Not many septuagenarians — soon to be octogenarians — actresses still work steadily in film and television, but Dame Maggie Smith is no normal actress. Along with starring on the critically acclaimed Downton Abbey television series, she recently appeared in Quartet, Dustin Hoffman‘s directorial debut. She spoke to The Wall Street Journal about working on both projects.
Because of her lengthy, award-winning career and the characters she has played — particularly the one on Downton Abbey –Smith has been thought to be an intimidating actress to work with. However, Smith confesses that as an actor she feels intimidated all the time, explaining, “I think as actors you’re intimidated most of the time by everything you have to do. It’s not straightforward. It’s all meant to look as natural as anything—you don’t know that we’re terrified. That was the joy of having Dustin as a director. He’s an actor, he knows the long waits and how difficult it is to keep it going. He just understands all of that, and that was a huge relief for all of us.”
Two key actors — Jessica Brown Findlay and Dan Stevens — departed Downton Abbey during last season, though Smith has no plans to leave. However, she points out that the nature of the series’ production in England means that the cast signed contracts that were shorter than their American counterparts. She says, “Well, you know, there’s a world elsewhere, I guess, if you have the chance. I think Hollywood was for Jessica. It makes total sense for them. It’s a pity that it happens, but here they don’t take your life. I believe in America you have to sign sort of forever, don’t you?”
One thing that Smith remains proud of is that despite recently turning seventy-eight she has no trouble learning her lines. In fact, she seems to have disdain for actors who use earpieces to help with the dialogue, saying, “Touching wood, that hasn’t happened yet. That’s a pretty horrible thought. People now do it with those things stuck in their ears.”