Judi Dench has been called England's greatest actress. But she's also gathered many American fans with movies as different as "A Room With a View" and Kenneth Branagh's recent "Hamlet," not to mention the latest round of James Bond adventures, where she plays the character called M.
Ms. Dench's latest role is sure to entertain viewers on both sides of the ocean: Queen Victoria, a figure synonymous with decorum and good breeding. She's the main character of "Mrs. Brown," a lively and colorful drama about a historical episode that people outside Britain may not have heard of before.
After the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, the queen struck up a firm friendship with John Brown, a feisty Scottish servant whose job was looking after the royal horses. He raised her depressed spirits through a combination of strong emotional rapport - not easy to cultivate with any monarch, much less a prim and proper one - and a kind of no-nonsense supportiveness not unlike tough-love parenting.
Some citizens were scandalized by this relationship between a revered ruler and a man from a much lower level of England's stratified class system. Victoria refused to budge, however, even when hostile journalists called her "Mrs. Brown" in sarcastic press accounts.
The unlikely friendship stayed controversial long after the queen's death in 1901, reportedly causing an earlier movie depiction - with Elizabeth Taylor and Sean Connery - to be scuttled, lest the royal family disapprove.
Deciding she should do more "homework" than usual for this role, Dench studied the queen closely before "Mrs. Brown" started filming. To her surprise, she discovered Victoria wasn't so Victorian after all.
"I found out many things that negate the idea we have in Britain of what she was like," Dench said in a recent interview. "She had a tremendous temper ... and got into tremendous passions about things. And before she was married, she used to write in her diaries about every personable young man at court. She had a great eye for the chaps!
"She was passionate about Albert," the actress continues, "and I think she was passionate about John Brown, as well. I don't mean sexually, but in her relationships with two people who were the antithesis of each other."
Was it intimidating for an English actress to play one of Britain's most imposing rulers?
"It wasn't intimidating in the slightest," Dench replies, "but it was quite exacting." Her research had to be extra careful "because there are aficionados of Queen Victoria ... who know all about her. Therefore you have to get all the effects right - the details and the emotions, which run concurrently with each other."
Dench considers even the smallest details of a character to be important. "I found that Victoria was left-handed," she says by way of example. "I love to sew, and I started wondering whether left-handed people can sew with their right hand."
The answer turned out to be yes, so Dench felt comfortable with right-handed sewing on the screen.
"I wrote with my left hand, though," she adds, "and learned [Victoria's] signature. These are small things, but they eventually ... make up an entire character."
Dench's insistence on accuracy doesn't mean she sees performing as a merely technical affair. Quite the opposite, in fact. "The whole business starts somewhere in the pit of your stomach," she says of the emotional core required by a demanding part. "I'm a totally instinctive actress. I've only ever been that."
This reliance on intuition leads Dench to seek out new challenges as a way of staying fresh. "If you play a part and it's quite successful," she notes, "you will be offered more parts that are very similar. That can put you in a kind of box. I've never wanted to be called a classical actress. I've never wanted to be called a situation-comedy actress. I do both of them, but I don't want to be pinned to something. The only guidepost I have is ... to take the thing that is least expected of me!"
Dench doesn't align herself too strongly with the Stanislavsky, or Method, style of acting, but she agrees with its view that a performer should "disappear" into a role.
"I wouldn't want to be just me," she says. "I'd like people to forget it's me.... Each aspect [of a role] has to be weighed up from the character's point of view, not your own point of view. That's the same with every part."
The other key ingredient in creating a memorable character is the audience, especially in stage performances, which remain Dench's greatest love. Her Royal Shakespeare Company appearances are almost legendary despite decades of success in TV and movies.
She illustrates this with an anecdote. "I can remember some American students asking me, 'Does the audience make any difference to you?' I said, 'If it didn't, I might as well stay home!' The audience's contribution to a performance is practically 90 percent....
"It may sound a bit high-flown, but [a good performance] isn't meant for you, it's meant for somebody else. It's a kind of gift you give."