Rapper gives Dame Judi fresh 'cool'

COOL: Dame Judi Dench earns fresh image with London rapper coining 'be cool' phrase: 'Keep it Dench'.
COOL: Dame Judi Dench earns fresh image with London rapper coining 'be cool' phrase: 'Keep it Dench'.

Judi Dench's 15-year-old grandson recently told her that ''Dench'' has been popularised as an expression by London rapper Lethal Bizzle. It means ''cool'', as in ''stay Dench''.

Delighted by the news, she asked her family to give her items of Dench-emblazoned merchandise for Christmas.

At 77 and today nursing a cough that adds a raspy edge to her clipped voice, Dench seems an unlikely hip-hop icon. But there was a time when a film career seemed just as far-fetched.

Sitting in a London hotel room, wearing a sparkly top and jewelled necklace, she is every inch the movie star. But success in Hollywood came late, kicking off after she appeared in her first James Bond film, GoldenEye (1995). Seventeen years on, she is an indispensable part of the Bond franchise.

As M, the head of MI6 and James Bond's boss, she is the longest-serving current cast member. Skyfall, which opens in Australia on Thursday, is her seventh film in the role.

Her character - Dench describes her as ''a woman holding a power job in a man's world'' - has long been an underplayed aspect of the films.

The part was crying to be fleshed out, especially given the actor playing her managed to win an Oscar with just eight minutes' screen time in Shakespeare in Love.

In Skyfall, M finally takes a more central position in the story.

When director Sam Mendes, who directed Dench on stage in Chekov's The Cherry Orchard in 1989, called the actor to explain her expanded role, he jokingly suggested developing the character along the lines of a traditional Bond girl.

''He said, 'I see a lot of lace lingerie for her,''' Dench says, with a chuckle.

You get a sense the Bond films are something Dench does for kicks.

''It is great fun to play in,'' she says.

''Who doesn't want to boss James Bond about?''

Despite this enthusiasm for blockbusters, her introduction to film was not auspicious.

As a child growing up in Yorkshire, she suffered from claustrophobia and avoided cinemas.

''I had to be taken out of quite a lot of films when I was little,'' she says.

''There was something about the dark which made me uncomfortable.''

As she grew older and forged a career on stage, film felt like another universe.

The year she joined the Old Vic theatre, Marilyn Monroe visited London and brought the city to a standstill. To Dench, Monroe's glitzy world of celebrity seemed a long way from her own artistic endeavours.

''That was during the time I wanted to be a painter,'' says Dench, who still paints the occasional landscape during downtime on film sets.

''I would have been totally shocked… if you told me I would be a film actor. I was told at my first-ever screen test I didn't have a face for film.''

Rejection, she says, made her self-conscious. Standing 150cm tall, she never traded on typical starlet looks and to this day avoids watching her own films.

The volume of her stage work is staggering. She played Sally Bowles in London's premiere production of Cabaret in 1968 and was, by her own admission, an unlikely Cleopatra opposite Anthony Hopkins in 1987.

American actors often name-check Meryl Streep as their inspiration, but for their British counterparts, it is usually Dame Judi.

Actor Emily Blunt said that when she made her theatrical debut at the age of 18 opposite Dench in a production of The Royal Family, the older actor told her: ''It's all downhill from here.''

Dench claps her hands at the story and rolls her head back in silent laughter.

''I didn't say that, did I? I think she made that up,'' she says.

''I normally say, 'It's all uphill from here.'''

She made her mark in the theatre early, becoming a first-choice actor for Shakespearean roles.

In 1958, she travelled to the US with the Old Vic theatre group for a six-month residency in New York.

At 23 years of age and in her second year with the company, she had lead roles in two of Shakespeare's plays at the Broadway Theatre in Manhattan, first as Maria in Twelfth Night and then as Catherine in Henry V.

The city was enjoying a long period of economic prosperity and, after most evening performances, the actor would slip off into the night to visit 52nd Street's bustling, neon-lit jazz joints.

Every night there was another music legend to see - Count Basie, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis. Dench saw them all.

''I completely fell in love with New York and America,'' she says.

''We used to go to dives and you'd listen to jazz through great hazes of blue smoke. It was bewitching and … after that I thought I could never go back there.''

Dench didn't return for 38 years. Although she received an OBE and was made a dame in her homeland, she has been a relative unknown in the US for most of her life.

 She credits her Hollywood career to film producer Harvey Weinstein. He was so impressed by her performance as Queen Victoria in the 1997 made-for-television feature Mrs Brown that he organised a theatrical release.

''He thought, 'No, this is a proper movie,''' she says.

She had filmed GoldenEye the previous year, but it was after Mrs Brown that things took off. Suddenly, she was receiving film scripts. Accolades soon followed. She gained Oscar nominations for five of the first six films she made with Weinstein, a renowned mastermind of successful Academy Award campaigns.

A year after Mrs Brown, she won the Oscar for Shakespeare in Love, followed by nominations for Chocolat (2000), Iris (2001) and Mrs Henderson Presents (2005).

Dench has a running joke with Weinstein: she plans to have his name tattooed across her buttocks.

''I actually got someone to paint it on, so I could flash it at him at a dinner at the Four Seasons in New York,'' she says.

Dench is still a regular on the stage. After she finishes work on Stephen Frears's film Philomena, she will return to the London stage for Peter and Alice, a new play by John Logan. Also on the cards is a sequel to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Dench has said this film, in which she played a widowed retiree, was her most revealing, although today she plays down its parallels to her own situation.

''No, I'm 49,'' she says with a deadpan expression.

''Tall, blonde and willowy. I've been like that for probably the past 30 years and, god, I'm going to go on like that.''

Dench has been a widow for more than a decade. Her husband, actor Michael Williams, died of lung cancer at 65.

She now lives with her daughter, Finty Williams, and her grandson, Sam, on a property in Surrey, along with ''four cats, one dog, two fish, a horse, 10 water voles, some ducks, some coots and two guinea pigs''.

She has a reputation among some journalists as a difficult interview subject, but today Dench is relaxed and happy to share stories of her home life. She tells me an anecdote about burying her pet hamster, Biscuit, last year.

''I'd been to Japan and this beautiful box had been given to me with this marvellous pot in it, so we put Biscuit in the box and we buried him,'' she says.

''Then we suddenly thought, in years to come, somebody will dig it up, this beautiful box, and think, 'These people had very strange rituals; they worshipped tiny mouse-like creatures.'''

Later, on a more serious note, she talks about her husband.

''If I hadn't been widowed, I wouldn't have entirely understood the incredible vacancy that can create in you,'' she says.

Before he died, Dench's husband presented her with a single red rose on every Friday of their 30-year marriage.

He was her trusty sidekick and shared her love of live music.

''We saw Sinatra's last concert at the Royal Albert Hall [in 1992],'' she says.

''It was absolute heaven. My husband started crying in the pub beforehand.

''My husband was a Cancerian, so he was a pessimist and I'm an absolutely rabid optimist,'' she says.

''He used to say, 'At least we're holding hands, as you're racing into the light and I'm racing into the dark, so we can stay somehow in the middle.'''

Without his balancing influence, Dench is content to continue racing into the light. Retirement is the last thing on her mind.

''People ask me, 'When are you going to retire?' It's a filthy word in my book,'' she says.

''I hope to just fall off the bow. A great, great friend of mine, [the actor] Newton Blick just died in the dressing room, having just done a play. I find that wonderful.''

Sydney Morning Herald