Judi Dench loves a good surprise. She’s cooking one up on this late autumn morning, her last day in Los Angeles promoting her new movie, “Victoria & Abdul,” before returning home to London.
Dench’s daughter, Finty Williams, an accomplished actress in her own right, thinks her mom is returning to England several days from now. But that would mean Dench would be missing Williams’ 45th birthday.
So Dench has concocted an elaborate ruse, having friends send her daughter pictures of her out and about in Los Angeles — restaurant meals, “Victoria & Abdul” promotional events, Mom sitting in gardens and enjoying the sunshine — all the way up to the night before her birthday. Meanwhile Dench will be lying low in London, waiting to walk into Williams’ house on the big day.
“We’ve always done surprises in our house,” Dench says, a twinkle in her eye. “Finty’s very clever though. I hope I’ve fooled her.”
With impeccable acting credentials that include long stints with England’s Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre Company and a movie career spent playing more queens than she could possibly remember (she has now played Victoria twice, following an earlier turn in “Mrs. Brown”), we tend to think of Dench as a commanding figure armed with perfect diction and an imposing manner, a woman not to be trifled with. (Ask 007.)
What’s often forgotten amid all the accumulated majestic splendor is what Stephen Frears, Dench’s director in five movies (including “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” “Philomena” and now “Victoria & Abdul”), calls her “mischievous and subversive” qualities.
“Oh, subversive,” Dench purrs. “I rather like that. ‘Subversive’ is interesting, I should say.”
Here’s an example: Last year, on the occasion of Dench’s 81st birthday, Williams threw her mother a glorious dinner party, flying in all sorts of friends from the States. Shortly afterward, she took Dench out to lunch and after they finished, they were walking up St. Martin’s Lane when Williams stopped in front of a tattoo parlor. She told her mum, “Here is your present if you like it. Do you want to tattoo?”
“Sure, I’ll have a tattoo,” Dench responded without hesitation. And that’s how the words “CARPE DIEM” — all caps, block type — came to be engraved on the inside of Dench’s right wrist.
Didn’t she have some hesitation about the pain from the needles?
“Oh, nooooo,” Dench says. “There was somebody having their whole leg done right next to me. What am I going to say? ‘Ow. Ow. Ow.’”
“Besides, if you can have a needle through your eye, I assure you, you can have a needle on your wrist,” Dench adds.
Take note. In that last sentence, Dench acknowledges the invasive treatments she has endured due to macular degeneration, a disease that leads to irreversible vision loss, and sweeps it all away with standard British fortitude in the face of adversity.
“You get on with it, don’t you?” Dench says. We’re sitting an arm’s length apart at a small table in a hotel lounge, having coffee. She notes she can only see the outline of my face.
“You can adapt to anything quickly,” she continues. “If I had gone to bed one night able to read and then I was not able to read the next morning, that would be one thing. This was gradual, so I could adjust. I have a wonderful friend who reads to me. And I have everything blown up to 33-point size or something … it looks ridiculous. It doesn’t matter. It works.”
At about this point in the conversation, Frears, who’s staying at the same hotel, appears in the lounge. He pulls up a chair. It’s clear that Dench adores him. But even after making several films together, she is no closer to understanding Frears than when she met him 36 years ago, working on a BBC Playhouse movie, “Going Gently.”
“He’s monosyllabic, that one,” Dench tells me before Frears arrives. “It’s like squeezing something out of a stone, like trying to understand another language.” Like learning how to speak Frears? “Precisely. And once you learn to speak Frears, you’re OK. You sense him. And you trust him too.”
But that trust and affection doesn’t mean Dench doesn’t delight in needling Frears when it’s called for. Noting his reputation for not saying much during interviews and post-screening Q&As supporting the film, Frears dryly remarks, “I hear I’m quite taciturn.”
Dench’s eyes widen at the comment. “Taciturn! There hasn’t been a word invented! ‘Taciturn’ is quite voluble in terms of describing the real you.”
They’re about to leave for the ArcLight Hollywood theater complex for a public event. Dench understands she’ll have to carry the conversation. “Judi,” Frears says, half-smiling (which, for him, amounts to a Chesire grin), “we’re both given to understatement. That’s why we get along.”
“You used to say a very nice thing about me,” Frears continues. “You’d say that our movies were set up in such a way that by the time you turned up on set, you didn’t have to act, that the weight was lifted.”
There’s a long silence as Dench considers what Frears has passed off as a compliment.
“It sounds like I come on rather late and just do it,” she finally answers, her tone more teasing than perturbed.
Standing up, the rumpled Frears sighs. “We are so frivolous,” he says, taking his leave.
Dench looks across the table, her eyesight now seemingly laser-sharp.
“Look at that,” she says, pointing to the cup he abandoned. “He said that was the very best coffee he’d ever had. And he didn’t drink half of it. You see what I mean? There hasn’t been a word yet invented to describe him.”