no small part thanks to her relentless humor, warm intelligence and often-intimidating blue eyes.)

For the colorless Barbara, Dench pulled a cap over her lustrously silver pixie top to create the impression of bald spots under thin, flyaway frizz. The script called for Barbara to have gray underwear in her drawer; Dench balked, arguing that women with flawless underwear, not to mention great manicures and good cars, can be deeply damaged nonetheless. But the clunky shoes, the shapeless skirts -- they created the foundation on which Dench fashioned a woman almost everyone would find a way to dislike.

"The actual physical kind of demeanor of her. I mean, if you wear a kind of type of shoes and you wear a type of clothes, it informs the way you move. Your surroundings inform the way you move. The awkwardness of her, you know. She felt very awkward in Sheba's house. There were those terrible clothes she got dressed up in, and obviously she'd just been to the hairdresser's. The daughter saying, 'Are you going out somewhere?' And her having to say, 'I'm going out somewhere later on.' The unbearable thing of knowing that you've misjudged entirely."

But sweet in its way, no?

"Not too sweet. Sad. Sad for her."

Dench's previous cinematic roles bear not the slightest resemblance. She won an Oscar for her eight minutes as Queen Elizabeth I in "Shakespeare in Love"; more recently, she portrayed author Iris Murdoch during her descent into Alzheimer's disease, the sexy spymaster M in "Casino Royale," and the irrepressible wartime theater owner in "Mrs. Henderson Presents."

"Judi Dench is universally loved, and people usually identify with this magnificently generous, beautiful and brilliant person who often plays monarchs and has tremendous personal dignity," Eyre said in the production notes. "So to experience Judi Dench being caustic and acerbic and rather ungenerous we felt would be a wonderful, bracing shock. I mean, her portrait of Barbara is still deeply vulnerable, but this is not a nice woman, and I think from an audience's point of view to see Judi playing that will be quite refreshing."

Dench said the devious Barbara was merely a different character, not a different process.

"People say do you like the character or dislike her? It isn't a question of liking or disliking. You just try to make the person real. Understandable," Dench said.

"That's our job, of course. I mean, do you do crosswords? Well, you know how you can look at a crossword in the morning, and then put it down and come back to it in the afternoon, and suddenly fill in about four or five clues? Well now, that's not a coincidence. That's because you've seen it, and that incredible subconscious takes over. It's like the way we can come to a decision about something when you wake up after having had a very good night's sleep. Somehow, it works things out for you.

"I've known it when being directed, and somebody says something. With a lot of directors I have a shorthand, a code with. And they can say just one word, and I'll know exactly what they mean, and that's fed in and it kind of goes through like your computer, it kicks through something, and it might just bring out the shade that they require in a performance."

Stephen Frears, who worked with Dench on "Mrs. Henderson Presents" and a couple of theater productions, counseled her with two words: "Just careful," he'd say, and then tell her what she was supposed to be careful on. "And it's enough to just inform each little thing.... As I say, I can't do it without help."

Likewise, she said, she learned from Blanchett.

"She's got film acting," said Dench, who has spent most of her career -- and the happiest moments of it -- on stage. "She has, somebody said to me such a long time ago: Less is more. But you only have to work with somebody like Cate to realize that less is more. My first job as Ophelia [in 'Hamlet'] at the Old Vic, I was the maddest, mad as a cut snake I was. But in actual fact, I need only to have chosen a very small thing to do to signify her madness. And Cate has that down to such a degree. You just know how to play a scene with her. I think she's sublime, I do."

Common sense of loss

IN the role of Barbara, Dench clearly finds her character unappetizing yet can empathize with her need for human contact, having lost her husband, a costar in the long-running BBC comedy series "A Fine Romance." Of course, she says, that loss came after a lifetime of comfortable companionship, whereas Barbara never had a husband.

"She's had friendship she's obviously overpowered. You hear about her friend she's had in the past. She obviously kind of smothered her with affection, and in fact sometimes people have such a need in them, not only to be cared for, but to care for somebody. She needs a friend, but she also needs somebody to do things for, who needs her in return."

All roles, Dench has come to believe, have to start from somewhere inside, the mental memory chip of emotion without which, her late husband always counseled, it was impossible to effectively project emotion on stage. Dench, for years, argued with him. Then she realized he was right.

"Michael said your vision can't be greater than what you understand as a person. You understand within your vision -- anger, jealousy, greed, whatever you have -- it's the subconscious that does that. You hope that a kind of picture-book person inside you is taking those things down that you can then call on."

Coming back to Stratford, where Dench lived for more than a decade as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she raised her daughter and where her closest family members are buried, has been a comfort, she said. So has playing to a live audience, which so far has responded enthusiastically to Dench's Mrs. Quickly, who in a departure from the traditional "Merry Wives" is hankering after fat Falstaff.

"Somebody asked me not long ago, does the audience make any difference? I said, the audience is the only person you're doing it for. Otherwise, I'd be at home. I wouldn't have to come out this evening," she said.

"Every audience is different. It's as if they get together beforehand and conspire. It's as if they think, 'We're going to be a very quiet audience,' or, 'We're going to be a very, very noisy audience.' They take on a personality, and you always know within a few minutes what kind of audience it's going to be. And they teach you something. They teach you everything about how to play. You listen to them like mad."

kim.murphy@latimes.com

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