Charles Dance never planned to be an actor. Growing up in South Devon, England, he spent summers waiting tables in nearby tourist town Cornwall and attended art school intending to become a graphic designer and photographer.
But this debonair performer took a career turn. Instead of being known for the images he wanted to create, he became internationally recognized for his dramatic roles in films such as "White Mischief, "Plenty" and "Gosford Park."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 04, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
"Ladies in Lavender" -- An article in Thursday's Calendar Weekend section about Charles Dance, the director of the film "Ladies in Lavender," referred to Cornwall as a town in England. It is a county.
Still, Dance never lost his well-developed visual sense that was meant to serve his original career, reflecting, "I'd like to think I have the silent language of a camera and despite the fact that I love acting and hope to continue to do it as long as I'm asked to do it, almost every job I do I'm thinking of it in visual terms."
He'd written several scripts -- none to his satisfaction -- before stumbling onto a story that finally inspired him to make the leap to director for real.
While waiting around the library set of an Italian/Hungarian co-production called "Jurig" (a film, Dance laughs, few people will probably ever see), he spotted a book of short stories, "Faraway Stories" by William J. Locke, that included "Ladies in Lavender," a tale set in Cornwall that reminded him of the place where he "misspent" his youth.
Dance reflects that Locke's story made him feel, "I can do this without biting off more than I could chew because it was character-based and that's the kind of thing I like to work on as an actor."
With his adapted script, Dance modernized Locke's story from turn of the century to the 1930s, veered away from its more fanciful, fairy-tale aspects, and aged the two sisters of the tale by about 20 years -- making the roles perfect for the actresses (Dame Judi Dench and Dame Maggie Smith) he immediately had in mind.
The film, which opens Friday, begins with the sisters finding an injured and unconscious young man (Daniel Bruhl from "Goodbye! Lenin") washed up on shore. The spinsters care for the mystery man whose origin and language are unknown. But what he can't express in words, he speaks through the universal language of music as he reveals his gift for the violin. He also becomes a focal point in their lives and inspires the intense yearning of first love in the younger sister (Dench).
Bruhl managed to look like a real violinist (and sound like one too, thanks to the actual playing being dubbed by celebrated violinist Joshua Bell).
Like Dance, Dench spent a lot of time in Cornwall growing up and has fond memories of her family's summer holidays, recalling taking the train from her hometown of York to Cornwall and "then for a month we'd just take our shoes off and never put them on again."
Known for its beaches and mild climate, Cornwall has always been a popular vacation destination for Brits, but Smith retorts in laughter, "It's not Florida, believe me, but it's warmer than other [places] in England."
Dance says the place hasn't changed much over the years. "It always has had a feeling of independence. If the Cornish Nationalists, as they call themselves, had their way, they would slice Cornwall off from the rest of England and declare itself independent. They have their own language, they have their own political party and you can live there for 30 years but if you weren't born there it will take you another 10 before you're kind of fully accepted as part of the community."
What the town also has, according to Dance, is "a quality to the light that's shimmering and it's very difficult to emulate it anywhere else or imitate it anywhere else. We could have shot the film in Wales or the Isle of Man or somewhere else, but I was determined that we shoot it in Cornwall."
When they weren't filming, Dench and Smith occupied their time in Cornwall by indulging in card games. Even though they didn't play for money, Dench laughs, "we used to get very, very cross when we were interrupted to go and work when we had a very good hand."
Dench also kept herself busy between setups creating petite point needlework. Although Smith describes Dench's creations as both "clever" and "charming," she doesn't miss a chance to rib her costar, joking, "Heaven forbid she should sit down without something in her hands."
Dench and Smith, talking via a speakerphone in New York, come across as girlish schoolgirls constantly kidding around and laughing when sharing their experiences making "Ladies in Lavender."
But Dance heaps praise on the professionalism and talent of his actresses, calling them "the greatest women to work with because they never come with an entourage."
And despite their royal titles, Dance offers, "they're not grand. If you refer to them as Dame Judi and Dame Maggie they will laugh you out of the place. You know it's just Judi and Maggie and they turn up on set at 7 o'clock in the morning and they're there till 7 o'clock at night, they know their lines, they do their job better than anybody else and I didn't actually have to direct them with a capital D very much at all."
Dance wants to direct again and says his next script is "more suited" to television and hopes he can make it this year or next. Next up for Dench is an adaptation of a Zoe Heller novel ("Notes on a Scandal") helmed by her "Iris" director, Richard Eyre, and costarring Cate Blanchett.
And Smith? "I'm out of work. I don't have anything to do," she reports matter-of-factly. "That's the ... business."