NEW YORK — Invited to play Cleopatra in a National Theatre production, Judi Dench responded to noted Shakespearean director Peter Hall, "Are you sure you know what you're doing? Cleopatra as a menopausal dwarf?"
Then 52, Dench was as she is today, 12 years later, earthy and self-deprecating. Nevertheless, playing opposite Anthony Hopkins, she went on to triumph as the beautiful Queen of the Nile, as she has in so many other roles. Dench is a darling of the London stage, and thus it seemed particularly fitting to many in that world when she rose last month to accept the best supporting actress Academy Award for her imperious, theater-loving Queen Elizabeth in "Shakespeare in Love."
Yet millions of others in the television-viewing audience who saw her brilliant eight-minute performance as Gloriana Regina, or her modest Oscar acceptance speech, may have mistakenly pegged her as something of a late bloomer.
After all, few in this country had ever heard of her until 1997, when her emotionally complex performance as Queen Victoria in the film "Mrs. Brown" earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress. In Britain, however, over a 40-year career on the stage she has assayed roles of every stripe, hue and rhythm, from Shakespeare to Sondheim, from Mother Courage to Sally Bowles. Indeed, in 1988, the year after she appeared in "Cleopatra," she was named a Dame of the British Empire--the female equivalent of knighthood--by Queen Elizabeth II.
But, whatever you do, don't call her Dame Judith.
"A lot of people here say 'Dame Dench,' that's really hopeless," the actress says with a laugh in her distinctive smoky voice, which early in her career caused some to think she had a chronic cold.
"If anyone called me 'Judith,' they'd get a black eye. Judi. Judi, I like best."
And so Judi it is in the course of a chat in her dressing room at the Barrymore Theatre, where on Thursday she will open in David Hare's "Amy's View," reprising her role in the Royal National Theatre hit production. In a span of nearly two decades, the play graphs the volatile relationship between Esme, a West End stage legend, and her daughter Amy.
Wearing a crisp white blouse and tan outfit, her silver hair in the pixie cut she wore on Oscar night, the 64-year-old Dench comes across as a feisty and sensual presence, still glowing from what she describes as her "dreamlike, lovely" Hollywood adventure. But in a manner that is surprisingly and charmingly guileless, she makes clear that she's just as thrilled to now be occupying the dressing room used by Marlon Brando when he was doing "A Streetcar Named Desire," or to be returning to Broadway for the first time since her 1961 New York debut in a repertory of plays from London's Old Vic.
And what a return it is. Police barricades at the stage door are needed to control the 50 to 100 fans who gather after each performance of "Amy's View." Advance ticket sales currently are nearing $5 million, besting the season record held by "The Blue Room" with its nude scene by Nicole Kidman. Shortly after her Oscar win, Dench entered a popular theater restaurant in Manhattan to see the entire place burst into spontaneous applause. She nodded shyly, then turned crimson. Used to sedate British audiences, she admits to being bewildered by all the sudden attention. "It's wonderful," she says simply.
John Madden, who directed her in both "Mrs. Brown" and "Shakespeare in Love', doesn't expect an overnight transformation of the actress herself. "No disrespect to the academy but the award won't mean anything at all to her as a person," he says, "because she's the most extraordinarily humble person, who can't understand why the world is showering her with awards and recognition."
What emerges in the course of an interview is a surprising bundle of contradictions: a distinguished Dame of the British Empire with a blue sense of humor, a deeply serious theater artist who insists on having fun in the process, a devoted wife and mother who's "not very good on my own" but who also needs the "quietness of soul and solitude" she receives from her devout Quakerism.
What binds all these different aspects together?
"I suppose I'm open to anything, I'd try anything," she says, after a thoughtful pause. "I'd like to be in a circus, you know. Not one that uses animals, because I don't approve of that, but maybe Cirque du Soleil. Have a go on the high wire. But I don't think they'd let me."
Despite her recent success in film--of late, she has been also been seen as M in the last two James Bond flicks, and she co-stars with Joan Plowright, Cher, Maggie Smith and Lily Tomlin in Franco Zeffirelli's upcoming "Tea With Mussolini" as a dilettantish aunt--Dench remains very much of the theater.
The daughter of a Yorkshire doctor, she came of age, like her peers Vanessa Redgrave, Smith and Eileen Atkins, in the wake of acting greats like John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft.