Maggie Smith on Loneliness, ‘Downton Abbey’ & ‘Lady in the Van’

Dec 27, 2016

Posted by: Emma Pocock

HP Cast, News, Smith, Smith Interviews

The Telegraph interviewed the wonderful and wildly talented Dame Maggie Smith – our beloved Professor McGonnagall – on her acting career, her personal life, and her role in The Lady In the Van.

Based on a true story, the film follows Miss Mary Shepherd: a stubborn woman in her 60s who came to live outside Alan Bennett’s house in an old van for fifteen years, and died in the van in 1989. Bennett wrote a review, a short book and – in 1999 – a play based on the woman he’d first observed from his writing desk at 23 Gloucester Cresent, north London.

Writer (Bennett), and director, Nicholas Hytner, had always had their eyes on Maggie Smith to play Mary Shepherd:

‘We genuinely can’t remember why we didn’t make the film before,’ says Hytner. ‘But I’m glad we didn’t because we’re all 15 years older, and Maggie is even better.’ 

Smith herself comments on the role in a new interview with The Telegraph, saying it was a relief to “get away from the ‘hats and wigs’ of Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess of Grantham”. Smith’s side of the costume department on the film consisted of skirts made from orange dusters, a cap with a Rambo logo, and a straw table mat:

‘Miss Shepherd’s daily emergence from the van was highly dramatic,’ Bennett writes. ‘Suddenly and without warning the rear door would be flung open to reveal the tattered draperies that masked the terrible interior. There was a pause, then through the veils would be hurled several bulging plastic sacks. Another pause, before slowly and with great caution one sturdy slippered leg came feeling for the floor before the other followed and one had the first sight of the day’s wardrobe…’

Smith explained to The Telegraph that her role often left her feeling uncomfortable, and – having never watched the film herself – she comes across as being puzzled by Mary Shepherd and Alan Bennett’s relationship. The Telegraph reports on Smith’s thoughts on the woman:

‘I thought, Jesus, it’s a wonder you’re alive…’  You cannot be vain when playing Miss Shepherd. The film was shot in and around 23 Gloucester Crescent (Bennett still owns the house, though he doesn’t live there), which was an experience that Smith found unsettling. ‘It was haunting, and I also felt a bit guilty.’

‘Nobody will ever understand why she ended up like that – and how she could live like that I just don’t know. It was alarming even to be doing it as briefly as I did. And how did Alan put up with it? He said to me, “Well she didn’t really impinge…” but [a bit of Lady Violet here] how much more impinging can you get?’

Bennett also comments on Maggie Smith’s talented portrayal of Shepherd – for which she was nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe, and won Best Actress in the Evening Standard British Film Awards:

 ‘The boundary between laughter and tears is where Maggie is always poised.’

Producer Robert Fox also commented on Smith’s acting career:

 ‘Maggie is a genius,’ says the producer Robert Fox, who has worked with her for years. ‘It’s a very overused word, but there is nobody as accomplished as she is.’

‘I think her talent is innate,’ says Fox, ‘but it’s honed over years and years in the theatre – 60 years. You can’t just do it, you have to learn how to do it.’

Director Nicholas Hytner says ‘there’s nothing [Smith] can’t do’:

‘It’s difficult to talk about the mystery of genuinely great acting,’ says Hytner, ‘because in my experience the truly great actors are always fiercely intelligent and analytical about what they do – but how they do it is something that’s hard to analyse. Sometimes something will come to Maggie which you can tell takes her by surprise. But there is nothing she can’t do, and there are 20 options for every single moment. Her imaginative energy is extraordinary – as well as her physical energy, I have to say. She’s constantly driving herself to do better.’

With all this success, there are bound to be directors out there who feel Maggie Smith surpasses their role as a director, and she says that there are indeed directors out there who are too intimidated by her status to give her direction:

‘There is nothing I like more than being directed. There’s something very scary about being cast in something because they’ve seen you do that sort of part before. You’re left to your own devices, but there are a million ways of doing it and you have all these decisions to make.’ 

Her presence on set is somewhat legendary, with many feeling she can be ‘difficult’ or ‘terrifying’ to work with:

‘Obviously at some times I have been like that – the awful thing is, I’m sort of very aware when I’m being difficult but I’m usually… so scared…’ She leans forward and puts her head in her hands. ‘And that’s shaming, at the age one is. Because every time I start anything, I think, “This time I’m going to be like Jude [Dench], and it will all be lovely, it will be merry and bright, the Quaker will come out in me.” But it never works. Jude has a wonderful calm, it’s very enviable. I think it would be hairy if she let fly, but I’ve never seen that. 

‘But it’s gone too far now, to take back. If I suddenly came on like Pollyanna, it wouldn’t work – it would frighten people more if I were nice. They’d be paralysed with fear. And wonder what I was up to. But perhaps I should try it…’ She adopts a bright smile. ‘Hello! What fun! We’re going to be here all day! And then filming all night too! Goody! And it’s so lovely and cold!’

Many were saddened by the end of Downton Abbey, and Cousin Violet’s character was a favourite of many. However, Smith says she’s glad in a way that the show is over:

‘It was right to stop. It was one of those odd things – nobody knew it was going to go careering on as long as it did, and it was jolly exhausting. But I did much less in the last few months, so I’ve sort of faded rather nicely. I just had dumb arguments with Penelope [Wilton], which was quite fun. We had a lovely time. She’s such a great actress – we used to shriek with laughter.’

She also comments on the passing of her husband – playwright Beverley Cross – in 1998, and the loneliness that comes with grief:


‘I’m very good at being alone, probably too good. [The actress] Judy Campbell said to me, after her husband died, “The thing I find awful is that you’re not number one with anybody any more.” And of course you’re not – you’re not number one with your children because they’re married and have their own families. It’s just very lonely. I used to trust my husband’s judgment so much and rely on him for support and encouragement, but it’s just, he ain’t there any more.’

She also discusses being a grandmother (‘I’m a bit distant … But [grandchildren] are a joy’), and comments on Michael Coveney’s biography of her – the idea of somebody dedicating years of their life to researching her appalled her enough to never read it:

‘There was a copy in the house and I hid it, and I’ve hidden it so well I don’t know where it is.’

Read the full Telegraph interview here.


– This interview was originally published November 2015, and has been republished due to The Lady in the Van airing on TV –


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