Home / Arts & Life / Queen! Bow Down to Tattoo-Flashing Octogenarian Dame Dench

Queen! Bow Down to Tattoo-Flashing Octogenarian Dame Dench

This dame, as it turns out, is full of mischief.

Ms. Dench got an Oscar nomination 20 years ago for playing Victoria in “Mrs. Brown,” the saga of how the queen grew close to a younger man, a servant who doted on her after her beloved Albert died, outraging her household.

Now she is back in Oscar contention for “Victoria & Abdul,” the saga of how the queen grew close to another younger man, also a servant who doted on her after the other one died, again outraging her household.

The first of the forbidden relationships was with John Brown, a tall, rugged Scotsman nicknamed “the Queen’s stallion,” seven years her junior. As Julia Baird wrote in “Victoria the Queen,” Victoria was so ensorcelled by the handsome Brown that she asked to be buried with a lock of his hair and a leather case full of his photos in her hand. His handkerchief was also placed on top of her body, alongside Albert’s.


Ali Fazal and Ms. Dench, who star in “Victoria & Abdul.”

Jimmy Fontaine for The New York Times

The second entanglement, with the added complications of race relations in the colonial age, was with Abdul Karim, a 24-year-old Indian Muslim servant who became the 68-year-old monarch’s “munshi,” or teacher, instructing her on Urdu, the Quran and mangos.

Ms. Dench is far more padded as the older Victoria. “She was 46 inches around her waist, and she wasn’t tall,” the actress told me. “It was difficult to go to the loo. Impossible, actually.”

Both movies begin with the small, round queen — widowed after having nine children with Albert — dyspeptic and stony-faced, miserable and in mourning with her black veil, only to show her brightening and melting under the sometimes impertinent ministrations of her attractive younger servants.

Even though her name became a synonym for priggishness, I observe, Victoria was a sexy little thing, wasn’t she?

“We are not amused,” Ms. Dench says with faux hauteur, offering the line associated with Victoria. Comparing the queen to the interior of a tree (Ms. Dench loves trees), she said: “She had a huge passion and need inside her. She had a happy life with Albert and then those years with John Brown, and then I’m sure she’d certainly given up by then and was just caught up in the drudgery of everything. And suddenly, that wonderful kind of flowering, where she thought, ‘This is really something worth living for.’”

She said she understands that “heady state” well, discovering someone you can laugh with and learn from. “As a person,” she said, “I’m very, very susceptible. For 60 years, I’ve fallen in love with people.”

Is there any advantage in women getting involved with subordinates?

She said they could get smitten with “the dustman, the postman, the butcher or the prime minister. It happens to be about the people.”

I ask Ms. Dench about her younger man.

“This is where I get up and throw the table down and sweep out,” she said with a puckish smile, pounding the table.

Actually, she’s quite open about her new beau and he’s with her in New York. Ms. Dench’s husband of nearly 30 years, the actor Michael Williams, who sent her a red rose every Friday, died of lung cancer in 2001. She met David Mills, a conservationist, in 2010 when he invited her to help open a new red-squirrel enclosure at the wildlife center he runs near her home in Surrey, England. He is 74, and she prefers to call him a jolly nice chap rather than a partner.

Despite losing some eyesight to macular degeneration, Ms. Dench still seems elfin, determined to focus on “the pluses.”

I tell her that I read a recent interview in RadioTimes with Ginny Dougary that she pointed the reporter in the direction of “a lovely naughty knicker shop” in Covent Garden but told her not to buy everything there because she was going, too.

“I like it,” Ms. Dench conceded to me about lingerie, “but I don’t think about it.”

She also told Ms. Dougary that older people should never give up on sex, noting that “of course, you still feel desire.”

I ask about her tattoos. She had Swarovski crystal body art spelling out “007” on her shoulder for a Bond gala and premieres and had “Carpe Diem” engraved on the inside of her wrist in St. Martin’s for her 81st birthday at the urging of her daughter, Finty.

Most memorably, she etched a message on her “bum” that said, “JD loves HW,” with a heart with an arrow through it, in gratitude to Harvey Weinstein for making her a movie star in “Mrs. Brown,” “Chocolat,” “Iris,” “Shakespeare in Love” and other films, after she had been starring in a sitcom with her husband in England.

As a young actress, she said, someone told her she would never make it in movies because “you have everything wrong with your face.”

“I’d like to know where that idiot is working now,” Mr. Weinstein tells me. “Probably for Breitbart.”

Ms. Dench pulled down her pants and flashed the tattoo at Mr. Weinstein at a celebrity lunch she arranged at the Four Seasons in 2002 with Mike Nichols, Nora Ephron, Carly Simon and others, and again at the BAFTA awards when Mr. Weinstein asked Ms. Dench to show his gift to a skeptical Oprah Winfrey at Royal Albert Hall.

“I walked in and I saw Harvey, and I said, ‘Hello, Harvey’ and I dropped my pants down,” Ms. Dench recalls gleefully.

Ms. Winfrey, Mr. Weinstein recalls, “turned into a 12-year-old squealing girl” after Ms. Dench told her, “I hear you’ve been doubting my love for Harvey?” as she unzipped her pants.

Is the Weinstein tattoo real or simply drawn on by her makeup artist when she needs it, given that she once threatened to switch it to Kevin Spacey when he was the head of the Old Vic?

In her typically saucy fashion, Ms. Dench purrs, “How can I possibly tell you? Ask Harvey.”

Mr. Weinstein isn’t sure, but he does know this: “She is one of the world’s great actresses but also great personalities. She speaks in the Queen’s English so elegantly and then she’s flirting and speaking like British sailors on shore leave. Johnny Depp and I will go to our graves thinking she’s the hottest of them all.”

I ask her if there’s a trick, when you’re the daughter of a doctor and a wardrobe mistress, to playing a monarch as well as she does.

“It is more difficult finding out why you’re saying the lines,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing a monarch or you’re playing a slut down the street. Same process.”

I wonder why America is still so obsessed with monarchies in culture and politics after breaking away from one, noting our current mad king Trump, the princeling Jared, the princess Ivanka and the way the administration projects racial insensitivity as though it were a colonial power.

Ms. Dench says she doesn’t watch “The Crown” and only watched “a bit” of the recent 20th anniversary commemorations of Princess Diana’s death.

“I just felt very sorry for the boys,” she said. “They didn’t ask for this, but they do it well.”

Is she surprised that the royal family seems fine with Prince Harry dating an American TV actress who is a divorcée and biracial?


A still from “Victoria & Abdul.”

Peter Mountain/Focus Features

“She’s divorced?” Ms. Dench says, sounding very surprised and recalling how Princess Margaret had to break it off with Peter Townsend after Elizabeth felt she couldn’t let the marriage go forward because Townsend was divorced.

“It was really sad and somehow shocking to everybody,” Ms. Dench recalls.

I tell her that I am loath to write about Victoria because the topic was so upsetting to my mother, who felt she treated the Irish cruelly.

The actress, whose mother was born in Dublin and whose father went to medical school at Trinity College, gasps and asks me why. She knows a lot about Victoria, but hadn’t read about this.

Though the story that the queen sent only five pounds to the Irish during the famine turned out to be a myth, certainly Victoria was not concerned enough about the million who died. When a young Ottoman sultan, who had an Irish doctor, wanted to donate 10,000 pounds, the Quinnipiac University professor Christine Kinealy said, British diplomats asked him to reduce it to 1,000, so the queen, who was donating 2,000, wouldn’t look mingy.

After Ireland became a republic, Ms. Kinealy recalls, the Irish tore down a statue of Victoria in Dublin, at which point a member of the Irish parliament came running out to wave five pounds in front of the statue.

The dishy 30-year-old Bollywood star, Ali Fazal, who plays Abdul Karim, has come to dinner with Ms. Dench. And over his scallops and “Smokey Sour” Mezcal cocktail at the Orangery at the Whitby Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, he offers a story of his own about hated colonial statues.

He was shooting the last scene of the movie, when the queen has died and Abdul is back in India, withering away at the feet of a giant statue of Victoria in front of the Taj Mahal. Production designers had made the statue, since the Victoria statues that were once all over India had been removed. Suddenly, a bunch of right-wing Indian nationalists charged the set in Agra.

“I start hearing the voices and they’re hooting and talking about Victoria, ‘Send Victoria away,’ and ‘We don’t approve of this,”’ Mr. Fazal recalls. “So I’m like, ‘Oh my God, they’re coming for us.’ So I’m like, ‘Dude, shut this down, get in the tent.’

“I FaceTimed you from there, remember?” he says to Ms. Dench. The two have just as much chemistry in person as on screen, when his brown eyes meet her blue ones, and he sometimes takes her hand as he talks.

(When I tell Ms. Dench I’m impressed that she FaceTimes, she demurs, “Well, somebody else will press the button.” About Twitter, she notes, “I don’t do it. I don’t do any of it. I barely have an ironing board.”)

Eddie Izzard, who plays the queen’s oldest son, Bertie (the future King Edward VII), has said the movie is “an edgy story because of what we did to the Indian nation back then.” But it is nowhere harsh enough for others. Amrou Al-Kadhi, writing in The Independent, scathingly observes that Ms. Dench’s Victoria “is portrayed as what seems to be the most woke monarch in British history” and Abdul seems oblivious to the “unimaginable atrocities” in India during the Victorian era. The movie, he argues, seeks “to absolve our barbaric behavior in colonized countries.”

But other reviews are rapturous, especially about Ms. Dench’s Victoria Redux.

The vision of herself that Ms. Dench likes best, she has said, is Tracey Ullman’s spoof of her as a rebellious “national treasure,” shoplifting; throwing poop from her pup, Coriolanus, into trees; breaking all the china in a posh shop; kicking over trash cans and signs; writing, “I hate pigs” with a fire extinguisher when she finally gets arrested.

“Because I’m a ‘national treasure,’ I could get away with anything,” Ms. Ullman’s Judi says innocently as she goes on rampages. “But, of course, I don’t.”

Ms. Dench told RadioTimes: “It’s so anarchic, I love it. It’s much more like me than anything else.”

She detests being called “a national treasure.”

I hate that,” she tells me. “It’s not just tedious. It’s some old rock in a cupboard that the glass is shut on and nobody gets it out to dust it. I loathe it. I just want to be called a joker. A jobbing actor. Somebody who has a laugh.”

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She did a funny video with the British rapper Lethal Bizzle, a fan of the actress who uses the word “Dench” to mean amazing. She donned a fitted cap, answered to the name Judi Dizzle and repeated his rap, “Anywhere I go gang rolling,” after Lethal Bizzle explained to the quizzical actress that the line meant that anywhere he goes, his friends are coming with him.

When asked why she decided to try her hand at rapping, she says with a shrug, “Why ever not?”

I ask Dench if she will miss being in the next Bond film.

“No,” she said, adding, “I had the most wonderful time.”

James Bond is supposed to get married to the woman he loves in the next installment. That will go swimmingly, I note mordantly.

“Who knows?” she says with a laugh. “I’m not around to give him any advice or a sharp look.”

She understood why Daniel Craig made a joke about slashing his wrists if he had to do another Bond film.

“It’s a huge commitment,” she says. “But he has a ball. And the thing is, he wants a theater career, too. And he went and played Iago, didn’t he?”

Does President Trump remind her of any Shakespearean character?

“Oh, no, Shakespeare didn’t get round to that,” she says, giggling again. “That would be terrible.”

An amused Mr. Fazal chimes in, “If you put Iago and him, Iago would be my hero.”

Ms. Dench, who got her start in 1957 playing Ophelia and later worked her way through Viola, Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra, agrees with her young co-star that Iago is the superior antagonist, pointing out that Mr. Trump should not be compared to Iago at all.

“Iago was very sharp, intelligent,” she says. “Quite a witty man.”

I say that Mr. Trump is our problem, not hers.

“Oh,” she corrects me in her soft voice, “it’s all of our problem. I think people are sharing it.”

She tries to explain to her young co-star about the wind shear of history.

“We danced in the streets the night Tony Blair got in, we actually danced in the streets,” she says wistfully, shaking her head.

“Why wouldn’t they like him now?” Fazal asks.

“Because of Iraq,” Ms. Dench says. “Because of Iraq. It was not confirmed. Look what has happened.”

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