Dame Maggie Smith: I am deeply grateful for the work in Harry Potter and Downton Abbey but it wasn't what you'd call satisfying. I didn't feel I was acting in those things
Her Best Actress award for A German Life makes it a record-breaking fifth win for Dame Maggie Smith at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. She tells Nick Curtis she has no idea where the urge to act came from and why she didn't encourage her actor sons to go on the stage
Most categories in this year's Evening Standard Theatre Awards were hotly debated by the judges, but one had a clear winner from the start. At 84, Dame Maggie Smith was a shoo-in for the Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress, in partnership with Christian Louboutin, for her performance in Christopher Hampton's A German Life at the Bridge Theatre.
It marked a record fifth best actress win for Smith, outscoring even Dame Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave. "When I first got one of these in 1962 (for the Peter Shaffer comedies The Private Ear and The Public Eye) it wasn't because I was any good, they just couldn't think who else to give it to," she demurs.
Nonsense. The Bridge show demonstrated her absolute mastery of nuance and timing, and was all the more remarkable as she had been away from the stage for 12 years, mostly occupied with Downton Abbey and the Harry Potter movies. Seated alone at a table for 100 minutes, she spoke the words of Brunhilde Pomsel, stenographer to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who claimed to be ignorant of the regime's atrocities right up to her death aged 106.
"How many people in that situation could not have known?" says Smith. "I think she had talked herself into it, but Christopher wrote it so beautifully that she kept almost catching herself out." Ironically, the immaculate evasive pauses Smith worked into the script led some audience members to think she'd forgotten her lines. "You can't win, can you?" she says, rolling her eyes.
Her last stage appearance, in Edward Albee's The Lady From Dubuque, was in 2007, the same year she was diagnosed with breast cancer, from which she made a full recovery. But by then the Potter juggernaut (she played Professor McGonagall) was already well under way, and when Downton started in 2010 it seemed the theatre had lost her. Turns out she was just waiting for the right project.
Since her teens, Smith had wanted to be a serious stage actress but got her start in revue in the 1950s "and it seemed to take ages to get away from light comedy. I am deeply grateful for the work in Potter and indeed Downton but it wasn't what you'd call satisfying. I didn't really feel I was acting in those things".
Indeed, she and her late friend Alan Rickman used to complain that their work on the Potter movies consisted entirely of reaction shots. "I wanted to get back to the stage so much because theatre is basically my favourite medium and I think I felt as though I'd left it all unfinished," she says. "But there wasn't anything that came along."
We meet at the Pelham hotel in Kensington, by chance at the same secluded table where I first interviewed her three years ago. "We must stop meeting like this," she jokes with a throaty chuckle. The last time we spoke, she said that she was resigned to playing "old bags". That was for The Lady In The Van, the film adaptation of Alan Bennett's play about the peculiar and unsanitary woman who lived in his driveway for 15 years, directed by the Bridge's artistic director, Sir Nicholas Hytner. Smith mentioned her desire to go back on stage and Hytner suggested an adaptation of literary editor Diana Athill's memoirs.
"I read her books, but I am as far removed physically from her as I could be," Smith says. Then another director, Jonathan Kent, sent her a book about Pomsel, "which I thought was amazing". Hytner concurred. Hampton crafted the script out of hundreds of hours of interviews Pomsel gave at the age of 103 for a 2016 documentary, also titled A German Life, and Kent signed on as director.
Smith has always been self-deprecating about her talent, and the moment she agreed to the play she suffered "doubt, doubt, doubt. I suddenly felt twice as old as I actually was. And also, when you haven't done a show for a long time, there's something pretty dumb about doing it totally on your own".
The solitude, having no one to react to onstage or discuss things with in the dressing room afterwards, was more taxing than the rehearsal process. "It was actually easier to learn than Downton Abbey, because it wasn't fragmented. I wasn't just ordering tea or something." There is talk of her taking the play to New York, but she is worried it would be a lonely experience.
Smith was born in Ilford in 1934 but brought up in Oxford from the age of four, her father a pathologist and her mother a secretary who disapproved of her acting ambitions.
"Honest to God, I have no idea where the urge came from," she says. "It was such a ghastly time and we didn't go to the theatre. I got into terrible trouble once because the neighbours took me to the cinema on a Sunday. But I had a wonderful teacher, Dorothy Bartholomew, who also taught Miriam Margolyes, and who encouraged me."
At 17 she enrolled on a short-lived acting course at the Oxford Playhouse and made her debut with the Oxford University Dramatic Society as Viola in Twelfth Night. Her professional debut was actually in New York, in the revue New Faces Of '56. For a while she was trapped in revue and commercial West End comedies: the Royal Court, then the home of serious modern drama, "wouldn't touch you with a bargepole, if you'd been 'on the avenue', as they'd say".
But in 1963 she was recruited to Laurence Olivier's fledgling National Theatre company at The Old Vic. She was Desdemona to his blacked-up Othello ("can you imagine!?" she says) and Hilde Wangel to his Solness in Ibsen's The Master Builder. Olivier was hugely competitive. "It was sort of a merry war," she recalls. "I was friends with him and Joan (Plowright, Olivier's wife) but he was at a distance from people like Frank Finlay or (Northern Irish actor) Colin Blakely, who were really good and had an instant communication with the audience."
Another member of that company, recruited from the Royal Court, was the fiery actor Robert Stephens. He and Smith married in 1967 and had two sons, the actors Toby Stephens and Chris Larkin, before their divorce in 1975. "They weren't encouraged to act," she says of her sons. "If they wanted to do it, that was absolutely fine, but they don't have a leg to stand on if they complain about it."
The night before we met, she'd been to see Toby in A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg. The great pleasure for her of doing the Harry Potter films is that it thrills her five grandchildren and she talks with delight about taking Robert Stephens' son from a later relationship on to the set of the first film and watching his jaw drop when he saw Hogwarts' Great Hall.
After her divorce from Stephens, Smith married the playwright Beverley Cross. Most of her stage work in the late 1970s was at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, so London audiences were denied her Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth. "I still think it was wiser," she says. "I don't think I'd have got away with doing them here."
By then she'd already won the Best Actress Oscar for The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie in 1970 and another for Best Supporting Actress in California Suite in 1979, but she still seems to regard her screen career as an irritating diversion from her stage work.
Robert Stephens died in 1995 and Cross in 1998. She has lived alone in her Chelsea home ever since. "I don't think I would find anybody who could come anywhere near Bev," she told me in 2016. He'd have helped her decide whether to do A German Life on Broadway and made her feel less lonely if she did, she says. He was always more pleased with her awards, and her being appointed a dame in 1990, than she was. He didn't live to see her made a Companion of Honour in 2014.
Being alone is doubly hard, as it makes her easy prey for fans wanting selfies, something this intensely private actress detests (though she says yes to children). Socially, she goes to the opera with Nick Hytner and has occasional get-togethers at her local restaurant with her younger female Downton co-stars. She's hoping to catch Sir Ian McKellen's one-man show "but I'll run the risk of him doing an impersonation of me. He does them all the time. I rather acidly told him that I'd done one of him but people didn't know him well enough to recognise it".
Smith has a reputation for being fierce - director Chris Columbus apparently used to send Daniel Radcliffe to fetch her from her trailer because he was scared of her - but when we've met I've found her funny, warm and hugely resilient. As well as surviving breast cancer and the thyroid condition Graves' Disease, she has had a hip replaced.
"I walked here - that's a triumph," she says sardonically, "though I got a bit furtive around Bute Street (in Kensington). That'd be a rather good title for a play, wouldn't it, Furtive In Bute Street?" Maybe, I suggest as she hugs me goodbye, she should ask Christopher Hampton to write it, so we can have the great pleasure of seeing her on stage again.
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