“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (based on the 2004 novel “These Foolish Things”) tackles a subject that isn’t often seen in a feature film: life after retirement, with senior citizens as the central characters. In the movie, seven retirees travel to India together and stay at a place called the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which is managed by an ambitious young owner named Sonny Kapoor (played by Dev Patel), who wants to improve the run-down and financially strapped hotel.
Two of the retirees are widow Evelyn Greenslade (played by Oscar winner Judi Dench) and lonely bachelor/retired judge Graham Dashwood (played by Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson). Evelyn goes on the trip not expecting to find live, while Graham goes on the trip to find a long-lost love he left behind in India when he was a young man. Here is what Dench and Wilkinson had to say about “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” at a New York City press conference for the movie.
Can you talk about your approach on the Evelyn Greenslade character finding romance, but so subtly as she did with Douglas Ainslie (played by Bill Nighy)?
Dench: Yes. I mean the whole thing about Evelyn is that she wasn’t prepared from the very beginning. She’s not prepared to settle for a life of living with her son and daughter-in-law and the children. And although they insisted, “Stay and live with us,” she’s not prepared to do that.
Evelyn is an independent soul, who feels that she still has a little bit of life in her — not much, but enough. And then therefore she takes a chance of saying, “No, frankly I’m not going to come to work with you. That’s not for me. To live with you, that’s not for me. I’m prepared to go and take a chance on this.” And I think like that she takes a chance on other things as well.
I think what happens to her and [Douglas Ainslie] is unexpected. And I think that it’s really a question we might put in romantic terms, it’s also a question of need. She arrives there, and all of those people arrive there for different reasons. And they all find in a way something that they need. And I think she needs the companionship. She suddenly realizes that they have a companionship together. And there is no reason why if you are 26 or you’re 76 that should change.
And working on that with Bill Nighy, how did you fashion that relationship?
Dench: That’s the writing. That’s what you read on the page, that’s what you’ve got to act. What was much more nerve-wracking was on the back of a motorbike, sitting sidesaddle without a helmet on, and being driven by Bill who’s sitting to the side with three fingers and waving with the other hand — much more! That was taking my life in my hands. He was fine.
How did your background in theater enhance your experience working on “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”?
Wilkinson: My background in theater isn’t nearly as extensive as Judi’s. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any theater work, to be quite honest with you. It’s a difficult question. I can’t immediately think of an answer to it. What it reminded me of, being on this film, was being on a tour on the provinces in England in 1977.
All the actors, we sort of all knew each other and stayed together. In terms of how [my theater experience] affects the acting, I can’t answer that because it’s what I do for a living. I don’t really know the answer to that.
Dench: Also, if you’re in a theater company, part of the job is your interaction with everybody else. You learn how another person acts. You learn the time. You learn about the time they take and the method they have of acting. And that’s very much, as much as telling the story and interpreting the character how you interact and how you know the person interacts with you.
And so what was good about this film is that we all knew each other. We all worked together. And because we were in India for nine-and-a-half weeks, it was rare, in that it was like a theater company all being together. We were all together in the evenings, so there was that interaction. And not that you copy what you do, because it has nothing to do with the characters you’re playing, but nevertheless, you understand about somebody.
My husband used to say that I was in the theater because I was so nosy. I like to know somebody’s grandmother’s birthday the day after tomorrow. So there is a nice feeling that you have if you go out in the evening and have supper together. You may have people … You don’t show that on screen because it’s part of your character, but nevertheless, it’s something you carry inside you.
India means so many things for so many different actors. It touches them in many different ways of their lives, both professionally and personally. What did being in India for nine-and-a-half weeks mean to both of you?
Wilkinson: For me, it was one of the most brain-curdling experiences I’ve ever encountered. India is a land like no other. I couldn’t even begin to guess what I was going to see I would see when I got there. Those of you that have been there know what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t, you don’t know the meaning of the word “culture shock until you get there.”
I never quite fully recovered. Every day you would see something and you could never get used to the fact that you would see a woman washing her baby in a puddle in the road. And then 50 yards down that very same road see the evidence of wealth so huge. That contradiction that exists in Indian society is one that could never be reconciled inside me.
What it does, of course, is give you … I hope it gives you hope for the future. That the Indians can sort out that massive contradiction themselves. They’re becoming a fantastically wealthy country, developing an awful lot of money. And I think if they start thinking about lifting that massive people out of tremendous poverty.
One more thing: This country is a tiny country. This is a piffling 300 million people. We in Britain are a piffling 60 million people. That’s 1.3 billion people. Different languages, huge country. It’s an enormous proposition, India. And I recommend it to every one of you.
Dench: My character says it’s an assault on the senses. And I never had a desire to go to India. There’s some of my family who lived there for a while, quite a long time. And I never was one of those places that I thought, “One day I’ll go here.” But within 24 hours, I was completely, completely fascinated and bewitched by the country.
I knew what Tom says. We were also so very sheltered. We were in hotels, and yet you came to the gate and you saw people who had absolutely nothing. The beauty of the people, I thought was astounding. The color, the noise, the smell — everything about it is completely staggering. And I can’t wait to go back there. And we made some remarkable friends, who are very keen on the mobile. So if my mobile were to go off now, it would probably be one of them.
But we went one night to the City Palace, the Maharaja of Udaipur’s residence. We had this incredible evening. The next day my assistant Maneesh took me to a school up in the hills, which he and a few other people were responsible for and were running. And suddenly, you saw these two small rooms packed full of young children. And you actually don’t know what to do. You do not know … how you can help.
We took them blankets because it was going to get quite chilly. We took them fruits and sweets and things like that. And you can give it out of cars. And you could give a bit of money, but it’s not even a drop in the ocean for them. So, as Tom said, with this wealth that is undoubtedly what is happening to India I hope it gets distributed in some way. I supposed that’s rather a naïve thing to say.
Judi, did you keep any of your Indian wardrobe from “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”?
Dench: God, I wish I had! I had one thing, actually. One shirt: a very ,very good shirt. I got that sent to me, which was extremely nice.
Could tell us a little bit about working with Dev Patel?
Dench: Dev Patel, well he’s probably got more energy than any other actor I have ever met. And that’s in 56 years of being in the theater. He is a powerhouse. And also each take [he does] he’s never quite the same. So it’s very, very exciting.
He’s utterly delightful. And I’ll watch his career fantastically closely. He did in a scene of welcoming us. He’s a powerhouse. I can’t quite explain it. He’s like a battery, a very, very kind of strong battery. He always wants to try new things. And he’s also a very funny, sweet, gentle and modest man.
How personal was “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” for you as it talked about loss in life, and going on. And also for both of you, as people of a certain age, what has experience given you to look at life?
Dench: Everything you, the only way you could function, as an actor, is that everything that happens to you is in a kind of storage place. And you don’t, you are not aware of it, but if you should see some terrible thing but you are thinking at the same time, you are thinking, “Gosh I must remember that and I must…” But nevertheless, if it’s something, I think, built in that knows that if you act something that you don’t have any experience of you have to draw on it from somewhere. That’s why playing Lady Macbeth is a tricky experience, you know.
But nevertheless … the fact that she was a widow, and she was missing her husband, and had a child that she didn’t want to impose on, I mean all of that I can sympathize with and I can understand. And it’s not that you reproduce what you are feeling, because I’m not Evelyn, but I understood the emotion that she had gone through and the fact that she suddenly found herself having to do things like pay bills, and cope with the income tax, and then to learn, of course, that she had no money.
I always imagined that he was keen on the horses, Evelyn’s husband. I don’t know why. It’s not in the [screenplay], but I just imagined it. He was always off having off having a flutter down at the bookies. So all those things, you know, I can understand it.
When you’ve been without for quite a long time, it’s very, very nice to have the company of somebody suddenly. It doesn’t have to be a great passionate sexual affair, but it’s very nice to have the company of somebody who actually says, you know, “Oh, I’ll find your keys for you, “ or “Let’s go to the theater tonight,” or “I’m sure you’ve had a very nice time beforehand when all the years you work with somebody.” So all of those things, you just feed everything that you have experienced somehow into it, annd then translate it into the terms of the character that you play.
Was anything you discovered in this particular setting in India about some of your co-workers? And for the character of Graham, since he was created specifically for this movie, what do you think was his most important personality trait that was the catalyst of a lot of the events that have happened in this particular story?
Wilkinson: I haven’t read the [“These Foolish Things”] book. The book is No. 3 on the bestseller list, so people are really going look through it and say, “I want to know more about Graham? Where is he?” I don’t know the answer to that question …
I like the idea that somebody said earlier: It’s somebody looking for redemption. The thing is you get to a certain point in your life and you can either dwindle into old age full of regret and bitterness, or you could do something about it and confront something in yourself. It’s a certain sort of bravery, except he’s impelled to do it … There’s something inside of him that has to do it, and I think that is his most important characteristic.
With such a great ensemble cast, many of whom have worked together before, I was wondering out of all of the people on the cast who are the most like their character in the movie?
Dench: Let’s say Ronnie Pickup to this [question].
Wilkinson: Oh yeah!
Dench: He’ll never speak to us again. Don’t tell him. Don’t say anything.
Wilkinson: He’ll never find out.
Dench: I don’t know who is most like you?
Wilkinson: It’s not me.
Do you see yourself retiring in India in real life?
Dench: Oh, I could retire in India. I would be over there tomorrow and put my feet up a chimney. No I couldn’t retire, actually, no, but I would go back to India.
Wilkinson: No, I couldn’t retire either. But if I were, India wouldn’t be my first port of call, much as I love it.
What would it be?
Wilkinson: Maybe the south of France, somewhere in France.
You have an older fan base, but do you get recognized by children?
Dench: Well, if you play M in James Bond [movies], you get approached by mostly people of my grandson’s age: 15 and up, sort of. His friends are inclined to come to our house and imagine that it’s a bit like MI6. I’ve been doing Bond [movies] for 17 years, and people used to say, “Is she as bossy like that at home?” And [my husband] would say, “I she was as bossy as that, she’d be off down the road with a bag packed.” [She laughs.] But [the role of M] is very good street cred for young chaps.
That’s very nice indeed, because that’s the way you get an audience for tomorrow. If I can get them to see something else — not necessarily “Marigold, but something else — then that’s our audience of the future. So as many things you can appeal to all ages, I think that’s important if you want to keep the theater alive. And I do mean, essentially, theater.
How do you view this period of your life? Is there something missing in your life, something that you want to do or explore?
Wilkinson: I’ll go first, and the answer is no. I think it’s difficult. Maybe in fiction, maybe in this movie.
People like my [Graham Dashwood] character are very rare: people who know exactly what they mean to do when they go the time to do it. The rest of the characters in this film, I think are responding to some mysterious inner compulsion to do something they’re not quite sure of, but something that they want to do.
I’m probably quite ignorant of myself in that sense. I feel like there isn’t anything missing from my life. There unquestionably is, but I don’t have the wit to figure out what it is. So I’ll just carry on doing what I do until I figure it out.
Dench: Even as a child, I’ve only wanted to learn something new every day. Just one thing. I mean I’ve learned the other day this really staggering fact. We have a thing called the Hadron Collider. Is it in Britain? It’s in Switzerland. You know, the Hadron Collider is trying to find the God particle called the Higgs Boson.
And I found out the other day that it takes photographs, this machine, trying to look for this one particle to make everything clearer, they think. And this machine takes per second 40 million photographs. And in fact I thought, I wrote it down because I heard it in the middle of the night because I had my radio on, because I can’t sleep. And I wrote it down, …
I just thought the next morning, I go, “Forty million photographs a second? That can’t be right.” So I listened to the repeat of it, and I’m absolutely right. So I’m very glad. It has not made any difference to any of you, but I like knowing it. And I love to learn something new.
And with part, if you play one kind of a part, what happens is that you get scripts rather similar to that part that are sent in. “This will be a very good part for you because they’ve seen you play something rather similar.” Now what you long for, of course, is a script that comes in which isn’t remotely like the last thing that you’ve done — which is, you know, the most wild way out thing that you could possibly think of. And that’s what I would like to do next. Something that isn’t in my ken to know what it is, to understand it.
In light of what you are saying, as the characters in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” are personally transformed, are there ways in which this experience, or hopefully further experiences, will you see personally transform you, such as maybe to learn something like meditation or dress in different outfits or try different food?
Wilkinson: I don’t know. It’s a really difficult question. Certainly in my case there is nothing about this experience that made me go “I must learn to meditate, I must do this, I must do that.” What it has done is made me incredibly sympathetic to the cause of India, in so far as anybody gives a toss.
I read about it a lot and I look out for articles about India in the newspaper and if I see an article in a magazine I’ll read it because I’m fascinated by the country. It has inculcated a fascination for India and the future of India, but that is so low-level. There was no sort of “Road to Damascus” moment where I thought “Ah, I must do this!” Just an interest.
Dench: India is unlike any country I have ever been to. I never expected to be so really, really bewitched by a country and the people. I didn’t expect that at all, but I was. And of course so is Evelyn, so that was a very good thing to slot in.
That line “It’s a complete assault on my senses.” You don’t know the one sense is, indeed it is. And I’m glad to have made the friends there and to be in touch with them all of the time. Very.
“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” director John Madden mentioned that you had a rehearsal in India. How long was it, and how did you all respond to it?
Dench: We were there, we all went out, not all of us but most of us, went out a week before we started, also to get acclimatized. And we went out to the hotel itself one day and, and just were told where our rooms were. And John likes to know that, so you’ve got this whole background and everything. You know where you are you. You understand the place you are in. You could very often go to a film set, and you walk in on it one day, and there’s the set, and you have to do the scene. And that, in fact, most cases are like that.
But I think with a lot of theater directors, they like to just take up a little bit of time so that you know you are more relaxed when you arrive there on the first day. And you know your surroundings. And you know roughly what’s going to happen so you’ve got time to feed that into the computer before you get there for the first day shooting.
Was that the total experience of your rehearsal?
Wilkinson: Yeah, it was, I think. You can rehearse a thing to death. The thing about film is that the scenes you do tend not to be very long, and you can do them again.
Dench: And again and again and again.
Wilkinson: The thing to do is to keep them as fresh as possible and fresh is often the same thing as new. So that’s why you don’t want to rehearse a lot, particularly if it isn’t very long.
Dame Judi, how many times were you on the back of that motorcycle with Bill Nighy? Was once enough?
Dench: Oh no, no once wasn’t enough. Oh no! Oh I could have done a lot more too. I suppose we must have shot that 11 times maybe. You shoot it from different angles, and you never know when an elephant might come in.
There was an archway I had to walk through at one point. And it wasn’t “film crowd,” it was “real crowd” and that was wonderful. The very next day, we went to the same archway to do another shot, where we were all in a tuk-tuk, and three elephants came by. Somebody said, “It’s like the 73 bus, you stand there and wait for an hour-and-a-half and then three come.”
A part of what’s fun about this movie is that it plays against expectations that some people might have about what this phase of life is going to be for people. Did you two have assumptions about what this phase of your life would be? Is it what you thought it would be or different?
Wilkinson: What you’re not prepared for when you get older is that your brain doesn’t change at all. You still got the brain of a 25-year-old. You don’t have that sense. When I was a kid, my perception of old people, and maybe old people were different in those days, was that they started thinking like old people.
They had old people sort of — or at least it appeared to me — they’d say, “Oh it was better in my day when there were no motor cars” and stuff like that. I don’t think like that, partly because I’m in show business and show business does encourage a sort of youthfulness in outlook and such. It’s odd that you look in the mirror and you think, “My god, you’re not 27 any longer”, that’s for sure true. But up here [he points to his brain], I don’t think there are any sort of strange prejudices and old guy things.
Dench: I shout a lot at the radio. I know that’s old. I know it’s old. And my family says, “Oh for goodness sake, ma, shut up!” When people say things like, oh I don’t know they are assuming that I can’t think. I’m trying to think of a word that is mispronounced in England, and it is said a lot, it’s said a lot like. Give me a second.
Wilkinson: Disinterest when they mean un-interested?
Dench: Yes, that’s not good is it? And when they say “it’s well good,” you maybe don’t say that. Well my grandson says that: “It’s well good.” And I could just fly across the room. And, but, I mean I know that’s a sign of being old. I know it is. So I tried to stop doing it, but I’m really bad at that.
Are there assumptions that you might have made that are true or not true?
Dench: Assumptions about getting old?
About what it would be like, or what people at this age would be interested in doing?
Dench: No. No, I just don’t want to retire. And I thought I would have six children. You know, life isn’t like that. It doesn’t work out like that … All you have to do is to learn to somehow accept it.
We had a wonderful friend who was a judge in Germany. The most wonderful friend, he’s called Herman, he came over to England, I suppose at the beginning of the war. He said to us, and it became a maxim in our family. He said, “Always look for the pluses. Look for the pluses.” And somehow it’s a very, very good piece of advice, because even if it’s a very small plus, you get something out of something instead of an erosion of always thinking your cup is half-empty.
You both have worked with John Madden multiple times. What keeps you coming back for more? And what makes him such a great collaborator?
Wilkinson: I don’t really know. Crudely, he offers you good roles. That’s basically why you do it. The fact that he’s a wonderful director, and a good friend, and a very nice man isn’t here nor there. It’s just that he offers me some roles that I would like to do. And he invariably creates a helpful environment around the camera and on the set that it allows you to work well in a relaxed way. That’s all I can say about him.
Dench: It’s very fashionable to say, “Oh, he’s a wonderful director. Oh, we all love working with him.” He is a wonderful director, and he is thrilling to work with. He’s a man who does his homework, absolutely. He knows exactly the way that he is going to shoot something, so in that area you feel very safe. You could just put yourself entirely in his hands. And that’s a very good feeling indeed.
And he won’t settle for something if he hasn’t got it. He will go on. He’s completely good-natured. And he’s hugely good fun, and has a great sense of humor. So he’s ready to laugh with you, at you, whatever. So that’s very good.
I did “Mrs. Brown” with him. And after I done “Mrs. Brown,” I sent him a letter, and I said, “John, if you have the part of somebody sweeping up the street … behind a scene, I’ll come and do it. And I will come willingly and do it.”
And then a few years later he wrote, and he said, “I have got a part that means that you virtually just walk across the back.” And that was “Shakespeare in Love.” And it wasn’t much fun walking in the back in a big dress. So the opportunity of working with John, when it comes up, well like Tom, I would jump at it because it’s terrific to be asked by him, and if you are asked by him he thinks it’s within your compass to play that part. So there’s no end to what you want to give to him.
Wilkinson: Much as I love him, if he offered me the job of walking ‘round in the back, I wouldn’t do it.
Dench: You wouldn’t do it? You could have missed playing Elizabeth I.
Wilkinson: [He laughs] I know.
For more info: “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” website
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