Dame Maggie Smith Opens Up About Her Life, Career, and Time on “Harry Potter”

Dame Maggie Smith stands tall in the acting arena. She is probably best known for her performances as Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies and Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham in the Downton Abbey series. Her other roles, however, are never short of spectacular.

At 84 years old, Maggie Smith’s achievements still wow audiences, and she has no plans of slowing down. Her most recent work includes the revival movie of Downton Abbey, released in September 2019.

Despite the acclaim she receives for her work on-screen, her real love of acting lies with the stage. Smith recently sat down with the Evening Standard for an interview about her life, her career, and her love for the theater.

Since the start of her career in the 1950s, Smith always wanted to become a serious actress. After shortly taking acting classes at the Oxford Playhouse, she made her debut performance with the Oxford University Dramatic Society. While starring as Viola in Twelfth Night was her first role, her start as a professional actress came in 1956 when she played in a rendition of New Faces in New York. She describes her upbringing with her father, a pathologist, and her mother, a secretary. Her mother, Smith says, disapproved of her ambitions.

Honest to God, I have no idea where the urge came from. It was such a ghastly time, and we didn’t go to the theatre. I got into terrible trouble once because the neighbours took me to the cinema on a Sunday. But I had a wonderful teacher, Dorothy Bartholomew, who also taught Miriam Margolyes, and who encouraged me.

Smith continued with theatrical comedy performances until 1963. The Royal Court was, at the time, the place to be for serious modern drama. Yet Smith recalls it was more difficult breaking into the serious side of the business.

It seemed to take ages to get away from light comedy. […] [The Royal Court] wouldn’t touch you with a bargepole, if you’d been ‘on the avenue’, as they say.

However, in 1963, Smith was accepted to Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company. There, she played Desdemona in Othello and Hilde Wangel in The Master Builder.

From there, her stage work continued into the late 1970s at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada. By this point, she had won an Oscar for Best Actress for her role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 1970. In 1979, she won another Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in California Suite.

While we love what we see from Dame Maggie Smith on-screen, she doesn’t quite feel the same. Smith “seems to regard her screen career as an irritating diversion from her stage work.”

I am deeply grateful for the work in [Harry] Potter and indeed Downton [Abbey], but it wasn’t what you’d call satisfying. I didn’t really feel I was acting in those things. I wanted to get back to the stage so much because theatre is basically my favourite medium, and I think I felt as though I’d left it all unfinished.

At one point, Smith and the beloved Alan Rickman would “complain” that their work in Harry Potter was entirely reaction shots. That isn’t to say she hated the entire process. It’s known that “the great pleasure for her of doing the Harry Potter films is that it thrills her five grandchildren.” Well, we also find a wonderful thrill in seeing Maggie Smith portray the magical Minerva McGonagall. No other actress could possibly fill the role as she did.

Smith has made a comeback to life on the stage recently. She starred in A German Life at the Bridge Theatre in April 2019. It was her first time in a theatrical play in 12 years.

Dame Maggie Smith will always have a place in our hearts as Professor McGonagall. But we look forward to seeing Smith in any and all future roles, onstage or on-screen.