July 2001 By Philip Berk
There is nothing like this Dame!
The imperious star of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Dame Maggie Smith is in New York for the press junket of Robert Altman’s Gosford Park.
That in itself is an occasion, especially after she reminds us she has never done this type of thing before.
How in heaven was she able to win two Oscars without campaigning for them? I ask her.
“If you’re working in the theatre, you usually can’t get away,” she replies.
Unless Harvey Weinstein is prepared to shut down the theatre for one or two performances?
“But I’ve never been able to do that.”
Or wanted to?
“I have to say I find publicity a very weird thing. When I started there wasn’t so much of it. Now it’s kind of automatic and somewhat overwhelming.”
The two years she won the Oscar, she was, by her own admission, the dark horse.
In 1969 Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave were the favorites as were Meryl Streep and Dyan Cannon in l978.
But Maggie pulled ahead of the pack, winning in 1969 for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and nine years later for California Suite.
The first time she wasn’t even there.
“I wasn’t allowed to go because I was opening a play with Laurence Olivier, and he wasn’t going to have any of that. The second one I attended, but nobody thought I had a chance; I was there to have fun.”
Ironically her first nomination, in l965, was for playing Desdemona to Olivier’s Othello.
What was working with Olivier like?
“He wasn’t easy to work with, but that was more my fault than his. He came with so much, one was just so in awe of him. I had never done any Shakespeare before so it was terrifying. One was just so frightened. You can’t stop yourself feeling like that.”
Today Dame Maggie is considered an icon, but a quick glance at her career suggests that she’s had more valleys than peaks.
She never really achieved star status, and when given the opportunity to replace Katharine Hepburn in Letters to My Aunt, for example, she failed miserably.
Soon she drifted into playing supporting roles in tony British films (A Room With a View) and expensive Hollywood misses (Hook)
Her theatre career, on the other hand, has been triumphant. Both in London and in New York, she has won awards for such roles as Lettice and Lovitch.
But now, suddenly, she’s a movie star, thanks to two current movies, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Gosford Park.
How is she handling her celebrity? I ask her.
“Celebrity is not what I am. It’s nice of you to think that way of me, but it isn’t at all like that.”
But isn’t she recognized wherever she goes?
“Only recently, thanks to Harry Potter, quite a few of the children where I live stand frozen in the spot as though I am going to perform some magic and make them vanish. I think they’re petrified of me. But nobody has ever taken any notice of me before, whatsoever.”
Did she have that in mind when she accepted the role of Prof. McGonagall?
“Actually, I had read the books and I had enjoyed them enormously; so I thought it would be fun. I also happen to know the producer David Hayman, and I know his mother, Norma, very well. She’s a great friend, so when he wanted me for the part I was delighted.”
And Gosford Park. What drew her to that?
“The chance to work with Robert Altman.”
Was he everything she anticipated?
“He was absolutely extraordinary. With other directors when they say Action, you’re usually in a state of bind terror, you can’t think of anything, whereas Bob creates this atmosphere so that ‘Action’ sounds like the normal thing to say and you drift into doing it.”
And the multiple cameras, was that difficult getting used to?
“You never knew where they’re coming from. He has this wonderful thing of directing a scene which is incredibly intricate, almost balletic, with everybody moving around. After working in this way suddenly it’s incredibly dull to go back to old thing. There was one scene I did coming out of the car, when suddenly I saw this camera behind a bush. I wasn’t even aware of it being there.”
How much of herself does she bring to a role? Those wonderful lines she utters in the film, is that how she speaks in real life?
“I do come out with some of them.”
Is she as eccentric as the characters she plays?
“You mean do I have an acidic nature?”
Were any of those lines hers?
“Mr. Altman kind of likes you to go on talking — in some scenes everybody sort of chipped in — but we mustn’t let Mr. (Julian) Fellowes feel left out because he wrote a very good script.”
(For which he later received an Academy Award.)
Did she model her character on anyone in particular?
“Julian says she’s his great aunt. I certainly didn’t meet her. I wasn’t thinking of anybody in particular. There are just a whole lot of people who are like that, alas.”
Does she ever wonder why she’s cast in those roles?
“I suppose it’s because that’s the way they see me I don’t cast myself; other people do; so there’s not a whole lot I can do about it. But I suppose once you start playing eccentric people you’re kind of pigeon-holed whether you like it or not . But they’re much more interesting parts to play, I have to say. It’s much nicer to play someone who’s nuts than straightforward. But I never did those juvenile parts, the token ingenue, I just sort of enjoyed playing the battier people.”
Her personal life has also been straightforward, as she calls it.
Her lifelong friend was author-critic Beverly Cross.
They parted company when she fell in love with her costar, actor Robert Stephens. They were married for eight years and produced two sons.
After their divorce, she married Cross and they were together until his death four years ago. (Stephens died earlier in l995.)
Both of her sons are actors, but Toby is the more successful.
When I enquire only of him, she’s not happy.
“There are two of them,” she reminds me, “ there’s Toby and there’s Chris, and they’re both working in the theatre.”
Did she discourage them from going into the theatre?
“Very much so, but they took no notice so there was no point. I mean they knew how horrible it was. I mean Toby is at the moment in a play with Dame Judi (Dench) and whenever we speak he says, ‘Oh, I’ve got a matinee.’ I said, ‘You can’t even talk about that to me because I used to spend my life moaning about matinees,’ so he knew exactly what he was in for.”
What makes a life in the theatre so horrible?
“It’s just that it’s very hard. It’s an extremely hard profession and filming is even harder than the theatre. It needs so much stamina apart from anything else, and the hours are frightening. And then there’s the gap of despair if you don’t know when your next movie’s coming.”
What is her relationship with Hollywood?
“There isn’t one. I was there a very long time ago”
Didn’t she just complete The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood?
“But that was filmed in the South.”
Does she watch Hollywood movies?
“I do see the films that come out. There are masses and masses of them. I don’t know how they get by without me, I really don’t.”
Does she prefer to watch them on video or go to the movies?
“I do like to go to the movies. To be quite honest, I almost prefer them to the theatre for comfort reasons.”
Is there any one film she particularly liked?
“I thought You Can Count on Me was a wonderful film, absolutely wonderful.”
Has she ever thought of passing on the baton, writing a book, teaching young actors?
“I have been chastised for not doing so, but I find it very difficult to translate what I do into words. Comedy particularly is very difficult to explain. It would be interesting to teach, but I don’t think I would, because I don’t know what the hell people want to know. And you don’t want to destroy what there is there naturally. You can’t tell anybody how to perform. You can guide and help in certain ways, but as a young actor I found it confusing rather than helpful. And it can be destructive.”
What keeps her working?
“What is the alternative? But after a while it becomes a habit, and there’s nothing else I can do. And I enjoy it. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t. I mean what a wonderful thing to be able to do these things after all these years. It’s magic.”
Has her passion for acting changed?
“It has changed. It’s much more difficult now because when you start out you think it’s all a breeze; later you find out how difficult it is. But one’s desire to do it doesn’t change.”
And can she remember the first time she acted?
“It was a play about The Pied Piper of Hamlin, and I was eleven.”