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Movie-star status still surprises Dame Judi Dench

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LOS ANGELES - Even with four Oscar nominations in her back pocket and buzz building around her performance in "Mrs. Henderson Presents," Dame Judi Dench still recalls her discomfort when she began her career as a film actress.

"I hated it," Dench says without hesitation. "I was told I had not a single thing right with my face, and that was when I was a young girl at the Vic. My passion is the theater, and I know it's not right to be sitting talking about a film and saying it's not the thing I am happy in."

Perhaps her generation's most decorated British stage and television star, Dench has received awards notice for her work in films like "Iris," "Mrs. Brown" and "Chocolat." Despite only six minutes of screen time, she picked up an Oscar for 1998's "Shakespeare in Love." That's not a bad haul for a medium that still feels slightly alien after several decades of work.

"(T)here is irritation about it because I don't have any control over it," Dench admits. "If you come to the theater and I come out on stage, I am ready to tell you that author's story. And with any luck I can keep you there through an interval to hear what happens by the end. It's the process of telling a story and I find that irresistible. The audience will tell you if it's funny and if you've delivered the line properly or if it's dramatically holding attention. The audience informs you. Here, you have to cling to the director. I need to be told how to do it, or if I need to do it better.

In "Mrs. Henderson," Dench plays another of her near-trademark feisty English matrons, a widow who beats boredom by opening a theater on London's West End. Dench, whose husband, Michael Williams, died in 2001, acknowledges that parts of the character have personal resonance.

"You don't draw parallels with the script, but when it opens and her husband has just died and she goes and gets in the boat? I understand that," she says. "It wouldn't be the way I would have done it, but you find a way of dealing with it and I understood that's the way she dealt with it."

She continues, "Sometimes you don't experience everything. With Lady Macbeth, fortunately, I have never urged my husband to do away with his cousin and stab him. But nevertheless, you have to be able to somehow observe or remember. Your mind has a snapshot ability. That's not to say when you go through something you can just coldly watch it, but you have to feed it into the computer in your brain."

Although she's played nearly every available in the theatrical canon, Dench notes that one of the things that keeps her acting is the opportunity to try new things and take chances whenever they're presented, like the scenes in "Mrs. Henderson" where her character dons a number of costumes to sneak into her theatre.

"People ask me if it's me in the panda skin and I tell them, Of course it's me in the panda skin! Why wouldn't I do that?'" She laughs. "And the thing of going up in the Gypsy Moth? I like to learn something. I never did archery. And the very first shot ofThe Importance of Being Earnest' I had a wonderful shot doing it. Now I've done that."

Because there are still things she's never done - and because she's still working at the very top of her game - Dench has no plans or even thoughts of retirement.

"I just want to be asked to play things," she says. "I don't want to stop. People ask when I am going to retire, but that's a terrible thing to say. The one thing you don't want to do is get bored and boring by not having a stimulus and not learning something new and not meeting new people. I love it."


(c) 2005, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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