If you, like me, wondered if Dame Maggie Smith didn’t look just a bit under the weather in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” you weren’t seeing things: The great British actress, now 74, was in the middle of treatment for breast cancer at the time. In a candid and often wistful interview with the London Times, Smith talks about how she was “knocked sideways” by her illness, and how she is unsure if she’ll ever work on the stage again.
She struggles for words. “I felt . . . I was just . . . It [the cancer treatment] leaves you so flattened. I’m not sure I could go back to theatre work, although film work is more tiring. I’m frightened to work in theatre now. I feel very uncertain. I haven’t done it for a while [her last stage role was in The Lady from Dubuque in 2007]. I’m not quite sure if it’s like getting back on a horse or a bike. Not that I’d do either, I’d fall off. It’s one of those things you ought to keep on doing and I haven’t for a bit. I would love to be able to because I do love it, but I feel a great lack of confidence. Being unwell and having withdrawn . . . I haven’t been in London for so long, it’s quite scary up here.” Smith is clinking the ice absently in her mineral water. It will seem unimaginable to many that she is talking about giving up theatre, I say. “Well, there’s a limit to what you can do. I’m not into that argument there aren’t any parts for older women, though. Anyway, why should there be? If there’s work I’ll do it and if there isn’t . . . I’ve still got to stagger through the last Potter.”
Smith has been given the all-clear by her doctors (though she’s still being followed closely) and has a new film completed, the British drama “From Time To Time.” She’ll soon begin work on the final “Harry Potter” film, and says she plans a trip to Africa with friends. But she has clearly been scarred by her illness, and her tone throughout the interview is often melancholy. “I don’t know what the future holds, if anything,” she says. “I really don’t know.”
And, if I may respectfully contradict the great Dame, she says one thing that’s flat-out wrong. Told by the interviewed that she is one of the most admired actresses of her generation, she said, “I don’t know that . . . I don’t know what other people think of me. You can only go by what you yourself do. I don’t think I was respected or loved.” No. I think entire generations have a great love and respect for Dame Maggie, whether it’s the many children (and grown-ups) who adored her in “Harry Potter,” to those who’ve followed her career on stage, or those who know her earlier film work, particularly her Oscar-winning turn in “The Prime of MIss Jean Brodie.” She is a unique presence, inimitable (no one else has that voice, or that way of cutting off words as if punishing them) and unforgettable.
A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Dame Maggie on the phone, along with her longtime friend Dame Judi Dench. (They called each other Mags and Jude.) They had just co-starred in the film “Ladies in Lavender,” and though obviously tired from a long series of interviews, they were cordial and charming. Breaking away from my planned questions toward the end, I told Dame Maggie that my young nephew, a huge fan of the “Potter” films, would be thrilled to hear that I’d talked to Professor MacGonagall. “Oh,” she said, pleased, “do give him my very best.” I’m sure many of you will want to join me in sending Dame Maggie our very best, for good health and happiness in the future.
Happier days: Maggie Smith and Judi Dench in “Ladies in Lavender” (Photo by Tom Collins, courtesy of Roadside Attractions).