With Downton Abbey back in its final season, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham is back too, in all her vinegar wit and finery. She's also back in the movie of Alan Bennett's stage play, The Lady in the Van, by contrast, an eccentric living in modest accommodations, downsized to her vehicle. Penned by Alan Bennett after a true experience, The Lady in the Van is about a mysterious elderly woman on the lam, perhaps after leaving the scene of an accident. He allowed her to park her van in his driveway in North London for three months that extended to 15 years, in an entrance within view of his writing desk, and a place where visitors became privy to her powerful odors. Of course, you cannot really smell her, nor would you want to, but comic and shabby, Maggie Smith gives off a whiff of the irresistible as the cantankerous Miss Shepherd. In November, 2015, Alan Bennett was in town, honored at the New York Public Library Lions Gala. He brought with him director Nicholas Hytner and actor Alex Jennings, who plays him. I met with them at The Four Seasons Hotel. Here is an excerpt from our interview:
How is it to work with old friends, adapting your own material for the screen?
Bennett: It came about from the play I wrote in 1999. At that time Maggie said she would do it on Broadway if I would do it with her myself, and I couldn't face it. But two years ago she said she wouldn't mind doing a film. So I wrote the screenplay but it took some time to get it right. The first screenplay was all about me. Nicholas said the audience is not really interested in me. They are interested in Maggie Smith. So I made it more about her character, Miss Shepherd.
What was it like directing Maggie Smith?
Hytner: That's been going on for a long time too. We first worked with her in the '90s -- '92. We did a production of The Importance of Being Ernest. She's extraordinary. She has more in her command than any actor I've ever worked with. She's capable of doing anything, and she's very trusting. She has a way that is unusual, of being able to see the whole picture. She's aware always when something is not quite right. That's extraordinarily useful because she's got a phenomenally analytical approach to bringing a scene to life. She would deny it, and say it is all instinctive. She's a joy.
What was it like acting with Maggie Smith?
Jennings: Her performance is so raw. Stripped. There's no vanity. She lets you see into that person's soul and her own. She's very open. And to be playing big scenes with her is a privilege. It makes you want to be better.
Are you always so kind to people living in the street?
Bennett: That is always said. It wasn't kindness of heart. I used to look out and see people banging on the van to the extent that I had to keep one eye on her and the other on my work. Eventually, I couldn't work. So I could work I said, bring the van into the garden for a bit. I thought it would be for three months and it ended up 15 years. I now live about 10 minutes away. I had forgotten how constricted I was so close to the house within a few feet of the window where I worked. I could see everything very clearly, squeeze past the van to get into the condo. You never wanted to argue with her. She would claim that she'd seen the Virgin Mary that morning. You never said that's ridiculous.
Is it true that she gave off a terrible odor?
Bennett: It was pungent. Vincent Price once came to see me. To get to the house, you had to squeeze through this narrow space, just as you see in the movie. He was too polite to mention her terrible stench.
What are you each working on now?
Hytner: I am building a new theater in London that will open in 2017.
Jennings: I'm filming a series for Netflix called The Crown. I'm playing the Duke of Windsor.
Bennett: A new screenplay. [Glancing at Alex Jennings, he quips] The fascination with the royal family on both sides is creating a lot of work, particularly for Helen Mirren.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.