Maggie Smith plays Mary Gilbert
For Maggie Smith, the offer of playing the title role in Stephen Poliakoff's mesmerising new drama, Capturing Mary, was simply irresistible. The actress, who is rightly revered as one of the finest performers of this, or any other generation, was delighted to be invited to play such a haunting character.
The older Mary – she is played in younger life by Ruth Wilson – is a woman who is tormented by her memories of Greville (David Walliams), the man she believes wantonly trashed her career.
As she wanders the corridors of the grand old house where she first encountered Greville during the late Fifties, Mary regales the mansion's young concierge, the sympathetic Joe (Danny Lee Wynter), with disturbing recollections of the darkest days of her life.
Maggie, who won two Oscars for her memorable performances in The
Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie and California Suite, was drawn by the sheer complexity of Mary.
"What appealed initially was the fact that she is a long way from the things I'm usually required to do, endless school teachers and governesses which all merge into one!
"But I was also attracted by this woman because I felt she was someone we could all relate to. She really struck a chord with me. All of us know that if we'd taken a different path, our lives could have turned out quite differently. Her sense of disappointment also rang a bell with me. We all know people who start out with amazing innocence and incredibly high hopes that inevitably get whittled away over time."
Mary is ruined after Greville relays to her the most shocking things about public figures. After she has heard them, she can't get them out of her head; she is in his thrall and her life falls apart.
The actress, who has earned a whole new generation of fans as Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter films, continues that: "I can absolutely understand why Mary was destroyed by what Greville recounted to her. Once you've been told things as horrible as that, they never leave your brain. I found myself completely chilled by Greville. That sort of wickedness can wreck a young mind."
The actress, who has also starred in Gosford Park, Ladies In Lavender, Becoming Jane, A Private Function, Talking Heads, David Copperfield and Tea With Mussolini, comments that Mary carries an immense burden of grief.
"At first I was worried that she is parking all her sorrow on Joe, but of course he is well able to cope with it. He's actually the most stable character in the film. He's the still voice of calm at the centre of it all. Danny is just out of his cradle, but he does a very, very good job as Joe."
Maggie is equally impressed by Ruth Wilson, who plays Mary's younger incarnation.
"I knew her already because she'd starred in Jane Eyre with my son, Toby [Stephens]. We had some very productive conversations about the character of Mary. Ruth's incredibly talented and has a real cool head on her. She is terrific as the young Mary. I don't think Ruth and I look particularly alike, I wouldn't wish that on the poor girl! But maybe we share a sense of vulnerability."
The actress goes on to pay tribute to Stephen's script. "He's an astonishingly perceptive writer," Maggie avers. "He writes the most wonderfully believable characters. None of them are cardboard cut-outs. You feel like you know and understand them. They're not just ciphers, they're real, flesh and blood people. And that's what makes them so moving."
She also praises Stephen's qualities as a director: "He's an extremely focused person," Maggie observes. "It's like going into a tunnel with him, you get completely involved in this universe he's creating. Stephen's also excellent at casting.
"David Walliams hadn't done much straight acting before, he had been too busy doing Little Britain and swimming the Channel. But Stephen saw something in him, and he was absolutely right. David gives an extraordinary performance as Greville."
Maggie is now making the next Harry Potter movie. She is pleased that the films have been a massive global hit.
"Children just adore them," she beams. "I'm also thrilled that Daniel [Radcliffe] has been so popular as Harry. I'd worked with him before on David Copperfield, and I said to the Harry Potter producers, 'you've got to see this boy, he's terrific!' Daniel was tiny then. Now all the child actors are adults with partners!"
The actress concludes with the ardent hope that, "Capturing Mary will make a huge impact on audiences and that they will get caught up in this world. I hope this film really lives with the viewers, as it lives with me."