In the new film Victoria and Abdul (in theaters everywhere this weekend), Dame Judi Dench reprises the role of Queen Victoria 20 years after she was nominated for an Oscar for playing the same queen in the film Mrs. Brown. Like Mrs. Brown, Victoria and Abdul is about an unlikely relationship between the Queen and someone from a completely different world. In Mrs. Brown, it was a servant and in Victoria and Abdul, it is a young Indian clerk named Abdul Karim. What’s fascinating is that both stories are true, with the friendship between the Queen and Abdul only coming to light a few years ago.
Fandango caught up with Dame Judi Dench to talk about the connections between Mrs. Brown and Victoria and Abdul, as well as whether she’s thought about retiring anytime soon and more.
Fandango: So we have to begin by talking about this rap video that you did. It’s amazing.
Judi Dench: I’m really proud of it!
Could this be a new career move for you? Will Dame Judi Dench put out a hip-hop album? I think the world might want to see that.
Dench: [laughs] Yes! I think that’s me now – I’m a rap artist. I thought it was good; I did a good job performing it. It was good, right?
Fandango: It was great! I wanted to see more!
Dench: Yes, and now I’d like to see Lethal Bizzle do some Shakespeare!
Fandango: You portrayed Queen Victoria 20 years ago in the film Mrs. Brown, which was also about a special relationship the Queen had in her life. Did that make it easier to play her in this film, or did you feel like you had to get to know an entirely different woman?
Dench: No, because what precipitated her relationship with John Brown [in Mrs. Brown] was exactly what informed the relationship with Abdul. We know she had a passionate and very happy marriage with Albert, and after that she completely went to pieces. Then John Brown was there for four years, and then after that it was this relationship with Abdul, which I had not known about it. This young man turned up at a time when she really needed him.
Fandango: This is a fascinating story that no one even knew about until a few years ago. Since most of the details of it were destroyed, how did you go about crafting a story that felt authentic?
Dench: It was because of the screenplay – it was so good. It was there to just play, and it seemed like a true continuance of the story we had done 20 years ago. I mean, we found out that she sometimes wrote five letters a day to Abdul.
Fandango: What was it about Abdul that drew her to him? Because they came from completely different worlds…
Dench: Entirely, but that was secondary. What was important was that she found someone to talk to and exchange views with. To question things, and learn things that she had no knowledge of. She wanted to laugh and relax, and feel informal – and at her age, in her 80s, it must have been very, very important to her. All her friends are dying, and for her it must have been a glorious relief.
Fandango: Did you ever have an unexpected friendship that changed your life?
Dench: Oh, lots. Friends are always turning up at unexpected times, and you think how fortunate is that. I will meet old friends on the sets of films or at the theater, and it’s so important to me and it’s what I love about this business.
Fandango: This is your fifth time working with director Stephen Frears – what is it about him as a director that keeps drawing you to him?
Dench: Good luck from me and a sense of humor, I suspect. He laughs a great deal; you form a short hand and that makes it easier to understand what he requires of you. Sometimes he walks away from a take and will just wander back – he directs by stealth.
Fandango: Why do you think we’re consistently fascinated by stories about the royal family?
Dench: There is a great fascination, and for my part I admire so much of what they have to do, and they do it with such grace. I think it’s phenomenal because it’s not a very private life, and you’re on call all the time.
Fandango: With a career as extensive as yours, are you still learning things about your craft?
Dench: Every single part you learn something new, really. Every single part. It’s very stimulating to have to find out about new things all the time. It’s the same process in terms of having to build up that character and find out everything about them. The general public thinks it’s just a question of learning the lines, but it’s not. It’s learning why they say that line. Why do they reply that way with whoever they are speaking to? You have to learn something new all the time.
Fandango: Is retirement a word that ever comes up with regards to your craft?
Dench: No! No! No! I didn’t hear that question!
Victoria and Abdul is in theaters now.