St Albans woman talks about being inspiration for new Judi Dench film Philomena

A still from the film

A still from the film

First published in Interviews

Not many people will see themselves portrayed on screen by one of the country’s great acting talents, but an Irishwoman who lives in St Albans and goes by the name of Philomena Lee can lay claim to that feat.

“I couldn’t believe it,“ says Philomena, of hearing that Dame Judi Dench had been cast to play her. “I like you in the Bond films and As Time Goes By with Geoffrey Palmer,“ she says, turning to a smiling Dench who’s sitting to her left.

“I was always watching that, repeat after repeat. I’d sit there with my cup of tea,“ she adds, chuckling.

Although the two women have only met a handful of times they have a natural rapport, with Judi, looking chic in a cream suit and embroidered scarf, protectively touching Lee’s forearm as they talk about the movie Philomena.

It’s a tragic tale and, unfortunately, not an incredibly rare one for women like Philomena who, as an unmarried teenager in ‘50s Ireland, fell pregnant and was disowned by her family.

She was sent to a convent to have her baby, before being made to ’repay’ the nuns by working in the laundry.

Lee was given one precious hour a day with her son Anthony and then, when he was three years old, he was taken from the convent without her authority (she later discover he’d been sold to an American family), and Philomena spent the next 50 years trying in vain to establish his whereabouts.

Through a lucky set of circumstances, she met journalist Martin Sixsmith who arranged a visit to the US to find out what had happened to him. The movie follows these two very different people as they embark on an extraordinary road trip.

“It’s a wonderful film,“ says the dark-haired Philomena, who looks elegant in a purple skirt and blouse and whose banter and demeanour belie the fact she’s 80 years old. “Judi does it justice. What a lady.“ Although Lee’s story was turned into a book called The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee by Martin, Judi admits she wasn’t aware of the story before receiving the script.

“Steve [Coogan, who produced, co-wrote and stars in the movie as Sixsmith] came to my home and read it to me and I immediately wanted to do it,“ says 78-year-old Judi who, in a curly wig and anorak, is unrecognisable in the movie.

“It’s very different to the last thing I did,“ says the Oscar-winning star, referring to her role as M in the Bond movies.

“It’s just the juxtaposition of things you’re offered and then this comes along and what a treat.“ The first thing she wanted to do was meet the woman she’d be playing. “We met for lunch, didn’t we, just before we started filming,“ says the actress, looking at Philomena before admitting how “very difficult“ it is to portray someone real – and still living.

“One’s concern is to do credit and justice to the person you play. And that’s why we met because unless you have a kind of essence of the person, you don’t know the sieve that all the things have got to go through. And she made me laugh so much.“ Philomena smiles in response. “Did I?“ she asks. “Well, that’s the trouble with being Irish!“ Although Philomena’s story has now been transferred to the big screen, it wasn’t an easy decision for her to go public with a secret she’d kept to herself for half a century (on what would’ve been Anthony’s 50th birthday, she finally told her two children).

“I didn’t want it to be broadcast,“ says Philomena who was raised Catholic. Turning to Dench, she adds: “You do it very well in the film where you say, ’I don’t want my story to be told’ because I didn’t at the beginning. All I ever wanted to do was just see if I could find Anthony.

“All those years, ’What happened to him, what happened to him, where is he?’“ adds Philomena, the pain visibly etched on her face.

It was a chance meeting between her daughter’s friend and Martin which led to her story being told, although the former BBC foreign correspondent turned director of communications for Tony Blair’s government was initially unsure about taking on a human interest story.

“The friend said she knew someone with a good story and would he be interested and, of course, he said no, like he does in the film, but then he later got in touch,“ says Philomena.

She and Martin make an odd pairing. She’s a chatty and trusting soul who takes people at face value and, despite all the injustices she’s suffered, retains her religious faith.

In contrast, he’s a highly educated man who’s travelled the world but has become jaded, cynical and found himself without religious conviction.

It’s this unusual partnership that intrigued Coogan (best known for Alan Partridge) and inspired him to option the book rights.

“Oh, he’s a fantastic man,“ says Philomena. “We met him for a good few hours in Martin’s place. He asked what I thought and he got the story from me as best I could tell him, because I can talk! I think he’s very, very good, he was such a gentleman.“ “Not to me!“ adds Judi, laughing, though she’s only joking as the pair had a blast during filming.

“We just laughed so much and it’s wonderful to have that sort of interaction with an actor, because if you’re doing something that’s very responsible and serious, the more you kind of laugh away from it, the more concentration you can apply to it,“ she explains.

“When I played Lady Macbeth with Ian McKellen, the level of humour, it was beneath childish before we went on stage. It’s actually nervous energy and you must somehow get rid of that and then somehow, something calms down and you get to the essence.

“If you’re doing a comedy then you’re at each other’s throats and stressed all the time.“ Philomena marks the fourth time the actress has united with director Stephen Frears. “I love working with him, he’s just supreme to work with,“ she says. “He hardly says anything but he doesn’t need to, you get the gist of it!“ Philomena also met the esteemed director despite his protestations that she shouldn’t watch filming on those particular days (the scenes were in the laundry and included the moment the young Philomena sees her son being driven away).

“I didn’t know how I’d react to it all, but to see it being made was very emotional, very emotional indeed,“ says Philomena.

“I never told anyone for 50 years because we were always led to believe it was so shameful, and it was in Ireland in those days,“ she adds. “Maybe the film will help a lot more women that suffered like I did and kept it a secret.“ Judi too hopes the movie may act as some form of comfort for those who had similar experiences, but she also believes it’s testament to one woman’s courage.

“I think the story is about Philomena’s faith and strength and I think it’s completely remarkable,“ she says.

“As Stephen says, ’She wears the tragedy of the story very lightly’.“


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