JOHN YDSTIE, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.
By any measure, Dame Judi Dench is among the greatest actors of our time. Her stage performances have spanned works from Shakespeare to Sondheim. American audiences probably know her best for her movie roles. She won an Oscar for her portrayal of Elizabeth I in "Shakespeare in Love." Since 1995, she's played M, 007's boss in the James Bond franchise. She received critical acclaim and multiple award nominations for her portrayal of a scary manipulative school teacher in "Notes from a Scandal."
On Sunday May 4, we'll be able to see her on PBS in a very different role in a new Masterpiece series, "Cranford."
(Soundbite of movie "Cranford")
Unidentified Man: Ladies, it is time for a change.
Dame JUDI DENCH (Actress): (As Ms. Matty Jenkyns) A change? Do you plan to retire from practice?
Unidentified Man: I do not, Ms. Matty, but my cousin's son, Dr. Harrison, is to join me here in Cranford.
Dame DENCH: (As Ms. Jenkyns) Well, have you the leisure to speak to all of your patients in person before the new young gentleman arrives?
YDSTIE: Dame Judi Dench in a scene from "Cranford." And she joins us from NPR West. Welcome, it's an honor to have you with us.
Dame DENCH: Thank you. Thank you, John, very much.
YDSTIE: Let's talk first about "Cranford," which is based on a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell. It's about life in an English village in the 1840s. And it's been described as having the romantic flare of Jane Austen and the class consciousness of Charles Dickens.
Dame DENCH: I think it is all those things. And what it has is also a quality of being unexpected. Nobody quite knows what's going to happen next.
YDSTIE: I've had a chance to see the first episode and it's really wonderful, full of gossip and romances - a new doctor comes to town and sets hearts all a twitter. But there are some more sober themes too, involving change in technology and threats to tradition and social order.
Dame DENCH: Yes, it's really about the onset of the Industrial Revolution and people resisting change, and the people who of course trying to find everybody else's business, knowing everybody else's business. And of course the appeal of "Cranford" is that we, I think, have lost that feeling of a community all being together, and of course irritatingly wanting to know what everybody's business is.
YDSTIE: Now in "Cranford" you play Matilda Jenkyns or Matty, the younger of two unmarried sisters. Although we do find out that she was in love with someone as a young woman.
(Soundbite of movie "Cranford")
Mr. GREG WISE: (As Sir Charles Mauvler) Miss Matilda Jenkyns, I should never have known you.
Dame DENCH: (As Ms. Jenkyns) I could never have mistaken you, Mr. Mauvler.
Mr. WISE: (As Sir Charles Mauvler) You're well and happy, I hope.
Dame DENCH: (As Ms. Jenkyns) I'm always well and happy.
YDSTIE: There are several other instances of that melancholy condition in this series, unrequited love. It's a very powerful emotion and a role that you've played oftentimes, actually.
Dame DENCH: I suppose I have, yes.
YDSTIE: Do you find that a difficult thing to approach as an actress?
Dame DENCH: I had a very, very happy marriage for 30 years. So you have to use what you observe in other people and what you've experienced yourself. And I always believe that - we completely subconsciously have an enormous camera inside our heads, which is able to record certain instances and certain things that happen to us that goes into a kind of ladder that you have inside.
YDSTIE: You've done so much in your career, what have you enjoyed most?
Dame DENCH: Oh, just being employed for 51 years and working with friends. My first love is the theater and Shakespeare plays. And there have been glorious highs of those. I mean, being cast as Cleopatra came as a huge surprise to me, partly because everybody thought I was unsuitably cast.
YDSTIE: Why would you not have been suitable for that?
Dame DENCH: Well, because I'm five foot one and three-quarters, and I'm not what everybody would think of as Cleopatra. But in the theater you can fool people really, in a way.
YDSTIE: Sort of on the other end of the spectrum is James Bond and there's another Bond film coming out in November and you'll be in it.
Dame DENCH: Yes, I've just come back from Panama. I haven't often been out of my office as M.
YDSTIE: Now, M is 007's boss. And it had always been a male role up until you started to play it, right?
Dame DENCH: Yes it was. This is the sixth I've done. "Golden Eye" was so wonderfully written I had a lot of rather cutting remarks to pierce.
(Soundbite of movie "Golden Eye")
Dame DENCH: (As M) You don't like me, Bond. You don't like my methods. You think I'm an accountant, a bean counter more interested in my numbers than your instincts.
Mr. PIERCE BROSNAN (Actor): (As James Bond) The thought had occurred to me.
Dame DENCH: (As M) Good, because I think you're a sexist misogynist dinosaur; a relic of the Cold War. If you think for one moment I don't have the balls to send a man out to die, your instincts are dead wrong.
Dame DENCH: That was fun to do.
YDSTIE: There's another character that starts with the letter M that you've played - a mouse, whose name is Miss Lily, a Russian dance instructor.
Dame DENCH: Absolutely, and my daughter plays Angelina.
YDSTIE: "Angelina Ballerina."
Dame DENCH: Yes.
Dame DENCH: That's my daughter, Finty Williams.
YDSTIE: Oh, really? I didn't know that.
Dame DENCH: Yes, yes, that's Finty. And I'm the dancing teacher, the mouse. That goes down very well with people of 4.
(Soundbite of TV series "Angelina Ballerina")
Dame DENCH: (As the voice of Miss Lilly) Darling.
Ms. FINTY WILLIAMS (Actor): (As the voice of Angelina) Oh, Miss Lilly.
Dame DENCH: (As the voice of Miss Lilly) I have the most wonderful news. Of course, it would mean staying over next Saturday night with Queen Serafina and the lovely Princess Valentin, whom I haven't seen in ages.
YDSTIE: And you have a Russian accent.
Dame DENCH: Yes, I do - a rather questionable Russian accent, I think.
YDSTIE: One of the things that you've done is that you've managed to overcome the age hurdle that a lot of actresses haven't managed to do. You've been acting since the 1950s, but you're still very busy with terrific roles. And I wonder what the secret is.
Dame DENCH: Oh, I wish I knew, John. But I'm bad at telling things down, and still to this day I don't read scripts. It's really is a question of who asks me and who I'm going to be involved with. And the idea that you're lucky enough is to be able to do the most different thing after a doing a part (unintelligible) could possibly be.
YDSTIE: What is the toughest role that you've played.
Dame DENCH: Oh, I live in fear, leaping from fear to fear because when I've come to doing a new part, I thought, yes, I think I'd probably have the kind of backup in my mind to be able to tackle this part. And everything I've ever done throws up some difficulty. I found "Notes on a Scandal" quite difficult to do, because I have a fear of a lot of schoolchildren together and that kind of noise in the school. Not because actually that it has been my past, but I just am unnerved by all those students. So that was the day (unintelligible)
(Soundbite of movie "Notes on a Scandal")
Dame DENCH: Knowing real schoolchildren whirling about everywhere, I was very nervous indeed.
(Soundbite of movie "Notes on a Scandal")
Dame DENCH: (As Barbara Covett) Enough. Outside, now. Why did they (unintelligible), Mrs. Hart?
Ms. CATE BLANCHETT (Actor): (As Sheba Hart) Their motives are unclear.
Dame DENCH: (As Barbara Covett) Davis, I know you're a little…
Quite good for her character.
YDSTIE: I was just thinking that.
Dame DENCH: Made me a bit spiky, yes.
YDSTIE: Yes. How about right now? What are you working on now? Do you have projects going?
Dame DENCH: Well, we're going to do more of "Cranford" for the Christmas after (unintelligible). And I'm going to hopefully do the film of "Nine," of, you know, Fellini's "8 1/2" with Rob Marshall.
YDSTIE: Can't wait to see it.
Dame DENCH: No. Can you hear the fear coming right at you from over here?
YDSTIE: You know, that amazes me so much to think that you have fears. I mean, you master these roles in a way that we can't imagine that you were ever afraid of them.
Dame DENCH: I have to push myself to that real edge of fear, that first day you come to read the script. That can be a bit of a facer. But there's something in me that requires that.
YDSTIE: Dame Judi Dench will be appearing in the PBS series "Cranford" starting May 4th. She joined us from our studios at NPR West. Thank you very much.
Dame DENCH: Thank you, John, very much indeed.
YDSTIE: And you'll find scenes from "Cranford" and excerpts from one of the books it's based on at npr.org.