Capturing Maggie Smith And Judi Dench Off Tape

Dench, left, and Smith star in the new film
Dench, left, and Smith star in the new film "Ladies in Lavender." (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 26, 2005

NEW YORK

Maggie Smith is staring at my tape recorder with a look of concern.

"The light's not on," she says.

The voice-activated machine, for some reason, has deactivated.

Judi Dench, sitting next to her, looks on, both sympathetic and amused.

"It's very, very tired," Dench says at another point, as Charles Dance, their director, suddenly darts into and out of the living room of the hotel suite. I shake the recorder vigorously, demanding its return to duty.

The device complies, stops, sputters to life in brief spurts. Smith is now laughing a throaty Maggie Smith laugh, which starts Dench, an inveterate giggler, to chortling as well.

"It's exhausted," Smith tsk-tsks, seeming to enjoy herself enormously.

The actor's nightmare is bursting onstage and not remembering the words. A reporter's version is sitting for an important interview and not being able to record it. The latter seems to be my fate on this wet afternoon in Lower Manhattan, where I am to sit for a promised hour -- this usually translates, on a publicist's clock, to 43 minutes -- with two of the finest actresses alive. Smith and Dench are the stars of "Ladies in Lavender," a small-budget period movie, set in Cornwall on the English coast, about a pair of aged sisters and the young foreigner who washes up, literally, on their doorstep.

Though the film, which opens in Washington tomorrow, was shot two years ago, it's only now being released in this country, and the actresses are seated side by side on a couch to talk about making it. The atmosphere in the suite is jolly. Dench, in light-colored jacket and pants, and Smith, in a dark ensemble of similar style, are unfailingly charming. And they're ready to be entertained. (Jet-lagged, they have been talking to reporters all day.) Smith has the disarming habit of collapsing into Dench's arms whenever she's in stitches. In our encounter, this happens often.

They've known each other forever, these remarkable women, and although the auras they project on stage and screen, as well as the kinds of roles they play, are vastly different, they've lived parallel lives in important ways. Born 19 days apart in December 1934 -- both are 70 -- they live about 40 minutes from each other in southern England. Both are widowed and have children in the acting trade: Dench's daughter, Finty Williams, in fact, plays her younger self in "Ladies in Lavender."

Both belong to a generation of British classical actors who contributed to a golden age of London theater from the 1960s through the 1980s, at burgeoning institutions such as the National Theatre (now the Royal National) and the Royal Shakespeare Company. And both are among an elite group of British stage stars who've broken through in movies and earned Oscars for their efforts. (Dench has one statuette, for "Shakespeare in Love." Smith owns two, for "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" and "California Suite.")


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