Dame Maggie Smith on Her Fight with Breast Cancer, Filming Last Harry Potter and More

Oct 05, 2009

Posted by: SueTLC


On this day when we in the fandom are celebrating Professor McGonagall’s birthday, it is only fitting that we hear from the woman who brings this character so memorably to life on the screen: Dame Maggie Smith. The Times has released a brand new interview with this acclaimed actress, where she discusses her career, her role as the Head of Gryffindor in the Harry Potter films series (she noted she is about to film again shortly for Deathly Hallows later this year), and most importantly her battle against breast cancer. Readers will recall of course that we learned she was fighting this terrible disease while Half-Blood Prince was in production, and in this interview she discussed going through treatment as she was filming, and the aftermath of the chemotherapy she endured where she lost her hair. Noting now she is OK and has received the “all-clear” from her doctors, Dame Maggie Smith speaks at length and very movingly of her battle as follows:

The cancer must have made it harder. “It was hideous . . . not so good’ she
says tightly and looks for some wood to touch. The chemotherapy, she says,
“was very peculiar, something that makes you feel much worse than the cancer
itself, a very nasty thing. I used to go to treatment on my own, and nearly
everybody else was with somebody. I wouldn’t have liked that. Why would you
want to make anybody sit in those places?”

Smith had found a lump on her breast. “I had been feeling a little rum and
didn’t know why. I was never nervous, well I was, but I didn’t think it was
anything serious because years ago I felt one before and had been hurled
into hospital. It was benign and assumed this one would be too. It was a bit
unnerving when it wasn’t. But treatment is so swift you don’t have time to
think about anything.”

Telling her family (two adult sons and their loved ones) was “awful. It [the
illness] kind of takes the wind out of your sails, and I don’t know what the
future holds, if anything. I really don’t know.”

She says that she has received the all-clear from doctors, and goes back for a
check-up later this month, adding that she’s disposed of the hats and caps
she bought to cover her baldness: “You think they’re going to work and they
don’t.” It was “very weird” to lose her hair. “So weird. Oh, it’s awful. You
really do feel horribly sick. I was staggering around Waitrose and felt
ghastly. I was holding on to railings, thinking, ˜I can’t do this’.”

She filmed Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince mid-treatment. “I was
hairless. I had no problem getting the wig on. I was like a boiled egg.”

Smith says that she accepted the possibility of dying. “I was relieved to be
the age I was, because by now you feel like it’s all over anyway. That’s why
I hated seeing young people receiving treatment [at the Royal Marsden
Hospital, London]. I couldn’t bear that, it didn’t seem fair. To be honest,
you feel so ghastly you wouldn’t mind dying a lot of the time.”

She struggles for words. “I felt . . . I was just . . . It leaves you so
flattened. I’m not sure I could go back to theatre work, although film work
is more tiring. I’m frightened to work in theatre now. I feel very
uncertain. I haven’t done it for a while [her last stage role was in The
Lady from Dubuque
in 2007]. I’m not quite sure if it’s like getting back
on a horse or a bike. Not that I’d do either, I’d fall off. It’s one of
those things you ought to keep on doing and I haven’t for a bit. I would
love to be able to because I do love it, but I feel a great lack of
confidence. Being unwell and having withdrawn . . . I haven’t been in London
for so long, it’s quite scary up here.” Smith is clinking the ice absently
in her mineral water. It will seem unimaginable to many that she is talking
about giving up theatre, I say. “Well, there’s a limit to what you can do.
I’m not into that argument there aren’t any parts for older women, though.
Anyway, why should there be? If there’s work I’ll do it and if there isn’t .
. . I’ve still got to stagger through the last Potter.”

Editor’s Note: I think it’s safe to say all of us here at TLC heartily support and loudly applaud Dame Maggie Smith’s courage, humor and honesty in the article, a true Gryffindor if there ever was!

The Leaky Cauldron is not associated with J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any of the individuals or companies associated with producing and publishing Harry Potter books and films.