Notes on Scandal's Judi Dench

In a different, better age, we would be ladies of leisure, lunching together,visiting galleries, traveling, putting the world to rights. We would be companions.
Judi Dench's Barbara Covett

With Zo Hellers novel, What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal, Barbara Covett became one of the most fascinating unreliable narrators in contemporary literature.

To play such a complex, dangerous woman, the filmmakers knew early on they would need one of the finest actresses working in film today it was then that Scott Rudin approached Dame Judi Dench very early on in the projects genesis. Dench has riveted screen-goers in a wide variety of roles, including her Oscar winning turn as the Queen of England in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, her lauded role as Iris Murdoch at the end of her life in IRIS, and another Oscar-nominated role in the recent MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS.

From the moment Rudin read the novel, he knew it had to be Dench to play the part of Barbara. Rudin realized there was no other actress alive today that could pull off this role with the determination and resolve that the character demanded.

At first, Dench was quite taken aback by Barbaras acid tongue and dark, wounded heart, not to mention her manipulative relationship with Sheba Hart. Its a really shocking story, says Dench of her initial reaction to NOTES ON A SCANDAL. But the challenge of doing it was very exciting to me. It was thrilling to be asked to do something that couldnt be more different from anything Ive ever played before.

It was precisely that difference that Richard Eyre felt made Dench a perfect match for the unpredictable nature of the character. Judi Dench is universally loved and people usually identify with this magnificently generous, beautiful and brilliant person who often plays monarchs and has tremendous personal dignity, he remarks. So to experience Judi Dench being caustic and acerbic and rather ungenerous we felt would be a wonderful, bracing shock. I mean, her portrait of Barbara is still deeply vulnerable, but this is not a nice woman and I think from an audiences point of view to see Judi playing that will be quite refreshing.

Zo Heller had a similar feeling. In casting Judi Dench, one knows she will bring an intelligence and vulnerability to the role. Shes not just a stage villain twirling her mustache and plotting the downfall of others, but someone who does real justice to the humor of the role, she says.

Having read both the book and the screenplay, Dench notes her pleasure at Patrick Marbers adaptation. I thought it was very skillfully adapted. Its quite faithful to Zo Hellers style while still being very individual to Patrick, she observes.

Dench was also pleased that the screenplay steadfastly refused to place damning judgments on its wayward characters. I think its very much left to the audience to make up its own mind on the ethics of it all and I think thats right, she notes.
Indeed, as wicked as Barbara can be when she feels slighted or rejected, Dench also found elements of her character quite familiar and at times, devastatingly poignant. Ive known several people like her, she says. A very, very lonely person who craves affection and to have any friend of some kind. I think there are a lot of people out there just like that who have been lonely all their lives and dream of friendship. But when Barbara essentially blackmails Sheba Hart into becoming close to her, thats when things turn nasty.

Although the characters sexuality remains a question mark in the storys unfolding, Dench sees Barbaras fervent obsession with Sheba as far more emotional and psychological than sexual in nature. I think Barbara mainly craves a person who will rely on her, says Dench. Patrick Marber asked Zo Heller about the lesbian quality in Barbara, and Zo said, she probably doesnt recognize any kind of sexual attraction — probably the most she would ever want is to scrub Shebas back in the bath. When I heard that, some kind of window opened for me. That is desperate, isnt it

To get deeper into Barbaras desperation, Dench worked closely with Cate Blanchett to develop just the right rapport between the two unlikely comrades. It was very intense and very, very hard work but we had a lot of laughs and she was terrific, says Dench. She is a phenomenal actress and she was phenomenal to work with. I think she is just fantastic, imaginative and quite inspirational.

Another draw for Dench was getting yet another chance to work with director Richard Eyre. He has such wonderful instincts, she comments. You feel very secure in his company because he knows what he wants but, within that parameter, he also allows you to really breathe and thats very exciting.