They are the jewels of England’s theatrical crown. They are all Dames. They have won countless awards, including three Oscars and more than a dozen nominations. And they are still going strong in their 80s.
But you’ll quickly realize watching Roger Michell’s enchanting documentary “Tea with the Dames,” opening Friday, that Judi Dench, 83, Maggie Smith, 83; Eileen Atkins, 84; and Joan Plowright, 88, don’t act like legends.
For the film, they gathered at Plowright’s bucolic country home, which she shared with her late husband Laurence Olivier, where the women drank wine and champagne and talked about their careers, their love lives and their fears. The chat is a bit naughty and deliciously catty.
“Puts you right off acting, doesn’t it?,” said Dench, laughing, during a recent phone conversation. “Puts you right off actresses.”
She took a pause: “We are very down to earth, I think.”
The four longtime friends were excited about the prospect of doing the film. After all, they have gathered from time to time to catch up on their lives. “It was just a lovely excuse to have a get together,” Dench said.
In between their banter, Michell (“Notting Hill”) peppers the film with clips from their film, stage and TV work.
It was definitely a man’s world in the theater when they started out. Dench recalls being bullied by directors early in her career, especially Michel St. Denis who directed her in a production of Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard” with John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft. St. Denis had a reputation for giving overly critical notes to the performers after acts and reducing performers to quivering Jell-O.
Knowing she was upset, Gielgud came to her rescue and put her at ease. “He said, if you’d be doing [the role] for me, I’d be absolutely delighted. He was a hero of mine. He was just heaven.”
Dench has been friends and colleagues with Smith and Atkins for more than 50 years. But she didn’t get to work with Plowright until the 1999 hit film “Tea with Mussolini.”
“I met Mags at the [the Old Vic]. I went to the Vic in 1957, and I think we met in ’58,” she said. “Then, I worked with Eileen very shortly after that and, consequently, lots of times in between.”
The acerbic Smith has selective memory in “Tea with the Dames.” At one point, Dench recalled the two of them doing a play at the Edinburgh festival in 1958 where they had to escape the clutches of a veteran actor who had an eye for the ladies.
But Smith tells her she has no recall of the production. “It’s gone,” Smith says of her memory.
Dench laughed “She does [remember]. Of course, she does. She remembers it well.”
We are very down to earth, I think.
Though they have been acting for more than 60 years, all the women still have stage fright. In fact, Atkins says in the film: “On the way to the theater, I always think, ‘Would you like to be run over now?’ And I only just come out on the side of no.”
Fear is a good thing on stage, Dench believes.
“It creates incredible adrenaline,” she said. “The wonderful thing is [a play] is never the same. The audience dictates to you.”
Some evenings the audiences are completely mesmerized by the performances. “Then you have an evening when it just simply didn’t go,” said Dench. “It’s most peculiar. That’s what so lovely about the theater.”
Even though she won the supporting actress Oscar as Queen Elizabeth I in the 1998 best picture winner “Shakespeare in Love” and has been nominated six more times for the Academy Awards, Dench has never felt comfortable doing movies. And neither have the other three Dames.
“Sometimes I don’t even see the films I’ve done because there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Dench. “You’ve made [an acting] choice, and the choice is being recorded. If you have regret, you can’t do anything about it. But you see it and think, oh, of course that’s the way I should have made it. Of course, I missed a trick there. I think everybody who does this journey, you’ve got to be pretty sure of yourself if you can look at the finished result and think yes, that’s the best I could do.”
Michell asked all the friends what they would tell their younger selves. Dench quietly says she would “try not to be so susceptible to falling in love.”
Dench said on the phone that she would fall “head over heels” with her leading men. That all changed when she met and married “Mikey,” her frequent costar Michael Williams, in 1971. They starred together in the 1981-84 comedy series “A Fine Romance.” Williams died in 2001; their daughter, Finty Williams, is also an actress.
It was Williams who convinced her to play the role of M in the James Bond films. “He wanted to share his home with a Bond woman,” Dench said with affection.
Her latest film, “Red Joan,” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. And she’s off to make “Artemis Fowl” with Kenneth Branagh at the helm — their last collaboration was 2017’s remake of “Murder on the Orient Express.”
“I think this is the 11th time I’ve worked with him,” Dench said of Branagh. “I can’t resist working with him.”