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Dame Maggie Smith

Dame Maggie Smith is one of the greatest actresses of our time, with two Oscars, six BAFTAs, three Golden Globes and a Tony Award to her name. Yet she refuses to acknowledge that she has done anything of particular note. Of her Oscar nomination this year for Best Supporting Actress for her part as the monstrous snob Constance, Countess of Trentham, in Robert Altman's Gosford Park, she notes: "Supportings don't count. They're pretty low down on the list."

Smith has ditched the mink stole and extended vowels for her more free-wheeling latest role, as Caro in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. She plays one of a group of women who kidnap playwright Siddalee Walker (Sandra Bullock) in a bid to patch up a rift between her and her mother (Ellen Burstyn). The story, adapted from the novel by Rebecca Wells, is set in Louisiana from the 1930s to the 1990s.

Today, at a hotel near her home in Chelsea, Smith is sporting a a short, sharp, youthful haircut that takes at least a decade off her age (she is 67). Her voice is, as you would expect, stentorian and husky, and she does have a Lady Bracknell-ish habit of elongating her words. "These articles about actors and moooovie" (she invests the word with about five syllables) "stars seem to me so rum," she says at one point.

Smith has a reputation among passing acquaintances for being difficult and brittle, but those who know her well say this could not be further from the truth. "She's terribly private, but I would say she's the least aloof person I know," says one friend. "She has a wicked sense of humour. If you have dinner with her, the next day you literally ache from having laughed so much."

Smith herself admits to being shy. "But I don't think that's odd," she says. "I think most actors are. I think most people are, actually."

Conversation with her - for a journalist, at least - can be tricky. She hates talking about her work ("That way madness lies") and she hates talking about herself. At one point, I ask in despair if there is anything she does want to talk about. "No, there's nothing I want to talk about at all. Nothing." But she is laughing as she says it. "It's just that, as you talk, one thinks, 'God, it's really rather dull'. One's life is sort of... dull."

And yet in some ways she could not be more accommodating. At the end of the interview, she volunteers to give me her home telephone number in case I think of anything else I want ask her.

No matter what she says, Smith's life has been far from dull. Although there was no history of acting in her family - her father was a medical technician from Newcastle, her mother a dour Glaswegian Presbyterian who frowned on the stage - Maggie was determined to be an actress even as a child growing up in Oxford. "I've no idea why. I've honestly no idea."

At 16, she went to the Oxford Playhouse School of Theatre, where she quickly gained recognition, showing a particular talent for comedy. At 21, she went to New York to work on Broadway in revue comedy. "I don't know why. I can't sing, I can't dance, I was kind of dopey." Nevertheless, by the time she returned to London a year later, she was already "a name", and has never been out of work since.

Her range as an actress has always been wide; but she had a long struggle to convince everyone that she was more than just a funny voice. "I think it did become a burden," she admits, "but mercifully all these things fade."

It was not until she played the title role in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne in 1988 that it was recognised that she could excel at "straight" acting. Indeed, she cites this as her favourite role. "It was very different, and I remember it with great affection."

While at Oxford, Smith met her first love and second husband, the scriptwriter Beverley Cross. He saw her playing Viola in Twelfth Night when she was just 17, and fell instantly in love. A few years later they were engaged, but the relationship foundered in the '60s, when Cross persuaded her to join the National, where she became captivated by the actor Robert Stephens.

Stephens and Smith married in 1967 and had two sons, Toby and Chris, both now actors themselves. But the marriage was not happy. Stephens, a heavy drinker, was prone to bouts of severe depression, and by 1974, they had parted. The following year she married Cross, who brought up Toby and Chris as his own sons. He died in 1998, but Smith still feels his presence. "More so, now, once you get over that first hurdle of grief."

She refers to him often and is still trying to acclimatise to life without him. She misses the fact that he would read all her reviews. "It's rather difficult, now my husband's gone, that I don't have this barometer. He was always so reassuring. He would say, 'It's all right, Mags, I've read it - you're OK'. Or he would say he'd beat someone from a certain paper to a pulp."

Just after he died, she appeared in the film Tea With Mussolini and says that she was in such shock that she was scarcely aware of what she was doing. "When I watched it, I was thinking, 'I don't remember doing that'. But I remember how I felt."

Now, she says, she is virtually reclusive, spending as much time as she can in her home in West Sussex. "I long to get back there. I prefer to be sort of anonymous and out of it."

She feels awkward when she is recognised. "Yesterday, I'd just been to the hairdresser, and on the way home I thought, 'God, I've got to get some food'. So I went to Marks and Sparks, and three people were terribly nice to me, but I was so embarrassed, because I hadn't thought I was going to be recognised. It hadn't crossed my mind."

Surely she must be used to such attention? "It doesn't usually happen. Or if it does, they think I'm somebody else. I've been mistaken for practically everybody: Vanessa (Redgrave), Glenda (Jackson). I've even signed Glenda on autographs."

I'm not sure if it is self-deprecation or deep-founded insecurity that leads her constantly to protest her lowly status. For example, she says nothing in her career has been planned, because she is not in a position to call the shots. "If you're a big star, I think you can plan a film career, you know, those people way up there. But mine's just been a haphazard kind of existence. And that's fine, too."

I say that most people see her as "way up there", too. "Well, that's just because of age," she says dismissively. "If you live long enough in England, they think you're amazing. What's that thing they say about English actors? 'You're too old for the part, you're too young for the part or you're just WONderful because you've survived'."

Just a couple of weeks ago, I tell her, I read a piece that described her as stage royalty, but from the unpredictable branch of the family: Princess Margaret to Judi Dench's Queen Elizabeth. "Yes, well I think that's probably fair enough. Jude can be the Queen, and I'll be a princess. That's OK. I'll remind her of that."

She gives a throaty chuckle and lights another cigarette. She hopes to return to the stage soon with Judi Dench, in an as yet untitled David Hare play. The stage is where she feels most at home. Happiest, even. "I think it's because, whatever's happening in your life, you've got three hours where you're completely organised and absorbed and you know what you are doing."

Sometimes, despite her discomfort at being interviewed, her wit surfaces. When I ask her what she thinks of the younger generation of actresses, she says: "I think they're very different, in as far as they're very rarely clothed. It seems to have become de rigueur to be stark naked. I can't imagine anything more ghastly."

Although Dame Maggie admits to having a strong streak of melancholy, she says she finds life easier as she gets older. "Life does feel a bit cruel at times, but curiously less so now. It isn't a bed of roses, but I'm more accepting about it. Also, I think if you're pessimistic and things do happen to you, like losses, then you have nothing more to worry about."

Alan Bennett once said of Smith: "The boundary between laughter and tears is where Maggie is always poised."

I ask her if this is true of life as well as acting. "It's not that far away from life," she says. "One minute it's all hell and the next minute you're screeching with laughter."

as seen in The Telegraph 2002

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