Maggie Smith: You have to draw the line 0
The actress delights in her latest film work but laments the demands of Downton Abbey fans and having to quit the stage, fearing her only roles now would be Chekhovian grannies feeding chickens
Maggie Smith is feigning her own murder. It’s for the benefit of the CCTV camera she’s just spotted in the corner of the room. “Who’s looking at it?” she wonders. “If you murdered me, they could play it back on the news, couldn’t they? It’d all be on film. Should I act it out?”
And so she does, against my protests. We’re taking afternoon tea in the small library of a boutique hotel not far from Smith’s Chelsea home, and this isn’t quite how I’d imagined things would go. I’m not especially concerned that I’ll end up on the evening bulletin, of course, but the truth is, I hadn’t exactly expected her to be such easy company.
Smith’s reputation rather precedes her, after all; drawn perhaps from the kind of roles she has made her stock-in-trade. In her most famous part, in 1969’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, she was a stubborn romantic in 1930s Edinburgh, leading a class of 12-year-olds astray with idealised notions of fascism.
Smith’s prime never faded, though, and we know her now as the dismissive dowager countess in Downton Abbey, as Harry Potter’s stern deputy head, and as the easily outraged Muriel Donnelly, who travels to India against her better judgment in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. What these characters have in common, it seems, is that they don’t suffer fools gladly.
However, from the moment Smith sweeps into the room and sinks into an oversized red sofa, it’s clear that her reputation doesn’t define her. She recently celebrated her 80th birthday and arrives with boundless energy. Even before the tape starts, she’s reminiscing about her return journey to India for The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and wondering whether I’d had good weather and good food when I’d visited the set last year.
Smith was there that week, but we didn’t meet. Instead I watched her play a long scene with one of her best friends, Judi Dench, in the garden of the beautiful little hotel of the title, which is as intoxicating in life as it appears on screen.
They started slowly, getting used to the dialogue, as the director, John Madden, set up his shot. “Sorry, Jude,” said Smith when she flubbed a line. “Sorry, Mags,” said Dench when she did the same. But before long they were into the flow, crafting a moment so touching, so electric, that it seemed even to silence the parakeets that chattered constantly overhead.
“It was very different for us this time because we weren’t all together like we were before,” Smith says now. “I did have that little bit with Jude, and we did another in the dead of night, in the freezing cold, but that was it. It was unbelievably cold.”
Yet the whole film looks like it takes place during a warm Indian summer. “It’s called filming,” she declares, as though diagnosing a condition. “It always happens like that, or you film in rain and they say, ‘It’s OK, it doesn’t show on camera’. You think, ‘Well, that’s nice for you’, as you stand there pretending you’re not getting wet.”
Despite the weather, Smith does, I think, relish the magic that can be created in those moments between “action” and “cut”. Returning to India was very special; reuniting, albeit briefly, with the cast and crew of the first film even more so. For Smith, the films are warm distractions from the hassles of modern life. “You know you’re not going to be scooped and dredged,” she says. “That’s what the day is like, so why would you want it when you go out for an evening?”
She misses the stage — it’s a topic we return to several times. She hasn’t done a play since 2007, the same year she was diagnosed with breast cancer. And while she has since made a full recovery, it knocked her confidence. “I just don’t think I could cope with it,” she says. “Almost every Wednesday and Saturday I wake up relieved it’s not a matinee. To this day I’m relieved.”
It’s a thought that fills her with tremendous regret, however. “I loved it more than I can say, and I never imagined I’d get to this. It’s hard enough doing film and television, but at least you know it’s not day after day after day. I just found it so exhausting.”
I tell her that I never had a chance to see her on stage, “Well, tough, Joe,” she replies drily. “Maybe I’ll do a benefit performance for you. But then there aren’t, on the whole, a lot of parts for people my age. There’s no Mrs Lear, is there?”
There seems to be plenty of appetite for them in the cinema, though. The first Marigold film grossed north of $135m (£88m) globally at the box office, and its sequel looks set to do just as well. “But they don’t do them in theatre,” Smith insists. “I’d end up as one of those dreadful old women in headscarves who come on at the end of Chekhov plays going, ‘Chook, chook, chook’, endlessly feeding the chickens. I don’t think I could stomach being a babushka.”
Her Harry Potter co-star Michael Gambon recently announced his own retirement from the stage, citing anxiety caused by his failing memory. “I hope he’s OK,” Smith says. “It was about time he admitted it, because it was hair-raising doing things with him. On film you were hanging off the picture rails with fright because he had such a tough time. Mind you, I defy anyone to learn Harry Potter-speak. It’d probably be easier for him to learn Shakespeare.”
Smith won’t use the word “retirement” and, like Gambon, will keep working in film and television, at least, for as long as she’s able. “When you’re not working it’s scary, and when you are working it’s scary, because you don’t know if you’ve got the energy to get through the day. But the bleakness of not doing it, and missing out on the friendships that you make, is too much to bear.”
She’ll be back on set the day after we meet, in fact, starting the sixth series of Downton Abbey and delivering more of Lady Violet’s delicious one-liners. But for how much longer? “They say this is the last one, and I can’t see how it could go on,” Smith says. “I mean, I certainly can’t keep going. To my knowledge, I must be 110 by now. We’re into the late 1920s.”
Despite the many plaudits she’s received over the years, the success of Downton has come as a shock, and it’s one she still struggles to deal with. “Television really does you in,” she says. “When it first came out, Penelope [Wilton] and I were in India doing the first Marigold, and we’d had word of its success but we weren’t really around when this huge thing happened. It was extraordinary.”
On her return home, things had changed and she found life in public challenging. “One isn’t safe after doing Downton. What’s sad is I’ve gone through my whole life without any of that. I could go round galleries and things on my own and I just can’t do it now. If someone decides to get at you, you can’t get away.”
She’s particularly withering about the selfie era. “What’s awful is it used to be just autographs, but now everyone wants photographs. You begin to feel like all those people who believed photographs took the soul away. There’s nothing like privacy, but nobody will have that soon. Nobody’s private any more.”
And so she spots the CCTV and starts her performance. It’s over in a flash, and she’s laughing as she gives the camera a reassuring wave.
“Oh, I’ll have to go back onto the stage for you,” she says finally, as our time comes to a close, and I wonder if perhaps I’ve won her round. But before she leaves, she issues a call to arms for the world’s playwrights and artistic directors: “It’ll have to be a part that isn’t, ‘Chook, chook, chook’, with the chickens. When you get to a certain age the parts are always grim. My great friend Margaret Tyzack kept saying, ‘It’s awful; I’m not going to be incontinent. You have to say where you draw the line.’ ”
She chuckles again. “But in the end you’re always pegging out. They’re always doing that to you.”