How Judi Dench and Maggie Smith got their moment in 'Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel'

Posted by · 3:05 pm · March 12th, 2015

“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” was a surprise hit three years ago and earned a legion of fans around the world. The ensemble drama about a group of British senior citizens taking up residence in an Indian hotel was missing one key moment, however.  Oscar winners Judi Dench and Maggie Smith barely had a scene together.  Ol Parker, who wrote both “Exotic” and the sequel “Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” takes complete responsibility.

“I [expletive] up the first time,” Parker says speaking to HitFix earlier this month.  “I mean they don”t talk.  They literally don”t talk for the first movie.”

That's not entirely true. Evelyn (Dench) and Muriel (Smith) do have a brief exchange towards the end of the film, but it sadly alludes to their lack of screen time.  Muriel notes, “We haven't talked much, you and I” and Evelyn replies, “My looks evidently.”

Parker recalls, “You”ve got these two titans, they were best friends as well.  I mean they”ve been best friends for 60 years and I hadn't given them [a true scene together]!”

No one expected a sequel, but when Parker was given the opportunity to conceive of a second story he knew the two icons needed more screen time.  Director John Madden, who also returned after helming the original, suggested the pair should argue about something (not surprising considering Smith's zingers on “Downton Abbey” helped turn that show into a phenomenon).  

“He”s like, 'I can”t find anything for them to argue about. They don”t care about the same things.  Maggie”s worried about the hotel and Judi”s worrying about, you know, her love life.  They don”t seem to care enough about either of the other thing to argue,'” Parker recalls. “I called him up a couple of days later, 'They argue about who”s going to die first.'  And he went, 'Oh, brilliant.'”  

Smartly, Parker asked for both Dench and Smith to sign off on their character's cinematic sit down which they graciously did.

“Judi had just had a knee operation and so when Maggie goes 'The old knee”s hanging in there' [they were ribbing each other],” Parker says.  “They loved saying, 'We”ll see what”s come loose' and 'You still have a slightly sagging face.' And Maggie is actually 19 days older. They had a tremendous time.”

The fragile health of Smith's character is another important aspect of “Second Best,” but Madden and Parker found an unexpected way to bring audiences to tears without her passing away (a fate that Tom Wilkinson's character suffered in the first film). It was something that Parker says he worked into the script from the beginning.

“You can”t write about people that age without dealing with mortality.  You can”t,” Parker says.  “There”s mortality in the first one but it”s very sudden and unexpected.  We kind of used it as plot device in a way.  But in this case, I mean if you spend any time with anybody, these guys are 80 and they”re staring it in the face.”

Parker continues, “[For Maggie] it”s at least 60 years away.  She”ll piss and vinegar [for] many years to come, but, I mean you just have to deal with it.  You just have to accept it and that”s part of hopefully what makes the movies work is the way they”re responding to the challenges of not having long and the intensity with which they”re living.  And so John referred to the first one as a melancholy comedy and I think it was just always there.  I knew that we couldn”t actually do the deed.  It was like killing off Old Yeller, do you know what I mean?”


“The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is now playing nationwide.

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