'I gave my mum Judi Dench a tattoo for her 80th birthday'
Finty Williams tells Susannah Butter what it was like growing up with her famous mum - and why, at 83, the dame is determined to keep working
Dame Judi Dench thinks the TV show RuPaul's Drag Race is "wonderful". Her daughter Finty Williams made her watch it and does an unnervingly good impression of Dench pronouncing her verdict. Dench has a varied TV diet. Williams (45) puts on a stern voice to mimic her mother calling her up after University Challenge to see how many questions she knew. "You can't lie because she will ask which ones you got right."
Like her mother and late father Michael Williams, Williams is an actress. She worked with her mother on the film Mrs Brown (1997), in Charles Dance's film Ladies in Lavender (2004) and in James Graham's play The Vote (2015) at The Donmar Warehouse. "As a joke I did a scene in The Importance of Being Earnest which was supposed to be a surprise for her but then Rupert Everett came in and told her, 'It was lovely to meet Finty'," she says.
"Working with her is so nice because I get to see her," adds Williams, who has her mother's eyes and her father's bone structure. Her real name is Tara Cressida (a Shakespeare reference) but her father made up the name Finty and it stuck.
"I don't spend as much time with my mother as I would love to because she is always working. There's no point telling her to take it easy - work is what keeps her going. She always says if she stops working she will curl up and wither away. I will always remember my mother saying, 'Watch people who you respect, soak it up'. She is always trying to learn. She pretty much works every day. She is 83, so that is kind of insane."
Williams orders English Breakfast tea to warm up after getting caught in a snowstorm walking across Hyde Park to our interview and talks about her latest play, Move Over, Mrs Markham, opening next month at The Mill at Sonning.
It's a farce about a couple who lend their London flat to friends without the other's knowledge - only to find out the friends are using it to cheat on each other: the man is having an affair with the au pair. George and Amal Clooney live next door to the theatre and are "hugely supportive". George came to see Williams's last play there and bought a round of drinks afterwards.
It's a chance to work with Run For Your Wife writer and director Ray Cooney, who is now 85. "Some jobs you take because they are good for the heart. Ray gave me some of my first roles and taught me everything I know about comedy. I don't know how much longer he'll be directing and it's a masterclass," she says.
Williams is familiar with au pair etiquette. She went through 11 nannies as a child. "I remember being terribly upset when my mother was in Thailand doing a film. There was a thunderstorm and the nanny found me in a cupboard with our kittens, crying."
Dench has said she considered giving up work when Williams was born, but that her husband talked her out of it. "I didn't know any different," says Williams. "Would I have had brothers and sisters if she hadn't worked? Would I have had the amazing experiences that I had? I have no idea. I just feel really proud of her." She "liked the dressing-up part" of her parents' jobs. "I didn't have a social life as I used to sit in my mother's dressing room. When she was doing Hamlet with Daniel Day-Lewis she came in from the interval and I was standing there in her costume from the first act with full make-up."
When Dench was cast as M in the 1995 film GoldenEye, her fame "hit". "The Bond thing was a massive gear change," says Williams. "My dad could not have been more proud, there was complete joy on his face. He said, 'I'm married to a Bond girl'."
Williams wanted to be a ballet dancer. "But it was the time of the tall, skinny ballerina and I'm short. My parents sat me down and said, 'This is a career that will be over by the time you are 35 regardless of how good you are'."
While she was casting around for alternative jobs she was invited to audition for a children's TV show called The Torch. "After discussions with my parents I decided to do it and continue with my A-levels. Then I did a play where I was Helen McCrory's big sister, and another where I was Felicity Jones's mother - I wasn't old enough for that part," she laughs. "In a funny way I fell into it."
When Williams's father died in 2001, aged 65, Dench took on more film roles. "She had taken time off to look after him so the workload seemed greater," she says.
Williams lives in Stockwell with son Sam (21). "He has red hair, which he was given a hard time for until Ed Sheeran appeared. He loves him and has tickets for all of his London dates." Sam visits his grandmother as often as he can. "We moved to be closer to her - by her own admission she falls over dust. Sam went on the Victoria and Abdul US tour with her and gets excited when she works with people like Daisy Ridley."
Williams is an animated conversationalist, gesturing with her hands to reveal the word 'havoc' tattooed on her wrist - "I got that when I met my boyfriend, also an actor, seven years ago." She took her mother to get a tattoo for her 80th birthday present. "She has 'carpe diem' on her wrist. The tattooist asked if she was absolutely sure and she said - (Williams puts on the strict voice) 'Just do it'. She says one is classy, more is not. I have eight."
Dench worked closely with Harvey Weinstein and has described the allegations against him as "horrifying". Williams, who has also met him, agrees with her mother. "I salute those women who made allegations. But it is complicated. It is hard when someone is very good at their job but not a very nice human being. But debate around it has become polarising."
What would she like to change? "More parts for short 45-year-old women in glamorous dresses," she laughs. "No, I'd like to see trans parts explored more."
This comes from a woman who "paid a lot of money" to meet the RuPaul cast at the Troxy in east London and laments that she'll never be a drag queen. "I become obsessed with things. I don't drink any more, so I switched my obsession to musicals. At the moment it's Hamilton - if you walk through Stockwell you'll hear the strains of Hamilton coming from my house."
Do musicals make the theatre more accessible? "My mother would strike me off if I didn't say theatre was incredibly important, and when you see something like Network at the National Theatre, my God it's important. You feel like you can't breathe. But the joy of listening to a soundtrack and then hearing it live - nothing compares. In a dream world where I'm 27 and 5ft 8in I'd go to Broadway and see Hello Dolly."
For now, though, she's sticking to Cornwall, where she plans to take her mother in June. Next she could be doing a play where she has to speak Swahili. She has an unlikely Swahili speaker to practise with. "It's Dr Christian Jessen. We met at a charity dinner where I was standing in for my mum. I found out he's fluent in Swahili when I was belting out The Lion King, and he asked if I knew what I was saying. So I'm inviting him for a takeaway tonight to learn."
Move Over Mrs Markham is at The Mill, Sonning (millatsonning.com) from April 19 until June 2