Dame Maggie Smith is in full dowager countess mode.
‘What exactly is Twitter?’ she demands, wrinkling her nose in the rarefied air of Canada’s most august hotel, the majestic Royal York in Toronto. ‘Someone told me over lunch that Lady Grantham has an account on it, and I really don’t understand it at all.’
‘It’s about sending short messages,’ says her friend Dustin Hoffman, who is sitting next to her. ‘You should get on to it – Maggie Smith Twitter, I can see it now. You send out real short messages... of what is it, 24 words? 140 characters...?’
The trials of Twitter
‘A hundred and forty characters?’ The grande dame of the London theatrical scene looks sceptical. ‘That’s an awfully big cast.’
‘Characters as in letters,’ says Dustin. ‘And you could wither someone in a lot less.’
To take tea with Maggie and Dustin, you would think they had known each other for all their lives. Clearly relaxed, continually interrupting and finishing one another’s sentences, they reduce each other – and anyone lucky enough to share the occasion – to fits of laughter with a series of wisecracks that grow less and less printable as the afternoon wears on. They act for all the world like the very oldest and most familiar of friends, whereas in fact...
A theatrical affair
‘In fact, we had an affair in the Sixties,’ says Dustin in mock confessional mode. ‘I was doing The Graduate and she was doing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. This is a very personal matter. Let’s move on.’
Maggie shakes her head. ‘You won’t get anything serious out of him,’ she comments resignedly. ‘So don’t even bother to try.’
‘I do remember when I first met Maggie,’ says Dustin, suddenly very serious. ‘She was in a play in London about 17 years ago called Three Tall Women. She gave a performance the like of which I have not seen before or since. I didn’t know her then and I felt like going backstage to meet her, which I don’t usually do. I think it’s a bad tradition. But she was so incredible that I did in the end go, and introduced myself and said, “I’ve never seen anyone do anything like what you just did”. And that was the only time I met her until this film.’
A dazzling cast
This film is Quartet, and is the reason that they are both in Canada when we meet, attending the premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Based on a play by Ronald Harwood, it’s a comedy set in a home for retired musicians that, along with Maggie, features a cast as delicious as an open box of chocolates – Michael Gambon, Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay – as well as the talented young actress Sheridan Smith in an explosive comic persona. Dustin directed it, his first such enterprise, and he says that for the part of Jean Horton – an opera star who hits the retirement home and causes havoc – he couldn’t have asked for a better leading lady than Dame Maggie.
‘Maggie is a rare breed of actress,’ he remarks. ‘She’s one of the most dedicated actresses I’ve ever known. The process of acting is like a religious experience for her. She comes to work and has no tolerance for getting something half-right. She wants to get it completely right and that’s all she’s concerned about. Nothing less will satisfy her.’
‘Well, otherwise, why do it?’ observes Maggie.
‘Plenty of actors do,’ he replies. ‘And it’s difficult to act in a movie. It’s not like being on the stage where you have the continuity of a play. Movies are shot in little pieces. You do a master shot at maybe nine in the morning, then you go back and sit in your camper while they do the other actors’ shots, which can take all day, and then you’re asked to go back and re-do the master shot and do it exactly as you did it all those hours before and by now it’s six o’clock and that’s a long time to... well... to keep it up, you know?’
‘But I’m sure not impossible for you,’ purrs Maggie, smokily, and they both crack up laughing.
Margaret Natalie Smith was born on December 28 1934 and brought up in Oxford, the daughter of a Glaswegian-born secretary and a public health pathologist who worked at Oxford University. She says she has never considered any other career than acting, and joined the Oxford Playhouse in her teens where, coincidentally, another young actor – a schoolfriend of her older twin brothers – called Ronnie Barker was a member. Since then she has been directed by Noël Coward in Hay Fever in 1964, by Ingmar Bergman in Hedda Gabler in 1970, and by Zeffirelli in Tea With Mussolini in 1999. She played Desdemona opposite Olivier in the 1965 film version of Othello, Miss Jean Brodie, Amanda in Private Lives, and Professor McGonagall in all the Harry Potter movies, which has brought her a whole new fan base in film-goers of under ten years old.
‘And they keep asking me to turn them into a cat,’ she comments a little mournfully, ‘which is very tricky because I can’t, although I wish I could...’ This month she can be seen again having a ridiculously good time slinging zingers as the inimitable dowager countess in Downton Abbey’s Christmas Special.
‘You think that looks like fun?’ she snorts. ‘Well, I don’t think it’s riotously funny to be wearing corsets and a wig from seven in the morning till seven at night – to tell you the truth, it’s agony!’
Then she relents. ‘Apart from that, we do have a great time, I must say. The other members of the cast are enchanting – all the young actors are really lovely. And we’ve had Shirley MacLaine, too, who has been terrific fun, and has given us all a huge boost. She said a wonderful thing at a press conference in LA recently. People kept on asking her how she and I got along and she said she thought we’d been lovers in an earlier life! Isn’t that marvellous? And it’s very much Shirley, of course. She’s very deeply into…’ She pauses, and waves her long, expressive hands into the ether in an airy-fairy fashion, ‘…into all that,’ she concludes, politely, but with her tongue not entirely out of her cheek.
Ask her what she herself is ‘into’ in her non-working hours and the conversation tends to take a vague turn. ‘I’m a very private sort of person,’ she warns me a little sternly. ‘I do work hard, and when I’m not working I just like to read and relax and sort of exist, really. Let’s see, what do I do? I’m not remotely domestic, although I do live in a very nice sort of Edwardian house in Chelsea, in a square not far from the Kings Road.
‘I travel a lot for work and sometimes for pleasure. I love Italy and am extremely attached to Venice – a truly magical place. I don’t go to the movies often because I don’t like people eating popcorn around me – have you noticed how they’ve started to do that more lately? So… to tell you the truth, what I really like to do when I’m not working is to have a really nice lie-down. I find that’s awfully good.’
She has been married twice, to actor Robert Stephens from 1967 to 1974 and to playwright, screenwriter, author and librettist Beverley Cross, writer of Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, from 1975 until his death in 1998. She has two sons by her first husband, Chris Larkin and Toby Stephens, now respectively 45 and 43, both of whom have followed their parents into the acting profession. Did she give either of them any advice when they were starting out?
‘Certainly not!’ She shudders. ‘I wouldn’t dare! And in many ways I didn’t need to because I figured out they must already have known how hard a life it was, because when they were growing up I was permanently moaning about it.
A difficult profession
‘I remember once when they were quite small we were all in LA where I was appearing in a play. We were in the car driving to the theatre, and I heard Toby say, “What’s wrong with her?”, and Chris said, “Leave her alone, it’s a matinée!” So they knew from the start that it isn’t the easiest of professions.’
Although, truth to tell, it hasn’t treated Dame Maggie too harshly.
‘I wish I’d known when I was younger that it would be OK,’ she agrees. ‘The world is such a scary place when you’re young and if I could go back and give myself advice, I’d say, “Don’t be so nervous about everything”. But then, we’re all nervous for most of our lives, really, aren’t we? I think that inside every one of us there’s somebody of about age five crying and desperate… and that’s particularly so for actors, because these days the film industry on the whole – apart from Dustin, of course – does not employ elderly people…’
‘Excuse me,’ Dustin interrupts, ‘did you just call us both... elderly?’
‘Elderly,’ she repeats. ‘Elderly.’
He stares her down.
‘Middle-aged?’ she offers, tongue straying cheekwards again.
‘Thank you,’ he says.
‘It is strange to be at this end of my career,’ she continues. ‘Last night something very nice happened. The Canadian theatre company Stratford Shakespeare Festival gave me a Legacy Award, which was lovely of them but it was also very weird because they had photographs of me going back to a very young person – they even had a picture of me when I was three! – and it was like seeing my life flash in front of my eyes right through to where I am now and having to face what I have become. It was very strange.’
She turns to Dustin. ‘Have you ever been given a Lifetime Achievement Award?’ she asks.
He nods. ‘It’s like you’re at your own funeral,’ he says.
‘That’s exactly where you are!’ she agrees. ‘In a way it’s worse because you’re quite sure the only reason they’re saying nice things about you is that you’re still around to hear them!’
Being a celebrity
‘Maggie doesn’t like being a celebrity,’ Dustin confides sotto voce. ‘And that’s something that makes her unusual in these days. Celebrity has changed so much since she and I were starting out. When we were beginners, we just wanted to do what we called “the work” – becoming famous was never a criterion. These days, it’s simply about being famous and nothing more. It’s crazy out there. Look at the reality shows. You can now become quite famous just by performing sexual favours for someone on TV.’
Maggie looks at him in surprise.
‘Can you?’ she says.
‘You really can,’ he says. ‘It’s extraordinary.’
Maggie thinks for a moment.
‘You know,’ she says slowly, ‘I might just try that myself...’
Read more about Maggie Smith on her Wikipedia
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