Dame Maggie Smith’s place as a British drama institution is unquestionable, and her return as Violet Crawley in the upcoming Downton Abbey: A New Era movie at 87, offers her box office acclaim she has perhaps has never before experienced.
And yet away from the red carpets, the flashbulbs and the seemingly endless press junkets, this is someone ill at ease with the demands of fame.
“I really don’t like to watch myself – I hate it. You are helpless to do anything to stop it once it’s out there, and that has always terrified me,” she begins.
“In the theatre things are a little different because you can say to yourself ‘I’ll have another go at that tomorrow night… I’ll change that, alter that…’, but with cinema it is there forever.
“Sometimes you are forced to see yourself at a premiere, and you think, ‘Why on earth did I do it like that?’. You would suppose that after all this time I might have got used to it, but I haven’t!”
Twice-married Smith’s working life has a longevity that’s difficult to fathom. First stepping into the spotlight in 1952 under the auspices of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, she appeared as Viola in Twelfth Night at the Oxford Playhouse.
Switching between theatre and film – from a first Oscar nomination in 1965 opposite Laurence Olivier in Othello, to an Academy Award for Best Actress for the title role in 1969 film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – her work has only ever disappointed one person… herself!
“People have said I am too hard on myself, but it just goes with the territory.
“The truth is I’m critical of everything because I care and worry too much. I’d love to be more relaxed, but after all this time I don’t think I’m going to change now.”
From intense drama to rich comedy, Smith has circumnavigated a cross-section of work that diversifies from Hook and Sister Act in the 1990s through to the Harry Potter movies over the past two decades.
And while many saw her place in Downton Abbey as being perhaps a gentle sojourn into retirement every bit as decorated as the lady herself, the popularity of Highclere Castle and all those who reside in and around it has seen her star glide higher than ever before.
“It’s ridiculous – I was able to live a somewhat normal life until I started doing Downton Abbey,” she laughs. “I know that sounds funny, but I am serious. Before that I could go to all the places I wanted and see all of the things that I like, but now I can’t, which I find incredibly awful… flattering, but awful.”
Smith admits she has never watched a single episode of Downton Abbey – “and I don’t plan on starting now” – but is thrilled something as traditional as a period drama has engaged a watching audience that might otherwise be distracted by CGI, green screens and special effects so readily used by today’s studios.
“It’s very easy to get carried away by the technology that’s available these days, but when people can invest in the honesty and simplicity of great scriptwriting, it restores your faith in what it is we do.”