23rd May 2016
Words by Simon Button
Images by Catherine Ashmore / Rex Features / Getty Images
The term “showbiz trouper” could have been invented for Dame Maggie Smith. The veteran actress is 81 now and still going strong after more than six decades in the business. Glaucoma in one eye hasn’t thwarted her, nor has the need for a hip replacement and she intends to keep acting for as long as the roles keep coming in.
She is, she thinks, one of the lucky ones — an older woman in a profession that often values youth and beauty over age and experience. Thanks to her formidable talent and tireless work ethic, Dame Maggie is proving them wrong. “I’m very lucky because there’s always this endless thing of ‘There aren’t any parts for women over a certain age’.”
She laughs. “Well, I’ve kind of reached the limit now. I’m sure there aren’t many parts after the age I am, but I think they’re talking about middle age.” But it was in middle age that Smith won the second of her two Oscars (for California Suite) and any work breaks have been self-imposed. And who else, except her dear friend and fellow dame Judi Dench can boast of being so busy in their later years?
Seven Harry Potter films, two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies and a certain TV show called Downton Abbey haven’t just kept her busy — they’ve made her a bigger star than ever. Then there’s all the awards buzz for her brilliant performance in The Lady in the Van.
It makes you wonder where she gets her energy from and when you ask her, she demurs: “I don’t know.” After a pause for thought, she adds: “The energy comes from the people who are around you and one’s director. Something has always happened to me when I go in front of a camera or on stage. The energy flows back and I put it all into a character.” She sighs. “But it’s tough. I can’t say it’s easy at the age I am.”
In person Dame Maggie looks a lot younger than Downton’s Dowager Countess Violet Crawley. Her hair is fashionably short, her outfit a simple beige top over black trousers, her demeanour less imposing. There’s no fancy hat and no attitude and when she scoffs that all her Lady in the Van co-stars “were in luxury, they were actually in a real house” it’s done with good humour, not scathing sarcasm.
For the film Smith was, of course, mainly in a van. It’s the true story of Miss Shepherd, a cantankerous elderly lady who pitched her vehicle outside writer Alan Bennett’s Camden Town house in London. He eventually let her into the driveway and she stayed there for 15 years, prompting Bennett to pen a play about this most colourful of characters. It premiered in 1999 in London’s West End, with Nicholas Hytner directing and Dame Maggie in the lead.
The 2015 film version was shot on location in and around Alan’s old house (which he still owns, but doesn’t live in) in Gloucester Crescent, with Smith stepping back into Miss Shepherd’s dirty clothes and even dirtier van. “It wasn’t the most comfortable place,” she admits, and then is mock horrified at the very suggestion that she might have ended up going Method for the role — living and breathing Miss Shepherd between takes.
“Method?” she screeches, sounding very much like the disdainful Dowager Countess she played to critical acclaim, two Emmy wins and one Golden Globe across 52 episodes of Julian Fellowes’ international ratings smash. “Not a lot of that is required if you are dressed as I was and in a van. That was Method enough.”
Free from the airs and graces you might expect from someone held in such high regard, not to mention someone who got her start in Shakespeare and who is a six-time Oscar nominee, she thinks of Method as delving into “the inner whatnot” and says: “No, I didn’t dare do that.” The Essex-born, Oxford-raised daughter of a pathologist father and secretary mother also maintains: “I have never been one for dressing up and putting on airs and graces.”
That’s something she does rather well on screen, but not in person. Inspired no doubt by her performance as a caustic countess in Gosford Park, the Robert Altman-directed 2001 film which Fellowes wrote, he created Violet Crawley with Smith in mind — but he did so because she’s brilliant with a scripted quip, not because she’s lofty in real life. Asked if she’s closer to Miss Shepherd or the Dowager Countess when the cameras aren’t rolling she insists: “I’m not very close to either, but curiously I feel easier with the lady in the van than with that lady with the hat on. It was much easier to be Miss Shepherd because she didn’t mind how she looked and it was such a relief because Lady Violet was forever in those corsets and things that Miss Shepherd would never have dreamed of going near. For comfort alone it was nicer to be Miss Shepherd.”
Smith has never been comfortable talking about herself. “I’m a very private sort of person,” she is on record as saying, reckoning that when she’s not working (which isn’t often) she likes to relax, read and “sort of exist really”. She lives in Chelsea and enjoys travel. Italy in general and Venice in particular are favourite destinations. But she doesn’t often go to the cinema “because I don’t like people eating popcorn around me”.
And she doesn’t know why anyone would be remotely interested in her life story and would never write her memoirs. The very notion horrifies her. “I can’t think of anything worse,” she told one interviewer. “There’s nothing to write about.” That’s not true, of course. She’s had the most interesting and enduring of careers, worked with the biggest names, been married twice (first to the actor Robert Stephens, with whom she had two sons, then to the playwright Beverley Cross) and has survived Graves’ disease and breast cancer.
She’s not sure where her resilience comes from, but it probably wasn’t from her father, of whom she has said: “There was an incredible nervousness about him. You couldn’t do this, couldn’t do that. Mustn’t ride a bike, you’d be bound to fall off. Couldn’t swim, you’d most certainly drown. I wish I’d known when I was younger that it would be OK. 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’.”
The youngest of three, Margaret Nathalie Smith was educated at Oxford High School and has revealed: “I longed to be bright and most certainly never was. I was rather hopeless, I suspect.” But she found her calling: at the age of 16 she began to study acting at Oxford Playhouse and the following year made her professional debut as Viola in Twelfth Night. A couple of years later she was on Broadway and has done so much since — winning the best actress Oscar for The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie and the best supporting actress Oscar for California Suite (ironically, for her hilarious portrayal of an actress who doesn’t win), notching up a record-breaking five Evening Standard Awards, proving as adept at comedy in Sister Act and The First Wives Club as she is at drama and winning a whole new fan base as Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter franchise.
That’s not bad going for a woman who once said of her striking features: “I think there is an accepted way that a face should be and I’m not like that.” But as one reviewer noted of Smith’s singular appeal: “She looks as crisp as a celery stick and speaks like a girl who has a good mind of her own.” A good mind but not a master plan. “It’s what turns up, quite honestly,” she has said of the jobs she takes.
I think there is an accepted way that a face should be and I’m not like that
Fame on a global scale came late in life. She was 67 when the first Harry Potter film took the world’s box offices by storm and in her 70s when Downton Abbey first aired. “After all these years I am known more for Harry Potter and Downton than anything I’ve ever done,” she declared in the midst of her newfound fame. “It goes to show that you always have to be prepared for anything.”
Smith isn’t upset that, after six series and five Christmas specials, Downton Abbey has closed its doors for good. “Nobody knew it was going to go careering on as long as it did and it was jolly exhausting,” she has admitted. “I was ready for it to finish. I began to wonder whether I had the energy levels to carry on. Then there was the dressing up in all the corsets and the hats. It’s a long process. 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.”
Fame has its downsides for this most reluctant of stars, who doesn’t venture out often and, when she does, she prefers to have a friend with her as a fallback. “It’s very difficult when you’re on your own because you have no escape,“ she has said, adding that it can be scary when a group of fans approach her. “I don’t know how people cope with it. What do they do, these huge movie stars?”
Of her reputation for sometimes being difficult to work with, Smith has admitted there are times when she can be a bit snarky, but it’s because she’s nervous. She tries to be like Dame Judi, thinking “It will all be lovely, it will be merry and bright, the Quaker will come out in me.” But she has to admit defeat on that score. “It never works. Jude has a wonderful calm, it’s very enviable. I think it would be hairy if she let fly, but I’ve never seen that.” And what if Dame Maggie suddenly came on like Pollyanna? “It would frighten people more if I were nice. They’d be paralysed with fear and wonder what I was up to.”
She still gets nervous, seemingly even more so. “When you’re young, you’re just so thrilled to be doing it. Of course you’re terrified, but as you get older it’s because you realise how difficult it is to do. When you’re young, it’s excitement and terror. Now it’s just terror.”
Having been appointed a CBE in 1970 and made a Dame in 1990, Smith nonetheless has balked at being called an icon. “Everything’s an icon. If you have been around long enough you are an icon. A rather dusty icon or a national treasure,” she has said. But she keeps dusting herself off and going back to work, although there’s a hint there’ll be more films in her future and not so many TV series. “It’s relentless. And Bette Davis was right. Old age is not for sissies.”
Spoken like a real trouper.
The Lady In The Van is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download.